Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 14 December 2022
The Bridge of Friendship discussed with the Secretary General of the National Union of Road Hauliers in Romania the UNTRR’s request for the abolition of border controls between Romania and Bulgaria. Is the abolition of controls on the Romanian-Bulgarian common border an advantage? What are the rules and procedures for abolishing border controls between Romania and Bulgaria? Is separation or cooperation with Bulgaria the way forward for Romania’s accession to the Schengen area? How big are the losses related to the border between Romania and Bulgaria? We discuss all these and more with Radu Dinescu.
Radu Dinescu: I would start from the moment when Bulgaria and Romania were put on vote to join the Schengen area together with Croatia. Bulgaria and Romania received a negative vote and Croatia a positive vote. This was despite the claims of those who voted that they did not want to extend a system that was not working. They said that they had voted conceptually. If the vote is conceptual, the concept should not be selective. I mean, if they had voted against the three candidate countries, then we could understand that this was a vote that was sounding the alarm that they wanted something, for example, that they wanted the European Commission to give them more money to strengthen the borders; that this was a protest against the European Commission or against someone. What has happened shows us that this is not a conceptual vote, but simply a subjective approach without any real arguments. That is what the politicians from Austria and the Netherlands showed last week.
We ask ourselves: well, Austria and the Netherlands have adopted this approach, but why have the other countries in Europe, which say that they are watching out for the maintenance of European values, not taken a critical stance towards it? We are concerned not only that they have taken this subjective approach and have railed against us, but also that all the other strong countries in the European Union have not taken a stand to stop this negative vote. The way in which this has happened now gives a very bad name to the club called the European Union and the way in which it fulfils its commitments and treaties. If the Member States want to change the parameters of the enlargement of the Schengen area with new applicants, they can do so in the future. They have had an agreement with the previous applicants. They asked us to meet certain technical criteria, which we both met. Now they are telling us that this is not enough. If we take a subjective approach, they may end up asking us for everything or things that we obviously will not be able to meet. The vote on Schengen largely shows exactly that.
In these circumstances, it is clear that if the two countries had joined Schengen on 1 January, the border between us, Romania and Bulgaria, would have been an internal Schengen border. It is now being debated whether we, as countries, have another way forward. We in the Road Hauliers’ Union in Romania are of the opinion that, just as democracy in the Community may not be perfect, but it is the most functional, the best system we know is the EU. For now, for us, even if the European Union is not perfect, it is the club we belong to, even if we quarrel with the other members of the team. We need to understand very well that membership of the European Union does not remove competition between Member States. But the players in the national team are not competing with each other, so everyone wants to increase their value, to use a parallel with the World Cup that is currently taking place.
I believe that the two countries should continue together, I repeat together, to take all possible steps to join Schengen, that is to say, to achieve this objective, and the most likely and quickest way of doing this is in the second half of next year. In 2024, we are entering an election year, all that European politics means, and the Commission and all these institutions will only start working after October-November 2024, so we cannot expect anything in 2024. And then it would be good to do everything we can to join Schengen together in 2023.
And as a first step, on top of the idea that we should have joined on 1 January, we should at least harmonise with each other and set an example. There must be trust between the authorities of the two countries. Otherwise, we have no reason to be surprised that Europe does not trust us. It is strange that we do not trust each other.
We must look at the possibility of simplifying, streamlining and gradually reducing control until it is completely abolished. I would start by making it easier for cars and trucks registered in Romania and Bulgaria and others in Europe. If there is still a need for facilitation for vehicles from other places, this can be negotiated. But ultimately, I think we need to get to a system where we behave as if we have joined Schengen.
We understand very well that there is also a microcosm of people who are directly involved in border control, and these people are probably not very happy about the removal of controls because they are losing part of their business. I firmly believe that they can contribute their expertise to a very good activity on the other borders of our countries with countries outside the European Union. I think that would be a sign of political maturity and a strong sign of trust and unity between our two countries. So, we are linked to the European project, we have joined the European Union and we must do everything we can together to join Schengen and prove that we have confidence in each other if others do not have confidence in us, and extend this level of confidence to the European level and implement the project by the end of next year.
