Border-free experiments in Europeanisation: The borders opened for Europe [PART TWO]

During my field research in Giurgiu and Ruse, I met with several interlocutors who were keen on seeing more cross-border cooperation projects that would benefit the wider population of the two regions. P.A. has worked with cultural institutions in Ruse and abroad for over three decades and found it difficult to cooperate with similar institutions in Romania, “there was no interest from anyone. No one. With no people, there are no projects.” 

Read the first part of the text:

Both A.G.V. and A.M. have worked with heritage, environmental and civic engagement NGOs in Giurgiu and they both observed that a high level of disengagement was prevalent among the population in Giurgiu and associated it with the lower standard of living of a shrinking town, undergoing a persistent depopulation process. 

Asked what they thought about the leisure seekers on the other bank of the Danube, they suggested that people were prioritising as best they could, work during the week and entertainment at the weekend, with not much time or energy left to take part in the administration of their towns. Thus, local, national and supra-national authorities govern at will and all my respondents agreed that they didn’t feel like their needs were being met in their respective towns. 

In The binational reality of border-crossing cities, Jan Buursink observed that certain border cities were “mainly exits and entries for international traffic by road, railway or waterway of people and goods”.

Giurgiu and Ruse seem to treat each other that way, judging by the absence of locally sponsored, financially or discursively, public transport. Private transport, on the other hand, suffocates the bridge during holiday seasons, either short or long ones. Romanians happily drive to the Bulgarian seaside or further to Northern Greece for their holidays. Every summer, stories of overcrowded border checkpoints, long queues and dragging waiting times are abundant in both countries’ media. These leisure journeys add to the economic trade that moves in long lines of trucks awaiting their own border crossing. 

The EU regional funds for the Interreg VI-A Romania-Bulgaria Programme, enhancing the Romanian-Bulgarian border region from 2021 to 2027 can be seen in some projects in both towns, but in people’s imaginations there are no direct correlations between how those funds were used and how it benefited them directly. By accessing these funds, regions are encouraged to cooperate to address specific issues that are affecting their communities, in the hope that such initiatives would invigorate economies, harmonise social ties and obscure previously drawn borders.

This Interreg funds mark in Giurgiu informs of European investment in local roads, “for the better connectivity”.

Their expectations that local authorities, the mayor or the council, or the national authorities, the central government in Bucharest or Sofia fulfil their duty to improve their well-being by securing jobs and salaries are at odds with supra-national funds that arrive at the margins of their lives, and, some of my interlocutors suspect, in the pockets of local authorities.

Another layer of symbolism suggests that the European Union’s presence in previously bordered areas through such projects and material artefacts that highlight its presence (large billboards acknowledging the financial contribution to a specific project) will bolster a sentiment of belonging to the wider European community. In other words, that it will embody the European identity specifically in those places where the budgets were spent. The “EU Border Regions: Living labs of European integration” Commission report has found that the efforts are often hindered by the lack of harmonisation between member states’ legislation, administration, and lack of infrastructure, highlighting misalignment between financing programs and local initiative of cross-border cooperation. 

In 2023, Capital, a Bulgarian weekly newspaper and digital platform focused on current affairs, politics and the economy, published a special edition of several articles about the headway Romania seemed to have made since joining the EU: GDP per capita increased, minimum wage increased, living standard increased. The Bulgarian journalists expressed their disbelief that starting from the same level, one of the two countries was able to advance: “Yes, the Romanians (surprisingly) had a higher standard of living, but the same mentality.” Capital journalists concluded that Romanians’ living standards have changed, becoming more European, and at the same time acknowledged that they still come in troves to the Bulgarian seaside in search of a better (and cheaper holiday). 

The performance of this comparison is a well-practised rhetorical device by now and maintains the distinction between us and them, though not in a consistent manner.

Stereotypes about one another are still in use. “Parking like a Romanian truck driver”, “driving like a Romanian” expose poor and potentially harmful driving habits, whereas Romanians might look down on some of the abandoned and untidy Bulgarian villages. 

At the same time, each country offers an aspirational ideal, as A.V. said: “You know, it’s nice to have something to aspire to. I think both Bulgarians and Romanians when they look at each other, they have something to aspire to…it’s all like a mystification, like a veal or fog that you don’t want to shake away, you simply don’t want to see the other who is just as foolish as you are. You’d feel very lost if you saw them like that”.

The ease of border crossing for the acceptable passports and for those who can rely on their own transportation is a big departure from how I remember the border in my childhood. These frequent travels have produced short term interactions with the neighbouring country residents, speakers of a different language, that rarely lead to long-term contact according to the people I spoke to. 

This type of swift connectivity enabled by EU membership and EU efforts of cultivating Euro-regions, but lacking a framework that would see the two cities becoming active partners in cross-border cooperation, is deplored by some of my respondents, as they see it as a failure for real connection to the city next door. The two cities share a familiarity with one another, even if residents of Giurgiu might visit Ruse more often than the other way around. 

On a sunny day in historical part of Ruse.

The democratisation and industrialisation of travel provided by the opening of the borders and EU membership, has led to the maintenance of comparisons between the two countries. These recurrent short visits uphold a scale of reference points that each country holds itself against, but also compares itself against the other, while local residents can’t see how this potential is being used to service their needs.

These hasty contacts, in some of my respondents’ views, rarely lead to lasting relations, even in the border area where exchanges are far more frequent.

In the absence of local governance led initiatives for cooperation, as some of my respondents stated, each country has its back turned on their neighbour. 

As eventually Bulgaria and Romania will join the Schengen zone agreement, which would see the disappearance of tangible state-enacted border marks, some of the residents of the two towns mirroring each other from across the border would like to see different patterns of collaboration. 

What would happen with the third opening of the border, the accession to the Schengen zone, which is to take place at some point in 2024? Would this unrestricted and unchecked movement from one place to the other, across the Danube, see more lasting exchanges or more of the same?

Would a need for transport networks arise once more? Would other practices develop in this exchange, other than shopping and leisure?

What the “euro-region” will see after the two countries enter the Schengen zone agreement will be a new stage of development for cross border interactions, a new “laboratory of experimentation” in the Europeanisation process. 

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