The Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen area as a project for change in Southeastern Europe

The proposal for elimination of border controls between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece might have a difficult juridical side and to not have strong political support by the three countries. But its spirit already sets actions and change in motion in Southeastern Europe

Vladimir Mitev, EUXGLOB conference, University Of Cluj-Napoca

The Bridge of Friendship, 19 February 2024 

This article will be published in the collective volume of the EUXGLOB III conference around the middle of 2024. Vladimir Mitev participated in the conference in November 2023. EUXGLOB is the leading conference on international relations and security in Cluj-Napoca and is also the name of a think-tank on Southeastern European and Black Sea foreign policy and security studies.

This is the first in-depth take on the proposal for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen area/elimination of border controls in Southeastern EuropeIt studies the history of that proposal, its evolution, the international context, in which it is being advanced and respectively rejected and how its spirit could be a force for change in the region.

The war in Ukraine is a catalyst for change in international relations on the eastern flank of NATO and the eastern part of the EU – Central and Southeastern Europe. In Southeastern Europe, this means in particular a growing media interest in what is happening in neighbouring countries, an increased interest in infrastructure links between them, a push for energy cooperation and other measures leading to the reaffirmation of regional cooperation in the region. But these positive trends, which are elite-driven and part of the agenda for the region of their Western partners, run counter to the inertia of many years in which both the elites and the people of Bulgaria and Romania have been encouraged to view their neighbours with reticence, suspicion or indifference. 

How could positive change based on regional cooperation and cross-border engagement in international relations reach the depths of Southeastern Europe’s societies?

This paper attempts to answer this key question by offering a series of perspectives and analyses on the proposal for the abolition of border controls between the EU and the Southeastern European Schengen members (previously referred to as a mini-Schengen, a concept that became obsolete when Bulgaria and Romania joined the Schengen area in April 2024 – but I still use it as I study it historically and as a spirit). In the first part of the text, which acts as a kind of “literature review”, the evolution of the idea of a mini-Schengen is reviewed – from its first formulation by a Romanian commentator associated with the UNDP to its latest reincarnation as a mini-Schengen between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. The second part examines the international context of this news. The final part sets out some key elements of a broader perspective on people-driven change in South Eastern Europe.

The main thesis of the publication is that under the conditions of only partial accession to the Schengen area for Bulgaria and Romania (which, according to the decision of the Council of the European Union of 30 December 2023 – supplemented by a joint declaration of the two countries with Austria – will be admitted to the Schengen area in a first stage only via the air and sea borders, but not with their land borders), a new perspective on people-led change in South-Eastern Europe is emerging: namely that a mini-Schengen with land borders in Southeast Europe could be one of the elements that could promote greater economic dynamism, people-to-people relations, confidence-building and increase the potential of bilateral and regional relations in Southeast Europe. And even if such a project might not be easily technically possible or may not be politically desired, its spirit is still a force for change in the region.

The main questions that this mini-study reflects upon are, on the one hand, related to the existence or lack of political will, public interest and legal right to introduce a mini-Schengen area in Southeastern Europe for the land borders and, on the other hand, to the effects of such a political innovation on the regional political and people-to-people relations. The research approach I use is desk research.

Most of the research resources are articles and interviews in the press on the issues of the mini-Schengen. Many articles from the Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship” are used as primary sources. Statements by politicians or experts to the media in Romanian and European media are also used. 

The significance of the topic lies in the fact that Bulgarian-Romanian relations have not been popular among researchers for a long time, and only the changing international context has led to a growing interest in them. The present publication could contribute to the affirmation of a field of knowledge in the media or in academic journals on Bulgarian-Romanian political issues. The discourses that view the two countries as a package may not be what their national elites would generally like to hear, but it is part of the wider process of Europeanisation, in which countries with socio-political, geographical or cultural similarities usually develop a commonality on various EU issues and a specific regional identity in the EU. Approaching Bulgaria and Romania as a group is a way of challenging the national-centric thinking of their political and analytical elites, who should appreciate proposals for greater political imagination in regional politics, or at least find the best arguments to explain why change is so slow in their bilateral relations.

