At the beginning of 2024, there were reports of larger queues at Bulgarian borders, as well as tax checks in companies with Austrian owners. Vladimir Mitev of Cross-Border Talks and The Friendship Bridge spoke to Dimitar Dimitrov, executive director of the Chamber of Road Carriers in Bulgaria, about the reasons for these larger queues, to what extent they are related to the Schengen accession agreement, how the increased border checks affect non-Bulgarian hauliers and what his position is on the idea of increased checks at the Bulgarian-Romanian border, enshrined in the Schengen agreement between Austria, Bulgaria and Romania from the end of 2023.
Mr Dimitrov, since the beginning of 2024, there have been reports of increased queues at Bulgaria’s borders, where many trucks have been waiting for a long time. What problems are your chamber members facing in this period in trying to cross the borders of Bulgaria?
The truth is that these queues have been going on for years and unfortunately the institutions have been passing them by lightly. They have been pretending not to notice them, even though we have repeatedly signalled the problem. There have also been changes with regard to waiting times since the beginning of the year, but they are not in the sense that the queue has become longer or the waiting times have increased. The change is with regard to goods being transported to Austria, no matter what the nationality of the carrier transporting them.
The queues themselves have now become traditional and are a very serious problem for carriers. We had hoped to have some positive news with regard to joining the Schengen area, because that would largely remove this border that exists between Bulgaria and Romania. We have been demanding for a long time that this problem be resolved, and instead it has been aggravated.
The change from the beginning of the year is with regard to lorries loaded with goods bound for Austria. A conflict situation has arisen in relation to them. They have been detained, subjected to very serious controls, and the documents of these trucks with goods for Austria have been taken until there is further authorisation for their release from the Customs Agency. This is a much more intensive control which, to date, is continuing.
We, of course, immediately turned to the Customs Agency, to the Ministry of Finance, because, if this is a measure by which the Bulgarian State is showing its position and wagging its finger, to put it crudely, at the Austrian State, then we do not believe that it is the most appropriate measure. In the specific cases in which we detain Bulgarian carriers at the border who have loaded goods for Austria, we are to a large extent harming these carriers. They have delivery deadlines, they have agreed penalties when these goods are not delivered on time. And that is exactly what caused our strong reaction and our demand for a meeting.
We had a meeting with the Finance Minister, Assen Vassilev, where it was explained to us that these checks will continue, even though some of the trucks have been temporarily released. We were told that these checks would continue and would continue for a long time until the Austrian State abandoned the increased controls it was insisting on at the border between Bulgaria and Romania in view of Austria’s concerns about migrants entering their territory and how the Bulgarian State, as the external border of the European Union, was not protecting the borders of Schengen and the EU.
You know that we have the green light in terms of accession by water and by air. We insisted at this meeting with the Finance Minister that we receive clear, precise and specific confirmation that the Bulgarian State is working to obtain a date for our accession by land as well. Because you cannot have two countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, which have been Schengen-compliant for at least 12 years, having to endure not just one or two years, but considerably more years of additional conditions, additional accession criteria, because somebody somewhere thought they were going to reform something that was not working well.
We know very well that the artificial appearance of border controls is being practised. Austria was one of the countries that introduced border controls with all its neighbouring countries by land, which does them no credit, because these border controls were introduced somewhere around two months before they gave the green light for our accession by air and water, and are now being used as a reason to trumpet everywhere how the old Schengen Member States have taken back their land borders, which is not the case at all.
I give a specific example that I have witnessed. Between Hungary and Austria, so-called selective checks are carried out, that is to say, not all cars are checked. This selective check is done on the basis of a risk analysis. However, no one is saying how this risk analysis is carried out. We as an organisation noticed that all the cars that had Turkish registration were not stopped for any kind of check. All the cars with Hungarian registration likewise passed without inspection. The same was true for the cars with German registration.All the cars that were from Bulgaria and Romania and Serbia were stopped for inspection. It was not just Bulgaria and Romania. Third Schengen countries were subjected to checks. Cars from these countries were stopped and checked in detail, as is done in a standard border control, as there is between Bulgaria and Romania.
I believe that this double standard on the part of Austria should not be tolerated. Both Bulgaria and Romania should seek all mechanisms to put pressure on Austria in the good sense of the word. Including our European partners must be used so that the two countries can become full members of Schengen as soon as possible. They are full members.
Are we members of the Schengen area or not? There is no legal formula according to which someone is ‘half a Schengen member’.
So at the beginning of the year, this came up as an issue with regard to all trucks loaded with goods for Austria. This continues to be a problem to this day. Many of our partners and associations from other countries have reported this problem to us. The fact is that all hauliers who have loaded goods for Austria are confronted with it. Something that we have received as information from the government is that this control is imposed in connection with the additional agreement that the Austrian State has made Bulgaria and Romania sign, that very strict, detailed and valuable controls will be carried out on this type of goods.
How exactly does this problem, which you have spoken about so far, affect hauliers from other countries in the European Union, including, above all, our neighbours from Romania and Greece, who are also trying to cross the Bulgarian borders?
