The elimination of border controls in Southeastern Europe would transform the region

A cross-border talk about an idea for the self-determination of the region, which lacks the support of the majority of national state elites in it, but it remains in force as a spirit

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Vladimir Mitev

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat interviews Vladimir Mitev in a p2p cross-border talk about the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the so-called Air Schengen on 31 March 2024 and about the relevance of the idea of abolishing border controls between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Vladimir comments on the economic and social groups or interests that are behind or against the idea of abolishing border controls. He examines the attitudes of senior Bulgarian and Romanian officials and the European Commission towards this idea. He also discusses the role of people as subjects of international relations in the region, a role that the abolition of border controls could strengthen.

Welcome to a special edition of Cross-border Talks, in which I am going to discuss with my colleague and co-founder of Cross-border Talks, Vladimir Mitev, the issue of Bulgaria and Romania’s entry into the partial Schengen zone, the Schengen as it is presented in the media, as well as the project of a mini-Schengen, or the abolition of border controls between Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. Only a few days ago, both Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the Schengen zone in this limited mode, i.e. people travelling by air from Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen countries are no longer checked and the same happens on the other side. But nothing has changed on the ground, so there are still checks at the land borders. 

The issue of Bulgaria and Romania’s non-participation in full Schengen became quite controversial a few months ago, when Austria gave a list of conditions under which Bulgaria and Romania could move forward on their way to full Schengen. We published quite a lot about this issue on Cross-border Talks, and Vladimir, who stands for international cooperation and bringing people closer together, has also published a lot on his personal blog, which is called The Bridge of Friendship. Today we are going to discuss what will change after joining Schengen and what the future holds for the mini-Schengen project or the opening of the borders between the three Balkan countries. 

Vladimir, good evening. My first question is what was your personal reaction or the reaction of other Bulgarians and Bulgarian politicians after the first planes landed in Bulgaria and the passengers were able to disembark without being checked. And perhaps I could extend this question to Romania, another country that you are very close to. What were the reactions in Romania?

I can see that people who travel by plane are certainly feeling a bit of jubilation. I know some friends of mine who are going to fly even in April and they’re a bit excited about being able to travel without border controls in the Schengen area. I think Bulgarians in particular don’t feel very much with their heads. I think they feel with their bodies. They have to practice crossing the border without being checked. And the more they do it, the more sensitive they will become. 

On the other hand, both the Bulgarians and the Romanians are aware that most of the goods that cross the borders go through the land borders. In the case of Bulgaria, 97% of all trade with the Schengen area is realised via land borders. So joining Schengen by air and sea doesn’t change the picture much in terms of the flow of goods. Perhaps urban elites, people who regularly travel to Brussels or other places in Europe, will feel accepted as equals with other Schengen members. But the bulk of the Bulgarian economy continues to operate as before. In the case of Romania, I don’t know the exact data. I think the Schengen maritime trade in Romania should be a little bit bigger, because Constanta is a big seaport.

I’m aware that in Romania, too, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the lack of access to the land borders, both among ordinary people and among the elite. I can quote, for example, the former Minister of Energy, Răzvan Nicolescu who is also associated with the European Council on Foreign Relations. And people from the transport industry, road hauliers or transport companies that use lorries to transport goods, have a lot of things to sort out. Basically, there is a feeling that Romanians and Bulgarians were allowed to enter Schengen the moment they signed up to the European Union and met the technical requirements. That was in 2011. And after that, it was only for political reasons that they were not admitted. 

The fact that they were completely left out of the Schengen area for about 13 years. Some people see this as a sign that they are not European enough, and this is also used by the sovereignist forces in the two countries who attack the pro-European forces. So those who play the role of pro-European forces tend to see the full part of the glass of water. They see that Bulgaria and Romania are moving into the Schengen area and can issue Schengen visas. So they’re getting closer to other European countries. But on the other hand, there is also a way of looking at what is going on, of seeing the empty part of the glass of water. And that is what the sovereignists are using.

