A Christmas feel-good story for the Italian government has turned into a new-year embarrassment. After political pressure from Rome, Adrian Nastase, Romania's prime minister, pushed through a long-delayed adoption of 105 Romanian "orphans" by Italian families.
But the deal has angered the European Commission-and that could affect Romania's hopes of joining the European Union in 2007.
The commission is angry because the deal broke a three-year-old EU-inspired moratorium on international adoptions of Romanian children. The ban was imposed because these adoptions had become a highly profitable business, in which the welfare of children and their natural families were ignored.
According to America's aid agency, USAID, many babies with families were misrepresented as available for adoption. The agency concluded that "children are being adopted out of Romania who would not, in the absence of the financial incentive, have been placed for adoption at all, let alone adopted internationally."
The story starts in 1990, when pictures of Romania's "orphans" flashed across the world's television screens. Well-meaning folk from other countries promptly started to adopt the children. But the USD 20,000-30,000 they paid for each adoption proved all too tempting, in a country with average salaries of only USD 100 a month. The numbers of children in orphanages promptly increased to meet the demand.
Since the moratorium, the numbers have plummeted again. Local authorities have stopped declaring large numbers of children abandoned, because there is no longer any money in it.
The EU is instead funding day-care centres or foster care in Romania. But this progress is threatened by pressure from European governments that tend to pay more attention to the concerns of middle-class would-be adopters than to any moratorium.
In fairness, the Italian government was doing only what others have done. Almost 1,000 children have gone abroad as "exceptions" since the moratorium was imposed. The mistake the Italians made was to boast openly about their success. Brussels was quick to pounce.
Gьnter Verheugen, the commissioner for EU enlargement, wrote to Mr Nastase, saying that the case "raises serious questions as to Romania's political commitment...to the protection of children's rights...which is part of the political criteria for accession to the EU."
In 1990 foreign governments and citizens provided a lifeline and hope for Romania's children. It would be sad if their continuing involvement now dented Romania's standing with the EU.
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