Sergiu Mișcoiu: The idea of a small Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen should be seriously considered

Interview with Romanian foreign policy expert on Romanian-Bulgarian relations and concrete possibilities for common action immediately after the negative vote for Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession

Sergiu Mișcoiu from the Centre for European Studies at Babeș-Bolyai University spoke to the Bridge of Friendship after the negative vote for Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area. He believes that the reasons for this rejection are mainly related to domestic politics in Austria. We also discussed Bulgaria’s decoupling from Romania – to what extent it is possible and will do good, what both countries can do to enhance their group state and the idea of a small Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen. Mishcoiu thinks the idea has its merits. A small Schengen will benefit transport companies, Romanian tourists, but also demonstrate the “Europeanness” of both countries.

Mr Mișcoiu, first of all, what are the reasons for the negative vote for Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession? Romania or Romanians reacted mainly for geopolitical reasons. They saw Putin’s long hand behind this veto. But to what extent are the reasons really geopolitical?

The reasons are more related to the internal political dynamics in Austria. I think this is the main explanation that we need to emphasize beyond any other type of explanation, which certainly can contribute to understanding reality, but does not exhaust it.

On the contrary, the most pertinent explanation is the one related to what is happening internally in Austria. We have a governing party in Austria, a member of the European People’s Party, with a leadership group that has assumed a conservative right-wing ideology and in the same party. Internally we have an opposition faction that is rather Christian Democrat and is very pro-European. Also, this party as a whole is in government with the environmentalists and has social democrats in opposition. Both factions, both the ecologists and the social democrats, are pro-European. With elections coming up in Austria, this arrangement of forces forces the conservative right to seek to avoid being dominated by the far right, so as not to be in competition with other political forces on this hard right line to adopt any kind of strategy, any kind of discourse that reinforces the rather protectionist and sovereignist logic – the logic of defending Austrian national interests.

I believe that it is in this light that we must read the decision taken by the Austrian Chancellor and his Minister of the Interior to make Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area a matter of political survival. I know it sounds far-fetched, but to a certain extent this issue, presented in a convincing manner to the domestic political public by the governing party, but also to an increasingly conservative Austrian public, has a certain significance and enables this grouping to try to stay in government under difficult political conditions.

The same discourse could not be applied to Croatia, for reasons of common culture and civilisation. Croats are considered much closer to Austria, being Catholic and the product of a long-term intervention of the Habsburg Empire in the Western Balkans.

Croatian National Theater in Zagreb, unveiled in 1895, a monument of Austro-Hungarian architecture. Cultural ties between Croatia and Austria seem much more obvious than in the case of Austrian-Romanian relations.

This attitude of Austria could not have been motivated in the direction of excluding Croatia, and it was precisely the inclusion of Croatia and the exclusion of Romania and Bulgaria that gave a signal about the coherence of a projected European civilisation dominated by the Western Church, dominated by the beliefs and customs of Mitteleuropa. From such a community, Romania and Bulgaria, Balkan countries, are excluded. Somehow this double fact of including Croatia and excluding Romania and Bulgaria is part of an extension of a mindset of the Austrian right-wing conservative political ruling class, according to which we need to tidy up Europe a bit and get closer to those who are similar to us, who are to be included in this civilisational space.

I think that all the other explanations, in addition to this, support it, perhaps complement it, but this is the main explanation.

Part of the media frustration of the Romanians on the evening of the vote and in the following days was directed at Bulgaria, because the Bulgarians would not have wanted a vote on Schengen. And even Prime Minister Ciucă said that the decoupling option should be considered. To what extent is decoupling Romania from Bulgaria possible and to what extent is it desirable?

It is possible. We have seen how the Netherlands, which voted in a very opportunistic way against it, has given the reasoning that it does not want Bulgaria to join the Schengen area, but not Romania. This is what has led the Romanian political class to want to break away from Bulgaria.

Again, this corresponds to an old Romanian obsession that there is, shall we say, a deeper European integration, a more developed membership of the European area for Romanians than for Bulgarians. And that this permanent association with Bulgaria and with the Balkans in general brings prejudice to Romania.

From a pragmatic point of view, of course the Netherlands has found a reason to resolve this internal pressure, and there was resistance to the vote in favour of accession. However, it is probably much wiser, both from a strategic and an ideological point of view, for these two countries, Romania and Bulgaria, which were admitted to the European Union at the same time, to form a common bloc, to present their case together and to show that, in the end, the geopolitical risk of not being included in the Schengen area is greater than the risk of being included.