As you said, Air Schengen does not solve many problems. Of course, people who travel will be very happy that they don’t have to queue any more. And I think this does not only apply to urban elites, but also to ordinary Romanians who travel to work from Timisoara, Cluj or other airports. But still, as you pointed out, most of the goods are transported on the ground and the lorries will still be queuing at the border crossings. I haven’t even mentioned the third aspect – the question of Greece, Bulgaria’s southern neighbour, which is still excluded from most of the Schengen partners by land because Bulgaria is not in the Schengen area. Some time ago we reported on cross-border talks on the joint initiative involving politicians from all three countries on elimination of land border controls between them. I’d like to ask you what has happened since then? Was the declaration just an example of nice visions and wishful thinking, or has something more happened on this issue?

On the one hand, there hasn’t been any movement because high-level state elites, such as former Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov and Romanian EU Commissioner Adina Vălean, have rejected and criticised the idea. So it seems that the state allies in both countries are not used to thinking about the two countries or the two countries together with Greece as a bloc. They think nationally-centric. But I also noticed something positive in the sense that this idea had to be rejected at an increasingly higher level. At every stage of its advancement, there was a rejection that came from a higher and higher level of politicians or people. This means, in my opinion, that this idea has some kind of support in some circles in the region. If it didn’t have that kind of support, a support that is not so visible but still exists, it wouldn’t have been necessary for a Bulgarian Prime Minister or a Romanian European Commissioner to criticise the idea. They would just ignore it. The fact that they have to speak out means that they may also have to defend something, to counter something that may be on the rise. This is just a hypothesis of mine, of course. 

I would say that on the one hand, legally or politically, there may not be much movement. We have seen that the Bulgarian Prime Minister Denkov said at the beginning of February that it would be illegal to enforce this idea. I don’t know on what basis his interpretation of legality has, because, for example, the European Commission has refrained from taking a clear stance for or against this idea, including on legal grounds. I understand that it may be legally complex, but I don’t see any legal authority to have any public interpretation on this proposal. 

On the other hand, we had the Romanian European Commissioner, Adina Vălean, who criticised the idea in the sense that if the border is abolished, a lot of pressure will be put on the Romanian-Hungarian border. Maybe, as a high-ranking politician, she knows some figures that we don’t. Maybe I’m being naive, but I would say that it’s always better to have fewer borders. Now there is pressure on the Bulgarian-Romanian border, on the Bulgarian-Greek border. In the future, if such an idea is applied, there will be pressure on fewer borders. For me at least, Vălean’s argument is not the best or the strongest argument against this idea. 

I can see that in Bulgaria, for example, parts of the business community have also spoken out against this idea. They claim that nothing would be solved if the Bulgarian-Romanian border controls were abolished. I am also not convinced that their understanding is so convincing, because the removal of border controls would encourage a lot of any kind of movement. For example, Bulgarian-Romanian business of any kind would certainly benefit if there were no border controls or no border controls at the Bulgarian-Romanian border. 

I would say that there are different reactions to this. The most important thing is that the spirit of the idea, in my view, remains valid. And it is because of this agreement with Austria, which led to the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in Schengen, which I think is an anomaly. I mean, the European Union, as I understand it, is about removing borders, opening up to neighbours, creating cross-border communities and so on. But one of the elements of the agreement with Austria is that the control on the Bulgarian-Romanian border will be strengthened. So at the moment there is perhaps a legal obstacle in this clause in the agreement that there will be stronger control on the Bulgarian-Romanian border. But in my opinion it can’t be, it can’t last forever or for a long time. It is not standard European practice. And I think that is why this idea of abolishing border controls is still alive. And I think as a ghost it kind of haunts. There are various Greek tourism companies, various people from the NGO sector in Bulgaria and Romania, university professors, foreign policy experts, etc., people who find meaning in this idea and I think its spirit is now driving things forward.

Let us take a closer look at the people who support the idea of a mini-Schengen or the abolition of border controls. You specifically mentioned that there are those in the business community who are for it and those who are against it. Could you be more specific and tell us which sectors of the Bulgarian business community are not in favour of this idea and who is? Because it seems logical that opening up the borders will lead to more contacts, more exchanges, and that should be good for business. So why should anyone be against this idea?