The evolution of the proposal for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen

First formulations

Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, giving them the right to join the Schengen area as soon as they meet the technical requirements. They managed to do so in 2011. However, their membership was blocked due to a lack of political support from the Netherlands and Finland. After that Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the EU has been off the agenda of the EU’s Council of Home Affairs Ministers for 11 years.

The idea for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen was first articulated in 2011 by the blog The Rational Idealist, which belongs to an anonymous Romanian commentator with a degree in political science who was working for the UNDP at the time. The blog has a small readership, including the Romanian good governance expert Codru Vrabie, who put forward the same idea in 2014 in an interview with Vladimir Mitev for Tema Magazine (Bulgaria). 

This is the first known proposal for a mini-Schengen made by the author of the Rational Idealist blog:

“First of all, a decision by Romania and Bulgaria to create a kind of mini-Schengen between them by abolishing the common border would send a strong signal of confidence to their European partners. We want the rest of the Schengen countries to have confidence in our countries’ ability to manage the external borders that will become common. By abolishing the border between them, Romania and Bulgaria would show that they trust each other.

Secondly, such an initiative would demonstrate the two countries’ firm will to integrate and their ability to assume the responsibilities that this entails, not in a confrontational way, but in a constructive way that helps the EU rather than undermining it. It would allow Romania and Bulgaria to take the initiative on this issue in a much more effective and convincing way than any retaliatory measures (which only feed the downward spiral of the disintegration of the European project). It would teach the Eurosceptics a lesson and would certainly have the support of the European Commission. What better way to prove that we are capable of managing the Union’s external borders together with Bulgaria than to do so first under our own responsibility?

On the contrary, by implementing in advance one of the main components of the Schengen accession process, Bulgaria and Romania would make their lives easier later on, with only Bulgaria’s border controls with Greece and Romania’s with Hungary to be abolished. The Romanian-Bulgarian border is the longest at 631 km, compared to 448 km between Romania and Hungary and 494 km between Bulgaria and Greece. The abolition of controls at the longest of the three borders envisaged for eventual Schengen integration could technically be managed as an intermediate step in the process.

From the point of view of feasibility, there should be no problem, since this border was originally scheduled to disappear by March 2011, the target date for Romania and Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen area. On the contrary, the dismissal or transfer of the relevant staff at the border crossing points, the decommissioning of equipment, etc. will bring savings for the budgets of the two countries and allow them to focus on better securing the external borders.

From the point of view of the population and the local communities, I do not believe that anyone will suffer from the disappearance of this border, which over time has acquired a sad reputation as a hotbed of corruption and mutual kicking. For some years now, Romanians from the south have been crossing the Danube in large numbers to do their shopping or to spend their holidays on the Bulgarian coast, even going so far as to take initiatives such as subtitling films in Romanian in some Bulgarian cinemas in order to attract viewers from our country.

In short, such a Romanian-Bulgarian response to the probable rejection tomorrow of their Schengen candidacy would project an image of partnership, responsibility, seriousness and initiative of the two countries, in contrast to the pitiful impression left by the first nervous reactions to the news of the Dutch opposition.

It would be a response in the spirit of Europe, not the spirit of the Balkans.

For Romania’s European policy, which has been caught on the wrong foot in recent years, such a creative retreat would be a long-awaited sign of vision, consistency and courage.”

This is what Codru Vrabie said in 2014 to the Bulgarian Tema magazine:

“We have problems with Schengen in both Romania and Bulgaria. Our governments meet from time to time in Ruse, in Vidin and I do not know where else. But at these meetings they have never talked about a Schengen-type experiment on our border. To show that they trust each other and to abolish the border between us. Then, in the form of cooperation between Romania and Bulgaria, we will show that we trust each other and we will show all the other countries in the region that Schengen can work here. If it works for us, why should it not work for relations with other EU countries? But nobody is thinking about it strategically because we do not trust each other”.

The media interest increases

Media interest in the idea is growing after 2019, when Croatia will have met the technical requirements to join the Schengen area, while Bulgaria and Romania still have no clear prospect of joining.

