David Bisset: The Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen could boost the two countries’ bargaining power

Part 3 of the talk on social change in Bulgaria deals with Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen

David Bisset is a researcher and strategist at Equilibrium – the largest NGO in the social services sector in Bulgaria. Native of the city of Rousse, he discusses with Vladimir Mitev about the specifics of Bulgarian society. In the third part of the talk they discuss the Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen area – a proposal, which has some backing in different sectors of both societies, but is not being encouraged on state level. Is the mini-Schengen going to isolate the two countries and sentence them to a life in the EU’s periphery? Or is it going to move them closer to the EU through their own dynamism, overcoming the state of eternal periphery?

Okay, I’ll try to mix the questions on the regional populisms in Central and Southeastern Europe and the Bulgarian-Romanian relations, including the issue of Mini-Schengen and the question which we just discussed. I think having relations with a neighbouring country can’t provide a lot of money, but it could provide some kind of social capital or experience and knowledge which will empower and which will allow the Bulgarian model of developing while standing in your place be followed. I think, without this element of relations with the neighbouring country, I would be one of those many people who constantly complain about things in Bulgaria: lack of resonance, lack of whatever. I still complain sometimes, but I think I do it at a small scale because I have this source of energy from the relations with Romania, and that works.

How viable and applicable is this model of empowerment for Bulgarians, even from northern Bulgaria, which is an underdeveloped area? One issue I see is that there is a large emphasis on national centric thinking in our media about who we are or what the interests of our countries have. There is a certain border of experience. You may travel in Romania, but you have this wall of experience which prevents you from really mixing or learning a lot from Romanians. They seem to always be kept at arm’s length, as you said.

There is some mistrust. This is something which I think our countries and societies still need to overcome, because too much energy is being lost in mutual domination or in rejection of plants. The emphasis is put on what doesn’t work in the relations, etc. So I was just wondering… you mentioned the idea of a mini-Schengen. In my point of view, the mini-Schengen is one exercise of opening to the neighbour, which can really empower us because it will be based on trust, learning, understanding, having better standards, etc. What is your take on the mini-Schengen? What are the positive and negative sides of this idea?

I think it finds a strong sense in seeing the resources and the assets which the two countries share. If we’re talking about Romania and Bulgaria, we have the Danube representing the larger part of the border between the two countries. At the moment, the passageway between the two countries across the Danube are barely fit for this purpose. I don’t think the river is being exploited nearly enough as a route for the transfer of mass goods or people for that matter. Some sort of mini-Schengen relationship would open our eyes to local potential.

We used the word self-determination earlier in our discussion. I think we need somehow to learn what we can achieve together locally, using local resources, local knowhow, as opposed to allowing ourselves to be guided by bigger forces like the European Union or the central powers in the European Union. We have to see what we can do for ourselves here in this region. We have to see what as a group on the periphery we have to offer, so that Bulgaria, Romania and perhaps some of its other partners can become something more than the sum of the individual parts. We need to see what industries and what we have in common. We as a group of countries need to start playing to our strengths rather than always focusing on our dependencies on the European Union.

I don’t think this exercise has ever really taken place. We have a tendency to work in opposition to each other. In a sense we’ve been competing as dependents on the European Union or the other great powers, rather than collaborating and making a joint statement to the European Union. Bulgaria and Romania are talking together as dependents. We compete as individual countries, not as a collective. We would be better disposed to actually state our case and say what we’ve got to offer the European Union. There’s a lot of potential in some sort of mini-Schengen situation in this part of Europe. If it’s managed properly, it can open our eyes to what we can actually achieve as a group of countries and utilize our assets, our strengths and our natural resources, our people. Bearing in mind that both countries have lost, because of the brain drain. A lot of our young and most gifted individuals have left Bulgaria and Romania. Perhaps if the area was opened in some sort of mini-Schengen situation, a lot of these people who have gone overseas will actually come back. Realizing that there is greater scope for contributing something. Here in their own countries rather than just sitting and waiting for what the European Union has to offer us.

Yes. Let me clarify here that mini-Schengen is an initiative which was announced by some municipal councils in Bulgaria. They asked the parliaments of the two countries to abolish the border controls, and it was supported by branch organizations of transport companies in the two countries. It seems to have some support among the members of the European Parliament with a question on this initiative being advanced by the Romanian Member of the European Parliament – Marian-Jean Marinescu. The question was advanced to the European Commission and as I understood from the answer, it looks like it is a decision which can be taken juridically if the countries decide.

There is this criticism that if the two countries make this arrangement, they in a way admit that they won’t be accepted soon in the large Schengen area. It is something that is seen as some kind of a resignation or failure by some people that basically accept that we would remain in the periphery, because we look for a solution outside of the big Schengen. This is the argument of those who are against the mini-Schengen. At the same time, there is this opinion that peripheries rarely cooperate. In fact, if the two countries start cooperating in such a way with their own drive, they would demonstrate they’re not periphery. They will develop the thinking of a center. So I’m curious which opinion is closer to yours on that issue? Which are the two.

The one you finished with, I think Romania and Bulgaria did cooperate in this manner economically and culturally. They’re demonstrating their joint capacity to be part of the bigger Schengen area. They’re showing that despite their geographical position on the periphery of Europe, they’re actually competent to become a mini powerhouse, economically and culturally. I don’t think they’re ever going to create any sort of economic miracle. Or to start competing with some of the stronger economic powers in Central and Western Europe, but they can demonstrate that they are capable of making worthwhile decisions about the use of local resources, local competencies in order to benefit their own populations.

It may be rude to say mini-Schengen constitutes a slight threat to Western corporate interests. If we were to be cynical and think in terms of the Western powers wanting to keep both countries as they are because it sustains their economic weakness and dependence on countries like Germany, France or Austria, whatever. I think that’s a very cynical position to adopt. There may be some truth in it, but I think it’s too extreme. If both countries could demonstrate greater capacity on their own, it might actually encourage inward investment on a different basis. So Western corporations would be more interested in cooperating collaboratively and in partnership with Romanian and Bulgarian organizations instead of simply wanting to come in to exploit local resources and extract profit.

Maybe a mini-Schengen situation would make Bulgaria and Romania more competent to keep a larger proportion of that profit in this locality. So I think it could simply boost their bargaining position, if you want to put it that way. 

Photo: (source: Cross-border Talks)

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