First of all, let me say that the transport companies and the Union of Road Hauliers, as they say in Bulgaria, have been supporting the idea of a mini-Schengen since the decision in December 2022 that Bulgaria and Romania would not be accepted into Schengen. Initially, the Romanian National Union of Road Hauliers also supported the idea. But they reconsidered their position because their members had some problems at the Bulgarian-Romanian border, so they withdrew their support as a sign of protest. 

But on the other hand, as I said, there are some organisations that do not support the mini-Schengen or the abolition of border controls. One example is the Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber of Commerce, based in Ruse. Its members are mainly from the industrial sector. I don’t know what their real argument is, but they say that problems won’t be solved if this border is simply abolished. (The Bulgarian-Romanian Chamber of Commerce had an earlier position that if Bulgaria and Romania eliminated their land border controls, they could get isolated from the Schengen area and remain in the periphery, but after 31 March 2024 both Bulgarian and Romania are members of Schengen area, so there the isolation argument doesn’t seem to working, the issue is more whether the elimination of border controls is legally possible, especially when in the end of 2023, Bulgaria and Romania agreed with Austria to strengthen rather than abolish the border controls on Bulgarian-Romanian border – note of the editor) Maybe there are different types of businesses and different types of visions, I would say, even for the development of our region. Perhaps a closer look at what kind of business and what kind of forces support this idea and what kind of forces reject it would also show what are the struggling visions for our region?  

I can also say that not only the business community, but also the NGO sector in one way or another, or some people from the NGO sector, both in Bulgaria and Romania, seem to be very supportive of this idea. In fact, it was first proposed by a political scientist who was associated with the UNDP in Romania, later on in his blog. I remember some people, again from the NGO sector, promoting this idea. And I think one of the first articles written about it was in Bulgaria in 2014. I say that because I happen to be the author, quoting a Romanian expert from the NGO sector. And after 2019, I see more and more people attracted to this idea. I can mention, for example, a French-speaking political scientist from the Cluj-Napoca university who is known for claiming that if Bulgaria and Romania cooperate more closely, like in this initiative to abolish border controls, he believes that they will move closer to the centre of decision-making and power in the European Union, rather than isolate themselves. And they will do it better by working together than by trying to reach the centre separately. 

I can also give an example of a Scot who is based in Bulgaria, who is the strategist of one of the big NGOs on social services. And he says that this idea could lead to self-determination for Bulgaria and Romania. It would allow them to rely a little more on their own resources. It is strange that these people, who have very good contacts with the West, also support this idea. So this is not an anti-Western idea, as some people think. 

I also know a Romanian left-wing politician, a communist politician, who supports this idea for other reasons. He sees this idea as a kind of protest against the European elites. So for me it is something very strange how a concept that is the same for all people is seen in very different ways and interpreted in very different ways. And the fact that so many different people, people with different profiles, support it is very interesting. They’re attracted to the same idea, even though they’re very different.

Yes, you can give any meaning and content to the idea of abolishing border controls and creating two or three peoples – three if you include the Greeks. However, as you mentioned, the political elites, at least in Romania and Bulgaria, seem much more tempted by the prospect of further negotiations for full Schengen integration than by working together on some regional initiative. And at this point I have to ask you, how realistic is it for Romania and/or Bulgaria to join full Schengen in a closed perspective?

The Romanian Prime Minister, Marcel Ciolacu, has said that he has a strategy or a plan that will bring Romania fully into Schengen, including the land borders, by the end of the year. But most people I talk to, both in Romania and Bulgaria, are skeptical that this is possible. At the end of last year, there was a good moment to accept the countries into Schengen. But now the EU is getting more and more involved in other complex issues. For example, we have seen that the farmers’ protest in the European Union has led to the European Commission’s acceptance of a redefinition of its climate change policy, or green transition or just transition approaches. We see the European Union asking its members to accept certain reforms of the institutions so that it can integrate new members. So there are a lot of important issues, including those related to Ukraine or other countries that need to be integrated or made part of the EU structures. And, of course, there are the usual existential issues facing the European Union, with the rise of the sovereigntists in many countries. 