Codru Vrabie gives a new interview to a Bulgarian media outlet – the Bulgarian-Romanian blog “The Bridge of Friendship” – in which he claims that the mini-Schengen between the two countries is a good idea:

“I would say that an agreement of the Schengen type shows a high level of trust between the partner countries. Each of them has confidence in the other’s ability and capacity to protect a certain part of the border, and in return can better protect the other borders. The immediate advantage is that, with relatively the same resources, a state can concentrate on a smaller segment of entry checkpoints and therefore be more efficient. The disadvantage is that each state has to invest in the resources and capacities of the partners of the agreement, even if we are only talking about evaluation missions. At the time – 4-5 years after our countries joined the EU – I thought it was a very good idea. Both countries believed that they met the technical standards, that they had the ability and the capacity to join Schengen, but they didn’t have the confidence of the other European states. So it seemed a good idea to show that at least Romania and Bulgaria can abolish the border on the Danube. This would show the other European countries that Romania and Bulgaria are indeed ready to join Schengen. It would also be the first sign that our countries understand what European integration means in a bilateral sense, not just in relation to Brussels. However, in 2019, I think that the mini-Schengen in the Western Balkans is more interesting than the one that could exist between Romania and Bulgaria.”

Vrabie claims that our region looks too much to the West and its countries fail to integrate and synchronise with each other. Instead, they still seem to be thinking in terms of the 19th century, when it was important to be in one or another sphere of influence and to compete for the attention of the big powers in the EU. 

“From this point of view, it seems to me that Bucharest ignores its relationship with Sofia, just as it ignores its relationship with Ljubljana, Helsinki, Lisbon or Copenhagen. I think that Sofia is doing the same in the opposite direction. If our states don’t support or encourage in any way direct cross-border cooperation, we will not have any substantial European integration. The road from Varna to Brussels or from Suceava to Athens depends on this integration. That is why I am talking about a lack of common sense. We can imagine that we can travel by plane, but the cow’s milk or the sheep need cheaper means of transport. The good practices of the local administration in Varna can be applied in Suceava, but only if people meet, get to know each other, discuss, share their problems, needs and aspirations. Only then will we be able to say that we are working together to find mutually beneficial solutions – that is why European integration has been successful. This spirit of cooperation could only emerge of its own accord if the states supported and encouraged the existence and emergence of a means of communication. But our politicians, driven by an understandable inferiority complex, believe that only lessons from the Germans are valuable. This is a lack of practical common sense. The Germans (the French and the Swedes) no longer have problems like ours to solve. We, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Croats, the Baltics have these problems. But I don’t see anybody – neither in Sofia nor in Bucharest – taking care of them, so that we could open up to each other, to forms of cooperation between people. Even with the bridges over the Danube, we haven’t achieved much,” says Vrabie.

In essence, Vrabie is drawing a direct link between the removal of border controls between the two countries and the promotion of people-to-people engagement between them as a way of achieving real Europeanisation. In his view, this is a way of overcoming the status of peripheral countries and achieving a level of synchronisation that Germany and France – countries at the core of the EU – have already achieved.

Vrabie expects that a mini-Schengen would increase people and economic exchanges between Bulgaria and Romania. As for some negative aspects – such as cross-border crime – the two countries’ law enforcement institutions would have to learn to work together and trust each other, practising on a smaller scale what they would do in the Schengen area.

Since 2019, a number of interviews on the mini-Schengen proposal have been published on the Bridge of Friendship. The general impression is that no one in Bulgarian foreign policy circles is interested in the idea of a mini-Schengen. Some Bulgarian experts even refuse to publicly articulate a negative stance on it, fearing that just talking about it would legitimise the proposal, which in their view could potentially be used against Bulgaria. One way of looking at this scepticism is to take into account the Bulgarian elites’ obsession with national-centred thinking about their foreign policy. The only positive opinion publicly articulated by Bulgarians was that of the maverick foreign policy and security expert prof. Vladimir Chukov, who recalled that he had been promoting the idea of a mini-Schengen in the Bulgarian context for years. In his view, however, this initiative should also include Greece and be linked to broader political integration between the three EU members in Southeastern Europe – e.g. between their parliaments, markets, and so on.

At the same time, there is a general feeling that Romanian foreign policy elites are more open to the idea, even if it has been less articulated by heavyweight analysts or politicians. However, several MEPs from both sides of the aisle have rallied behind it.