This issue of mistrust seems to me to be very important if the Bulgarians and Romanians are to have some kind of common space jointly managed by Schengen. Note that immediately after last week’s vote, there was talk of decopuling Bulgaria from Romania. Several of the central media in Romania talked about separation. So, is this the question that Romania now faces – separation or more cooperation with Bulgaria?
We believe that decoupling is a disastrous mistake for both countries. If Romania asks for separation, if Bulgaria asks for separation, I think that is very wrong. We are throwing away all the work that we have been doing for at least the last 10-11 years, struggling to make progress to get into Schengen. This is, in a sense, a push by some Western European politicians in bilateral negotiations with Romania or Bulgaria and, in my view, will take us from a very low level. We will have to go back to the foot of the mountain and climb a new and more vulnerable path, being on our own, each on our own path. That is why I think that this is not the right approach. I think we need to come together, to believe in each other, to give each other a hand and to be more united than ever in this project that we have started together and that we need to finish together.
What can Bulgaria and Romania do together to improve the economic dynamics between the two countries and overcome the current impasse over Schengen?
I think that one example is really to improve cross-border cooperation and to facilitate trade and transport of all kinds, but especially road transport, between the two countries. If we remove the barriers and obstacles that stand between us and build bridges, I think that will help us to move forward. This is a project that needs to be carried out with great seriousness in order to prevent anyone who does not believe in it from influencing it negatively, because it is obvious that there are people in both countries who do not want this cooperation and twinning to be strengthened more than ever, but I think that those who do want it and are in the majority need to make sure that things are done properly so that we can move forward.
Do you have any estimates of the losses suffered by Romanian hauliers because of the existence of this border between Romania and Bulgaria?
Generally speaking, we have seen that the losses are mainly due to the rather long waiting times, which, even in the case of crossing the border with Bulgaria, can account for 25-40% of the time needed for a journey. Obviously, the shorter the journey, the more a one-day, two-day or three-day wait, as was the case in the summer or as sometimes happens between Romania and Bulgaria, can mean a great deal. The shorter the journey, the greater the proportion of this waiting time. This penalises, above all, transport companies that are not efficient, and creates an extremely delicate and unpleasant situation for commercial vehicle and lorry drivers who, when they wait for two or three days, wonder whether they are professional drivers, lorry guards or wardens. It does not encourage other people to join the industry if they cannot do their job as professional drivers and are on the borders half or a third of the time. Standing in mile-long queues and waiting those hours does not guarantee normal conditions. Professional drivers do not have access to toilets, to a shop where they can buy food, water and drinks. This is also a problem. There is the problem of pollution – in order to keep travelling they have to heat the cabs, so these are extremely delicate situations.
But what is most important in this whole picture is the fact that the production of any product in Romania or Bulgaria is penalised by this lack of efficiency in supply chains, logistics and transport. That is why we see that there are many foreign investors who preferred the last Schengen country, that is, Hungary, and did not invest in our area, partly because of the lack of infrastructure, but also because of the lack of accession to the Schengen area. Because, after all, both Romania and Bulgaria can compensate for the lack of infrastructure with a significant advantage, the cost of labour. Of course, the standard of living in both countries needs to rise, but there is still an opportunity to exploit this advantage.
We have made a comparative calculation between Romania and Hungary. Over the last 15 years, Hungary has attracted more than EUR 170 billion in foreign direct investment, while Romania has attracted a maximum of EUR 54-55 billion. This means that, in terms of size, if we take into account the fact that Hungary is twice the size of Romania in terms of territory and population, Hungary is 6-7 times more effective in attracting foreign direct investment than the Romanian authorities.
This is also due to the fact that 2-3 years ago, before the pandemic, we had a situation where trucks arriving at the border with Hungary on Thursday, and they were not only Romanian, but also from Bulgaria and all the countries here, could not move until Sunday evening, because there was a traffic restriction due to a national holiday in Hungary. Only, on Sunday evening, those who had been waiting since Thursday could not enter Hungary and continue, because thorough checks had begun on the payment of fines for these trucks or for the companies. All the trucks that were there during the week were only able to get through on Wednesday morning. At this time, some automotive investors are looking for a location for a future plant or manufacturing facility. I can tell you that Romania was not chosen, probably this problem at the border was also a factor.
