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Is Danube Romania's 'blue motorway' to prosperity?

From Becky Anderson and Eoghan Macguire, CNN
May 14, 2013 -- Updated 0907 GMT (1707 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Romanian president, Traian Basescu, aims to guide Constanta Harbor towards a new era of prosperity
  • The port is strategically situated on Romania's eastern coast but currently operates at half capacity
  • Basescu is himself a former oil tanker captain

The Gateway goes behind the scenes of the world's major transport hubs, revealing the logistics that keep goods and people moving. This month, the show is in Singapore.

Constanta, Romania (CNN) -- There was once a time when Romania's president Traian Basescu made a living steering huge oil tankers through the bustling waters of Constanta harbor on the country's eastern coast.

Now the ship captain-turned-statesman aims to navigate the Black Sea port towards a new age of prosperity -- as a strategic trading hub between East and Western Europe.

"Until December 1989, the Constanta harbor was mainly used to export the goods produced by the Romanian economy and to import raw materials," Basescu told CNN.

Crucial canal for landlocked countries

"(Today) it is more of a gate, first of all for Romania connecting (the country) with the world, and in same time it is a gate for central and Eastern Europe," he added.

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Ensuring Constanta and the hinterland rail, road and canal services beyond the port fulfill their true potential, however, will prove a demanding logistical challenge.

The port currently operates at just 50% of its 100 million ton annual handling capacity.

Much of Romania's creaking inland freight infrastructure is in need of modernization, having been built and designed during the country's communist era.

The Romanian section of the Danube canal catered for 31 million tons of goods in 2012, a steady increase on previous years but still only a third of its full capacity.

Despite these less than fully productive figures, Basescu remains optimistic.

He says Constanta is the gateway at the end of a giant "blue motorway" stretching more than 1,500 miles from the North Sea port of Rotterdam via waterways in Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Serbia.

"From a strategic point of view, it's (of) extraordinary importance having such a harbor which is connected with all of Europe," Basescu said.

"It's the single harbor which is connected with Danube, with the Rhine-Main-Danube canal and with Rotterdam," he added.

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This enthusiasm for Romania's maritime and logistical development is shared by the country's continental partners keen to facilitate the smooth passage of goods across Europe's frontiers and beyond.

But not all are as content as Basescu as to the progress currently being made in this endeavor.

The EU commissioner for regional development, Johannes Hahn, recently stated that the 14 countries (including Romania) involved in strengthening trade in the Danube region still had to "step up a gear" after making a promising start.

It's (of) extraordinary importance having such a harbor which is connected with all of Europe
Traian Basescu

Basescu rejects such analysis as hypercritical, believing it is not fully representative of the commitment and progress his country has made towards improving its infrastructure since joining the EU in 2007.

"I don't know why the commissioner is so pessimistic," he said.

"We have already invested more than 300 million (euros) on the Danube using the European money for the period 2007-2013 and it will continue."

See also: How tiny city packs big economic punch

Basescu sees the benefits of increased trade these projects will likely bring as a key component of Romania's development strategy in the coming years.

The country remains one of the poorest in the European Union -- only Bulgaria has a lower GDP per head of population, according to Eurostat.

"It is vital not only for the EU, but for Romania," he said. "We have to develop the capacities for large vessels in Constanta harbor (but) there are a lot of other things to be done."

Ensuring the Danube is a solution to move goods and commodities through Romania to central Europe is "a key element for us in our development strategy," he added.

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