A boom of the discourse after 2022

The new impetus in the media discussion about the mini-Schengen came after the 8 December Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council, which blocked Bulgaria and Romania from joining the Schengen area, with the Netherlands and Austria blocking them over issues related to migration and justice. The National Union of Romanian Road Transport Operators (UNTRR) and the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Transport Operators (KAPB) immediately came up with proposals to remove border controls between the two countries. The two employers’ organisations stated that their truck drivers generate expenses, pollution, losses and risk their safety and that of others while they are forced to wait for days to cross the borders of Bulgaria and Romania. In addition, several experts and officials said that the two countries are excluded from the major investment flows in the region because investors take into account the potential delays at the border.

Following the December 2022 decision, former Romanian energy minister Răzvan Nicolescu’s energy and ecology NGO initiated a petition, which was transformed into a European Parliament resolution in mid-2022, criticising Austria for its lack of cooperation and abuse of the EU treaties’ core principles of trust and goodwill regarding its stance on Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to the Schengen area. The EP resolution, which was supported by a large majority, condemned the air pollution caused by border controls and authorised further legal action at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg. 

Răzvan Nicolescu announced in October 2022 that his NGO had attacked the EU Council’s decision not to include Romania’s accession to the Schengen area on its agenda in this court, thus requesting a revision of the JHA decision of December 2022. 

Earlier, the NGO Association for Clean Energy and Climate Change submitted a request to the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU to review the decision to postpone Romania’s accession to the Schengen area, based on the Aarhus Convention and the fact that the JHA Council of 8 December 2022 did not take into account environmental aspects when deciding that Romania should not join the Schengen area. As the General Secretariat of the EU Council rejected the request for review, the association decided to lodge a complaint with the EU Court of Justice.

Today it is no longer a mini-Schengen but “elimination of land borders controls” in Southeastern Europe

Meanwhile, the wider EU context has changed for the better. At the EU level, there was a desire to resolve outstanding conflicts as the EU moved towards further enlargement and reform and needed to resolve its internal problems. Thus, in December 2023, the Netherlands lifted its veto on Bulgaria. At the same time, Austria appeared to be open to admitting the two Southeastern European countries via the so-called Air Schengen (accession via air borders). As a result of the negotiations, an agreement was reached on 30 December 2023 between Austria, Bulgaria and Romania, according to which the two countries would join the Schengen area as of April 2024, would have the right to issue Schengen visas, and would have border crossing without controls via air and sea borders, but border controls at the land borders with other Schengen members would remain in force for each of the countries and would be strengthened.

In this situation of “partial Schengen”, Romanian MEPs from the Renew Europe group – Dacian Cioloș and Vlad Gheorghe, MEP from the European People’s Party George Kyrtsos and the member of the Bulgarian national parliament Daniel Laurer from the We Continue the Change party proposed on 25th January 2024 the abolition of border controls between the three countries. They explained that the proposal would benefit tourism and transport and would show Austria that there would be no increase in migration. 

However, there is a technical or legal aspect of the proposal that remains unclear. On the one hand, the European Commission doesn’t take an official position on the proposal, just as its answer to a question from MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu about the Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen in 2023 remained vague. On the other hand, the agreement with Austria of 30 December 2024 foresees the strengthening of border controls between Bulgaria and Romania. 

In this context, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov says that the abolition of border controls would be illegal under EU law. Romanian transport commissioner Adina Vălean, for her part, has criticised the proposal on the grounds that its application would create huge pressure on the Romanian-Hungarian border.

Even if it seems that the proposal for a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen is effectively frozen at this stage, it is clear that the proposal has gained some importance, since it had to be rejected by a prime minister and a euro commissioner (speaking in a personal capacity) in order to be stopped – for the time being. But it’s also important what Vălean didn’t say – for example, that she didn’t reject the proposal for lack of legal grounds. And the European Commission as such has not yet taken an official position. The proposal is further complicated by the fact that the joint declaration by Austria, Romania and Bulgaria meant tighter border controls at the Bulgarian-Romanian border – the opposite of the abolition of border controls. 

