Border-free experiments in Europeanisation: The borders opened for Europe

“Border regions are places where the European integration process should be felt most positively – studying, training, working, caring and doing business across borders are all daily activities that should be possible regardless of the existence of an administrative national border.” (Boosting growth and cohesion in EU border regions, Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, 2017)

The article is based on the author’s master’s thesis submitted to the National University of Political Science and Public Administration, Anthropology department. In line with social science guidelines, the identities of the interlocutors are not revealed in the original work and will not be revealed in the present article without their permission. 

One of my first vivid childhood memories is that of border crossings. Due to my father’s profession, my family and I were living in Bulgaria in the 1980s and every summer we would cross the border between Bulgaria and Romania, over the Danube bridge (or The Bridge of Friendship as it’s still colloquially called) on our annual trip back home to Romania, to visit my grandparents. 

60 years of the Danube bridge.

The border at Giurgiu – Ruse was heavily restricted. Since not everyone was allowed to have a passport in the late 1980s, it was largely impenetrable. Border guards could be unpredictable when requesting one’s travel documents and very often they would expect bribes as well, which one had no other option but to offer if they wanted to get to the other side. Unsurprisingly, travels to the other side, particularly in the 1980s were not that frequent. 

The border opened after the fall of communism and the summer of 1990 saw the overwhelming of border crossing by car traffic on either side Romanians would travel all the way to the markets of Istanbul where they would buy wholesale products to sell back home or even travel for leisure to Greece; and Bulgarians would travel the opposite way to Hungary and beyond, the first waves of immigration to Germany, as some of our family friends also did later that year.

Today, the border controls are no longer strict, due to both countries being EU members, so connectivity and mobility across the border are rarely an issue these days. Or so we think.

One of the grand ambitions of the European Union, as stated in the Article 174 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union is to support the so-called border regions, the EU internal border areas, with the purpose to further strengthen political and social ties among EU member states. For the past two decades, financing mechanisms such as Interreg have engendered the EU as a main actor in the management of internal borders of the member states, if and when they decide to do so. These schemes boast “thousands of projects and initiatives that have helped improve European integration”, as per the 2017 “Boosting growth and cohesion in EU border regions” EU Commission communication report, aimed at increasing connectivity across borders and establishing trust between sometimes former rivals such as, Germany – Netherlands, Germany – Poland etc. 

For these “Euro-regions”, so-called “laboratories of European integration”, mobility and connectivity are key components, necessarily underpinned by infrastructure.

So how do local residents experience these laboratories, how do they navigate these experiments and what are some of the emerging results? In the past year, I have attempted to answer these questions as part of my Anthropology master’s degree thesis, by focusing on the Euro-region that encompasses Bulgaria and Romania and more specifically on two border towns, Giurgiu and Ruse. 

A sticker with Romanian words on the Bulgarian shore in Ruse.

Separated by the lower Danube, the natural border between the two states, the towns have only been connected by a bridge after WW2. Long before the EU, the Soviet Union had created cooperation and financing mechanisms intended to strengthen the ties between the socialist states under its sphere of influence, and keep western influence in its place, outside.

Operational since 1954, the Danube bridge was the first piece of modern infrastructure financed by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance scheme developed by the Soviet Union, and at the time embodied an imagined and Soviet sanctioned fraternal link between two countries that had occasionally been at odds in the past. It would take two decades from the opening of the bridge to the first cross-border collaborative project that the two countries would take on together: common industrial equipment factories would be established in Giurgiu and Ruse in 1977, based on a jointly developed manufacturing process, which would produce drilling and mining installations, metallurgy and petrochemical installations, all essential for both countries’ industrialisation processes. All of these faded away during the 1990s when both countries would undergo a prolonged process of transition to capitalism which left some of their industries in decay. 

After Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union, the border opened a second time to everyone who had an ID card, and not just to passport holders.

With the border opening, shuffling over the Danube became frequent and most interactions, my research conclusion revealed, fell in one of two categories, or both: shopping and/or leisure. 