We in Romania are proud of two car manufacturers, Dacia in Mioveni and Ford in Craiova. The Romanian economy is proud of the contribution of these manufacturers to the gross domestic product. Can you imagine what it would be like if we had two more major EU manufacturers. BMW and Mercedes chose Hungary instead of Romania. So not joining Schengen is hurting our economies – the Romanian and Bulgarian economies – more than we can imagine and more than we can see. It is not only transport companies or people who sit for hours on the corner of non-Schengen borders who are penalised.
Do you have any studies on the legal basis and procedures by which customs controls between Romania and Bulgaria could be abolished?
There is no customs control, there is control by the Border Police. Romania and Bulgaria are together in the European Union. The European Union is a single customs territory, so from that point of view, goods entering Europe via an external border have to go through an extensive customs regime. However, customs documents are completed at the point of entry into the EU. If no customs duties and VAT are payable, or if the so-called definitive importation is not necessary for these goods when crossing an external border, these goods are transported internally, under suspension of payment, to their destination, wherever that may be within Europe. When you enter Bulgaria from Turkey, either you pay at the border or you draw up a transit document, or it is with the TIR system and it can go as far as Bulgaria or Romania or as far as Portugal, where at the destination the customs duties due are paid by the importers if there is not this guarantee on the transit document or the TIR system. So all we are talking about is removing controls on people, on drivers at land borders. This control is carried out very strictly by each of our countries at the external borders of the European Union. If we are talking about our citizens, Romanians or Bulgarians, they can cross freely from one country to the other without any problem, we are in the EU and I do not see why we should create problems if they come from outside the EU, we register them at the border and you also in Bulgaria. Basically, there should be an exchange of information, access, some databases, which I think are already ready, because we were ready to enter Schengen. Perhaps the difficulty or the challenge will be if we do not have access to these databases at the moment and we have to make them strictly for bilateral use. And this is where the need for institutional cooperation between the two countries arises, so that there is access to this kind of information, which will come anyway when the two countries join Schengen.
OK, let us finish with that. Which political or institutional forces do you expect to support this proposal on the Romanian-Bulgarian side of the border of your Union?
Apart from this approach, we will send a public letter of protest to the Austrian Ambassador in Bucharest and express our disagreement or perplexity as to why our politicians did not oppose Croatia’s accession if we were not treating all three countries as a package, we are very keen on the idea of strengthening cooperation with Bulgaria, of exchanging data and, as you said, of creating the small Schengen before perhaps joining the big Schengen, in order to prove that we have the institutional capacity, the political will and the confidence to carry out such a project among ourselves. Of course, this decision could be taken at governmental or even parliamentary level, but I believe that the governments of both countries, with the voice or blessing of their parliaments, could take some significant steps in this regard. And if it cannot be done all at once, they could send some very good signals by making it easier, I repeat, gradually, for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens to cross without problems, and later, when they have access to the data on non-residents entering through the external borders, they could completely abolish controls at our borders.
We need to understand something else – this does not mean that if border controls are abolished, no one will control anyone. You have seen, for example, that in Austria, Germany and France, we enter at 60 km/h through the border crossing and nobody stops you there, or, well, lately they have been stopping you. But let’s say that, as a concept, nobody stops you. That does not mean that no authority ever checks you, I mean there are mechanisms by which road hauliers are checked, companies are checked, documents are checked. Of course, there has to be a risk assessment method. Not everybody is checked to get a level of sanctions, but also not just a third is checked, as is the case now at European level, which means that it is not checked on purpose. You have to control those that pose a certain risk, not just to control them and stop them, I am talking about the lorries in traffic and so on.
So I think this can be achieved if the authorities in both countries really want it, have the institutional and technical capacity, it is more a question of political will and accepting a quick timetable to put this initiative together. I think it would be great to set such an example to Europe.
Photo: Radu DInscu (source: Radu Dinescu)