This is precisely what is worth asking: the Bulgarians and Romanians have been going together for a long time, for at least 15 years, if not longer. Why don’t they make more effort to do things together? Get to know each other? To assume that they are together? We seem to be a team or a couple where there is not so much love between the main subjects and there is always a search for detachment rather than an assumption of the specific relationship.

The explanations are pretty straightforward. Both Romania and Bulgaria, from a cultural-historical perspective, have projected themselves beyond their immediate neighbourhood.

Romania has projected itself into the French-speaking world. The good relationship with France in the 19th century, a cultural model. Bulgaria, to a greater extent, projected itself into the German-speaking or Russian-speaking area. Neither of these two countries had privileged partnership relations with the countries in their immediate neighbourhood, i.e. Romania with Hungary, Bulgaria with Greece, for example.

There is no marriage of any colour there either, and so it would have been somewhat surprising, historically speaking, for these two countries, which have also had territorial disputes over Cadrilater, for example, to have a very, very close relationship. On the other hand, it is astonishing that, from a pragmatic point of view, the political elites in Bucharest and Sofia have not tried to bring the two countries closer together strategically, in order to form a bloc that is stronger together than each one separately. This is astonishing.

This is precisely because Romania has always projected itself in a Western European logic. It yearned to be part of a Central Europe where it was not actually legitimately accepted. The Visegrad Group and other groups that sent it to the Balkans, to which we belong more than the Central European area. And this created more frustration, always wanting not to be identified with the Balkan periphery.

In the case of Bulgaria, there is a deep indetermination of the very vector of international politics, of the geopolitical vector between the pressures coming from different sides. There is an affinity with the Slavic Orthodox area and Russia. There are also cultural and historical affinities with the West. Of course, this indeterminacy also means that, theoretically speaking, there is a greater openness to a possible strategic alliance, a bloc with Romania, but also a reluctance as to the effectiveness of such an approach.

What can both countries do to make the most of being in a package?

They should focus much more, try to really create various mechanisms for cooperation and for affirming a common identity; at the same time, play geopolitically much smarter.

For example, with regard to Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, or other countries that are more or less officially hostile to Schengen extension to the two countries, concerted lobbying, joint or separate channels could be used much more carefully. For example, where Bulgaria has a certain influence, where there are specialists, I give an example of prominent academics or even in the political or business area, people of Bulgarian origin from a certain country, they could be used by both countries for lobbying. The same should happen, reciprocally, in the case of Romania.

A strategy whereby we invite, for example, outstanding members of parliaments from countries that are not in favour of the two countries joining the Schengen area, to Bucharest and Sofia, in a synergistic manner, showing them that there is a common will to integrate, would, I believe, work much more convincingly than treating the two dossiers separately.

We are talking about a common will for Schengen integration. In recent days, surveys have appeared online in both countries calling for a small Schengen between Romania and Bulgaria, and the Romanian Road Hauliers’ Union has also called on the Romanian Government to abolish border control with Bulgaria. How do you see this idea of a mini Schengen, which has several dimensions related also to procedures, procedural and legal, it also has a dimension, maybe geopolitical and so on?

With this initiative, if it were to materialise, it would make it impossible to separate the two dossiers for Schengen accession, but it would show once again that there is a common will for integration and there are common surveillance mechanisms, exactly what Schengen implies. And, secondly, it would be of great benefit to carriers, to the traffic of those travelling between the two countries, for example, Romanian tourists spending their summer holidays in Greece and so on.

I think that this initiative should be seriously considered, because it would actually bring benefits. It should somehow be presented as being directly related to the Schengen integration efforts of the two countries and, at the same time, it should be sold as a step towards Schengen accession, showing how much solidarity there is between the two countries and that it is possible to do away with the rather hard, rather thick border separating the two countries.

The Vidin-Calafat bridge between Bulgaria and Romania

Does such collaboration for the small Schengen mean an assumption of the peripheral status of both countries or, on the contrary, is it a strong step towards the European Union, towards culture, Europeanness, so to speak?

I think it is more a move towards a culture of Europeanness. Since marginal spaces never come together, they are in conflict and marginal because they depend on central spaces.

It is precisely this mini Schengen between Romania and Bulgaria that would show that this area is not marginal.

It is an area that can be operationally integrated internally and this means that all the mechanisms are in place to make this area integrable into the larger Schengen area.

Photo: Sergiu Mișcoiu (source: YouTube)

This interview has been first published on The Bridge of Friendship, Vladimir Mitev’s blog devoted to international cooperation and mutual understanding.

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