Interreg Funds in Ruse table

My Romanian interlocutors recounted their weekly trips to Ruse to buy cheaper products (cigarettes, household cleaning products, some food). For some of them, even the trip to the petrol station just after the Bulgarian border checks to buy cheaper bulk tobacco was worth the drive, the bridge toll, and the ID checks both ways. Occasionally, the border as a separator emerges back within this connectivity, as Ana remembers that recently, a border police officer while checking her ID, made a snarky comment about her frequently going to Ruse for shopping. 

A weekend stroll in Ruse, either in the centre, or along the Danube, on the concrete embankment, recently developed with EU Interreg funds will reveal a great deal of Romanians enjoying themselves. At times, they visibly outnumber the local population.

They walk up and down the pedestrian streets of the city centre, take photos in front of the Monument of Liberty or in front of the art-nouveau colourful buildings that line up Alexandrovska Street, they buy ice cream, they join the queue at one or two of the most famous restaurants in Ruse, Happy or Chiflika, they go in and out of shops. It may take them under an hour to drive there, if the border checks are not too busy and another hour back; once they arrive here, they are welcomed as tourists. One doesn’t need to be particularly affluent to afford a day in Ruse, but one must have a car, or at least a motorcycle or a bicycle to be able to travel there for a full day. Public transport is almost non-existent. 

Ruse: a recently completed Danube promenade.

On the other hand, Giurgiu emerges as lacking touristic appeal and infrastructure; guest houses are slow to pop up and the two hotels in town are old.

Residents of Ruse would therefore only come to Giurgiu for transactional purposes, either to sell produce at the market as well as for purposeful shopping; not that long ago, KFC opened a fast-food restaurant in Giurgiu, which attracts Bulgarians eager for a day and meal out. Ana believes though that there isn’t much else to attract the neighbours and, in her view, Giurgiu benefits more from being close to Ruse (as well as Bucharest). 

Much of the transport between Giurgiu and Ruse is done via personal cars, taxis and trucks, much less by train. Railways are an afterthought in both Bulgaria and Romania, mired in partial privatisation, neglect, underfunding and decay. One daily train connects Bucharest to Ruse, for a separate connection to Sofia, a layover that tourists often take advantage of to spend a few days in Ruse before going onwards on their journeys. It’s a round trip, with the train waiting for less than an hour in Ruse before going back to Bucharest. In Giurgiu it stops at Giurgiu Nord, a station at the far end of town, scarcely connected to the local transport network. If the local transport network is lacking, so is the cross-border transport network; there are no mini-buses nor any other buses. 

Trucks waiting to cross the bridge.

The lack of public or private investment in transport that would service local cross border traffic resurfaces patterns of public services being turned over to by private companies, locally regulated, and following mainly popular patterns of commute. Remote regions may be sparsely connected between them and with regional centres. In the absence of local cross-border transport, be it public or private, residents assert that cooperation between the two towns is hampered, and the municipalities are seen as absent in the public discourse about cross-border transport. But so are private actors, except for taxies, which charge 20-30 euro for a one-way cross-border journey. 

The cost is a matter to consider for a population where the median salary is just above one thousand euros.

For Val, a teacher in Giurgiu, who does not have a car and does not drive either, nor does he intend to ever drive, this poses a problem. He likes going to Ruse with his family at the weekend, but they always depend on either friends with cars or on taxis. Val feels restricted by lack of transport between Giurgiu and Ruse that would cater for short distance journeys over the weekend, for a relaxing day with his family and most people did agree this should be one of the first problems to be addressed in any form of cross-border cooperation strategies.

Despite the old age discourse on neighbourly and friendly countries, none of my interlocutors think the authorities of either town have worked together to further practical cooperation across the border.

They point to two basic ways of improving accessibility: toll-free travel for residents of both towns and public transport between Giurgiu and Ruse, neither of which is on the political horizon, leaving residents to feel mistrust towards their local authorities. None of my interlocutors can see how the enthusiasm for leisure and weekend travel from Romania to Bulgaria is able to translate into tighter cooperation between the two towns.

(to be continued)

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