Twenty years ago, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my father was murdered in a Bulgarian hospital, which conducted experiments on elderly patients. By way of mourning, I presented my thoughts in the apparel of genre fiction—the metaphysical detective novel Le Vieil homme et les Loups (Fayard, 1990), which recounts the story of an old man, who is killed because he sees the people around him changing into wolves— and in an essay, Bulgaria my suffering. The latter focused on cultural traditions, notably with regard to religion, which lie behind the strange "degradation of political integrity" that has now been diagnosed in Romania and Bulgaria by the NGO Transparency International. The severity of the current economic, social and political crisis, and news of recent political developments has led me to re-examine these themes. What follows highlights the situation in Romania, but these observations also apply to Bulgaria, because in both countries we have reached a juncture where we will have to come to grips with a question that we would much rather ignore: "Are we on the periphery or in the centre of Europe?"

The transition from communism to the EU was accomplished without the replacement or even a major overhaul of the apparatus of the former state. In the local media, much ink has been spilt on the genesis of a phenomenon that has made Romania and Bulgaria the most corrupt countries in the EU. Along with the "high-level corruption" among political leaders, which transformed the former communist cadres into a neo-capitalist oligarchy, the lives of many people are marked by "everyday corruption" in the form of the abusive use of personal connections, cascading kickbacks, survival strategies, and the misappropriation of public funds etc...

As early as 2002, GRECO (the Council of Europe's Group of States against Corruption) drew attention to the alarming extent of the problem, but the EU's anti-fraud organization OLAF had neither the resources nor the necessary skills to deal with the instances of corruption in Europe's member states. The inefficiency of these mechanisms for cooperation and monitoring is an indictment of the authority of Europe itself. Brussels cut 220 million euros from pre-accession funds for Bulgarian agricultural and infrastructure projects, and blocked the distribution of another 600 million until government measures against corruption could be implemented. Romania was criticized by the EU, but escaped any financial sanctions.

Having come of age in the fear, cowardice, and squalid comprises that prevailed under the Ceaucescus, corruption continues to cut a swathe of tragicomic scandals in the complex landscape of Romania's political transition, where an emergent trade union movement is struggling to combat nationalist, xenophobic and populist ideologies, which draw their strength from rural poverty and the inevitable "Roma question."

The Roma: should they be viewed as "hooligans and thieves?" Or, on the contrary, in view of their mobility and their movement across the continent, should they not be considered to be the most European of all the EU's citizens? And if that is the case, should they not be entitled to more than the simple protection of their human rights, but also a greater representation in politics? And in exploring this paradox, should we ask: Are the Roma Romanian? Or the most typical of all Europeans? Or even the most universal manifestation of humanity? But perhaps we had best return to the question of poor Romania and its situation at the centre or the periphery of Europe.

According to Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a former champion of the Ceaucescus, who is now embarked on "a divinely inspired mission to save the nation," what we need is "machine-gun government." Along with Bulgaria's Volen Siderov, and France's Front National, Tudor represents a major component of the European parliament's far-right formation, which promotes "Identity, tradition, sovereignty." In Romania, he advocates a hotchpotch of ultranationalist beliefs and communist nostalgia for a paternalist state, which has led him to take arms against a "politically interested media," and "privileged minorities" (Hungarians in Romania, and Turks in Bulgaria).

Norman Manea, a Romanian Jewish writer, living in New York, is more than justified when he describes Romania as a "Kafkaesque democracy" born of a "strange combination of burlesque and Byzantism." Preoccupied by the urgent need to address judicial and social ills, we tend to neglect cultural contexts. In Romania, the transvaluation of religious traditions, which should play a key role in the creation of a culturally diverse European social fabric is hampered by a formidable adversary, largely underestimated by secular Europe, in the shape of the Orthodox Church. Closely linked to the state, which pays the clergy, and a political class that indulges the continued popularity of orthodox tradition, the Church acknowledges its collaboration with the Securitate and continues to involve itself in matters of government. In short, it is the proponent of a spirituality that actively undermines civic consciousness and the integrity of public office!

Does European culture exist? I believe it does, in as much as it has demonstrated a capacity for self analysis, and an ability to take stock of the dead ends and horrors that have marked its history. European culture is the vehicle for a polyphonic, innovative and developing identity, that extends from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, from Ovid to Ceaucescu, and even from the Securirate to Nobel laureate Herta Müller, which is the only antidote to the robotization of the species.