In 2014, the Romanian village of Luncavita had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country for the European Parliament election — all of 19.3%.
But the southeastern village has increasingly figured out how to draw in exceptional amounts of European Union money for development projects. When the polling stations open again Sunday for this year’s European Parliament vote, more residents say they will be there.
The village’s turnout was hardly an exception in Romania’s Tulcea County, where just 27.5% of eligible voters cast ballots, the second-lowest figure in Romania, according to the Permanent Electoral Authority.
“You can find this effect across Eastern Europe,” said Sorin Ionita, a political analyst with Expert Forum, a Bucharest-based think-tank. “People think Europe is so big and runs so well that they don’t need us to tell them what to do.”
Voter turnout across the continent has been declining for decades in the European Parliament elections, falling to an all-time low of 42.5% in 2014. That included a range from 13% in Slovakia to 90% in Belgium, where voting is compulsory. Last month, the EU launched a three-minute video to inspire more Europeans to vote.
Since 2004, Luncavita has attracted more than 55 million euros ($61.3 million) in European funds, or almost 12,000 euros ($13,345) for each of its 4,600 residents.
The man responsible for turning the village into an EU money magnet is Marian Ilie, who was preparing for the priesthood before a 2002 accident landed him in a wheelchair. Ilie then found a new vocation as project manager for the use of European Union funds allocated to his hometown.
Among other projects, EU money has financed the local drinking water and sewage system, a water treatment plant, roads and a school renovation.
For Mayor Stefan Ilie, Marian’s brother, the EU “is fundamental to our development.”
“If Romania were to exit the EU tomorrow, it would return to communism within five years,” Stefan Ilie said.
Marioara Banea, a 63-year-old local retiree, remembers tying a rope from her home to the backyard outhouse so her blind mother could find it.
“The EU changed my life,” Banea said. “Now we have water. We used to queue at the well for hours … and we have indoor plumbing too!”
Despite the EU-related benefits, she didn’t vote in the EU elections in 2009 or 2014.
“I didn’t know what the EU was, but now that I see how much money they gave us, I’m going to,” Banea said, hoping some new EU funds will help build a home for the elderly.
While some 3.6 million Romanians — most under the age of 40 — have left the country since it joined the EU in 2007, European money is also helping to bring some of them back to Luncavita. After working for six years in Italy, Radu Canepa, 34, came back to Romania and started a small farm with 30,000 euros ($33,420) in EU funding, buying some land and five cows.
The milk he sells to a local processing plant brings about in 1,000 euros ($1,115) a month. Canepa hopes to apply for an addition 10,000 euros ($11,180) to expand his business.
“Without EU funds, I’d still be in Italy right now,” Canepa said.
Valentina Radu also worked in Italy, but when her husband lost his job there, they struggled to pay the rent and decided to come home. They also used EU funds to buy a small farm, which now has 25 cows.
But Radu wanted to have a second business, and after talking with Marian Ilie, she settled on opening a tailor’s shop. She bought machinery and raw materials with the help of the 70,000 euros ($78,000) she received from the EU and her traditional Romanian blouses and skirts are now in high demand.
For Romania, Sunday’s vote will also be a test run for the country’s presidential election this fall, with political parties trying out messages on voters now.
“People do appreciate the support they get from the EU, but their feeling is that the EU works with or without them,” said Ionita, the analyst.
Still, Radu is very appreciative of the EU’s role in her successful enterprises, saying the bloc has “changed my life for the better.”
“I will definitely vote this time around,” she added. “I want to expand my business and EU funds are the way to go.”
Nicolae Dumitrache and Vadim Ghirda contributed to this report.