In this context, the idea of a mini-Schengen could be a way of putting pressure on sceptics of the two countries’ full membership of the EU’s borderless travel zone, until the land borders of Bulgaria and Romania have been completed. But even if its legal and technical grounds are complex, and even if it needs more political support to become a reality, its spirit should also be taken into account, because it carries a message and energy of people’s empowerment. The spirit of the mini-Schengen is easier to understand and appreciate when we look at the international context in which this proposal is being advanced and is already playing a role.

International context 

There is a feeling that the Schengen issue is one of the issues that demonstrates the specific geopolitical position of Bulgaria and Romania. The two countries have strategic partnerships with the US, but need visas to get there. They are members of the EU, but they’re not in the eurozone. They have been part of the Schengen area since April 2024, but have not entered via land borders. Therefore, despite the general tendency towards Europeanisation and Westernisation, the two countries still form a specific group of countries in international relations within the EU, reflecting the heterogeneous geopolitical influence within them.

The war in Ukraine triggered a series of geopolitical transformations in Southeastern Europe that directly affected Bulgaria and Romania. Troops from NATO allies have been deployed in both countries, with France taking the lead in Romania and Italy in Bulgaria. 

The push for greater infrastructural connectivity is another enduring trend. Work on a second Danube bridge at Ruse-Giurgiu, the construction of motorways in both countries and talk of better rail links between Greek Aegean ports and Bulgarian and Romanian Black Sea ports have been on the agenda for several years.

NATO needs better and faster infrastructure links so that its troops can deploy and respond more quickly. But the people of these countries will also benefit from better roads, railways and ports. The Three Seas Initiative, with its Rail2Sea and Via Carpatia infrastructure projects, is part of this trend.

The mini-Schengen proposal in this international context

In this context, it can be seen that bilateral and regional ties are becoming more dynamic. And Bulgaria and Romania may need projects, initiatives and approaches that encourage their citizens to get to know each other and do more together. As I write in my study “Romania’s Foreign Policy in Geopolitical Context and Bulgaria” (published by the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute in September 2023), the efforts of the elites of the two countries to promote bilateral and regional cooperation might remain limited in their effect if the population of the two countries is not involved on a larger scale. 

Romanian-Bulgarian relations have long been characterised by indifference and national-centric thinking, which has made it difficult to reach mutually beneficial agreements. As a result, there is a lack of knowledge, interest or trust between the people of the two countries, while elites are limited by bureaucratic procedures and narrow interpretation of national interest and so far cannot achieve a great openness between the two countries. 

Therefore, change in Romanian-Bulgarian relations will come from the people, who can be much more flexible and creative when dealing with each other and can not carry the great burden of hierarchy or hegemony. By pursuing mutually beneficial engagement, people in Bulgaria and Romania can get to know each other better, increase mutual trust and the potential of bilateral and regional relations. And when the potential in relations is greater, any policy of rapprochement can have greater depth and better results.

Mini-Schengen with the abolition of land border controls or joining the Schengen area with land borders can be an element for such a trend, which encourages travel, cultural, academic and civil contracts between South-East European nations. It could also be a way for Bulgaria and Romania to move towards self-determination, to rely more on their regional resources rather than basing their foreign policy on attracting a big brother as a temporary patron and thinking of themselves as eternal small brothers or satellites. 

Even if the mini-Schengen remains unassumed by the Bulgarian and Romanian political elites, as is the case, the spirit of this initiative, the idea of no border controls between Bulgaria and Romania, can have a powerful empowering effect on their populations. These two countries and their populations continue to be a special group in the EU, even if their national-centric elites are not happy with it and do not recognise or rely on it. 

The mini-Schengen spirit would mean a move away from national-centric thinking based on hegemony and some form of static national identity. It would allow the formation of a dynamic Bulgarian-Romanian and regional identity, an identity in which the different elements approach each other without hegemony and enrich each other. And such an identity could bring a lot of energy to the region, allowing it to transform its geopolitical status.

If not the letter, then the spirit of the mini-Schengen could be a great engine of change in the semi-peripheral region of South East Europe.

Bibliography

Emerging Europe

Euractiv

European Parliament

The Bridge of Friendship – a list of articles on the Schengen and mini-Schengen issues

G4media 

Photo: The collective volumes from the first two EUXGLOB conference in 2021 and 2022. This article will be part of the collective volumet from the third EUXGLOB conference, which took place in 2023.

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