It does not affect a large number of European Union countries because their trucks do not operate on these routes. But a neighbouring country, Turkey, has a fairly large economy and a large proportion of goods travel to all parts of Europe. And imagine a Romanian carrier working on that route, a Polish or a Serbian one. There are certainly isolated cases where the carrier is Austrian. I cannot say that there are many. Bulgarian carriers are also suffering because there is no separation here, as the Austrians have done in terms of the nationality of the vehicle. There is a division in terms of where this truck is going, where it is loaded. Thus, this increased control affects absolutely all hauliers.
We have discussed this internally, and we have also advised our Members, in view of this increased control, to be very careful when setting any delivery deadlines in respect of goods that have to reach Austria. It is good to allow a day more. This downtime costs extra remuneration for the driver and extra costs. Carriers should take all these things into account and be more careful when picking up such cargo. This is true for everyone who works on these on this route. It is not only Bulgarian hauliers who are directly affected, but absolutely everyone who passes through Bulgaria and takes goods to Austria.
We already know the parameters of this agreement on Schengen, which allows people from Bulgaria and Romania to cross Schengen borders without controls if they are by air and sea. What does this agreement with Austria mean for land hauliers?
As I would jokingly say, it is 3% Schengen, because that is the percentage of goods that cross between Bulgaria and the Schengen area by air and by water. The other 97% go overland. In practice, this agreement means nothing for the transport sector, because we will continue to stand at the borders and we will continue to generate losses. They will even increase in view of the specifics that we commented on a moment ago.
Our analysis shows that, last year, the direct losses for Bulgarian transport companies crossing the Bulgarian-Romanian border amounted to more than EUR 200 million. These are the losses on drivers’ wages, on depreciation, on the very fact that there are trucks sitting there that cannot be used. From there on, the losses to the economy amount to billions of euros. Slower transport makes goods more expensive and makes the Bulgarian haulier uncompetitive on the European market.
I am not even commenting on the fact that the conditions at this border crossing for the drivers themselves are, to put it mildly, out of step with the 21st century. The drivers work in offensive and extremely harsh conditions. A large number of vehicles continue to sit on the road lanes, creating the conditions for road accidents – something that is a very serious problem for both countries. When we are talking about human lives, the damage is incalculable. We are not talking about the damage in terms of the environment, because cars are sitting in one place, there are refrigerators and units running, and a lot of carbon emissions are being generated.
From that point of view, this agreement means next to nothing. And why do I say almost nothing? During the meeting with Finance Minister Assen Vassilev that I mentioned, we raised a very specific issue in relation to the import of personnel from third countries. I think that you and I have also commented on this topic. This is a very serious problem, not only for Europe, but for the whole world – the lack of drivers in heavy road transport. And we asked the specific questions: by hiring a driver from a third country outside the EU, are we members of Schengen? Will he be entitled to a Schengen visa or will he not? That is to say, will we at least have that privilege? Is it the case that this Schengen visa will be valid on the plane and not valid at the border?
We have been assured that, from 1 April, Bulgaria will, as well as Romania, of course, be allowed to issue Schengen visas. So, if we can talk about any benefit in terms of transport companies, it is only that. However, putting on the other side of the scales that it will be more difficult to cross between the Bulgarian and Romanian borders, we can safely say that this is a detriment. Bulgaria and Romania joining Schengen in this way is a detriment and is another blow to the transport sector.
We are in contact with colleagues from the other associations. We are working to get a clear, precise and specific date with regard to the accession of the two countries by land. The situation is now so difficult that we do not have a mechanism for this. We see that the whole of Europe is in recession. The transport companies are extremely backed into a corner. If the current state of affairs continues for a long time with these additional controls, I do not want to be black-eyed, but I believe that a very large number of transport companies will cease to operate. Not to mention that, with these waits at the border, a large number of drivers have changed ration or stopped doing this business altogether. Imagine, when you are stuck at a border for a day or two, where does your motivation go and where does your desire to work go, given that the conditions there are absolutely inhuman. The situation is not very different on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. However, I will not comment on it, because the decision is not related to our entry into Schengen.
Part of this agreement is the strengthening of controls on the Bulgarian-Romanian border. What exactly will this strengthening of controls mean? Who will be subject to increased controls?
It is precisely in this connection that, because of the increased controls, we are having all the problems we are having with goods loaded for Austria. We have raised this with the institutions. I have also raised it publicly. I think that we have to show a national position and national responsibility, and I think that we cannot, as two countries that are full members of the European Union and meet all the requirements in terms of Schengen, so meekly accept some of the things that are constantly being thrown at us, because the more we meet them, tomorrow they will come up with new and new criteria. And I think that right now is the time at a high, governmental level for the two countries to come to the table and negotiate. They should not intensify control. Clearly, it is not the time to abolish it entirely. But they can work towards limiting it, reducing it, removing some of the control. We have specific proposals in terms of removing the scales, in terms of reducing, for example, the removal of bills of lading on the Romanian side, but this is already a conversation that needs to be had between the Bulgarian and Romanian Governments.