So I do not think there is much chance of us being accepted at the land borders this year. We also have to look at the international context, because there are elections in the US at the end of this year. There are some fears among the people I talk to that it’s possible that the question of full acceptance in the Schengen area via land borders will be postponed further. So it may take some more time. And in that sense, if there is no acceptance by the end of the year, there is again the likelihood that perhaps the idea of abolishing border controls will be discussed more. We have to follow these developments because, as I said, this idea may not be implemented immediately, but its spirit is to empower people and I see this empowerment as promoting the interests of the region. 

It’s something new. And of course, when there is something new, there is always reluctance on the periphery. Perhaps there is a fear among many of the foreign policy elites that something bad could come out of this opening to the neighbours. Nevertheless, the spirit of this idea remains alive. I would say in a slightly Marxian way, that if the subjective and objective conditions are met, I think the idea could come true.

Ten years after you first advocated the idea of a mini-Schengen, it’s very optimistic to hear those words from you. And I think that in the last part of our conversation I could ask you one more question related to these subjective issues. The abolition of border controls is a technical act, a political act. But it opens up space for mutual understanding, for getting to know each other, not only for doing business, but also for discovering the neighbour, discovering the neighbour’s culture, discovering the people who live on the other side of the border, perhaps explaining a common history. Difficult moments, although there are not so many difficult historical moments between Bulgaria and Romania. But in any case, the opening of the border opens up a whole new set of possibilities. And I wanted to ask you this last question. Are Romanians and Bulgarians curious about each other? If there is this movement, if there is a movement towards free movement among businesses, who wants to make money? Is there also this tendency between people who just want to abolish the border because they want to talk to people on the other side of the river?

I think the general trend is towards more openness and more interaction between Bulgarians and Romanians. At the moment, the state elites are certainly trying to promote this better acquaintance, more interest in each other through the media, through joint events, and Romanians are perhaps the nation that travels the most in our region. So Romanians have been to many places in Bulgaria, especially to the seaside or to the mountain resort of Bansko. And for years they have been travelling to Greece, through Bulgaria. In my opinion, there is such a natural interest among Romanians to get to know the region. But I’m not sure that there is a lot of contact when Romanians come here, because sometimes there is a language barrier. But I think that maybe this will disappear more and more. I know that at the seaside, for example, many of the people who work in the Bulgarian restaurants or hotels know Romanian. I also think that Romanians are discovering Bulgaria through the food, and they’re very happy with it. I have heard very good feedback on these issues and perhaps Romanians, like Bulgarians, like to feel with the body, if I may say so. And if something is discovered in this sense, it may remain as an experience. 

On the other hand, when we talk about Bulgarians, I know that there is a tradition for Bulgarians to go on various excursions in Romania. And I regularly see on social networks, for example, people discovering the salt mines in Romania or going to Sinaia, Brașov and other tourist places in Romania. I would say that people from Ruse in particular are familiar with places in and around Bucharest or even beyond. Perhaps people in Silistra are also aware of what is around them on the other side of the border. 

So I think the conditions are there for more interaction. What needs to happen is that the barriers need to be removed, so that people can just experience each other. I think really the practice of these connections will teach us how to do them in a better and more effective way and have greater discoveries or takeaways from them. 

There has to be, let’s say, not only a material infrastructure, but also a human infrastructure. Now there is the problem that there are only two bridges on the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania. There are discussions about more bridges, and a feasibility study has been carried out for a third bridge, again at Ruse-Giurgiu. Nevertheless, work on these infrastructure links is progressing slowly. And I see that there must also be connections on a human level, let’s say some organisations or some interpersonal connections. There must be people who act as bridges of friendship between nations, who have the trust of both sides. And the more such relationships of people appear in this space, I think the more energy will be transferred between the nations in our region.

Vladimir, you are definitely one of those people who are transmitting energy between the borders. In fact, we were discussing an issue that is particularly close to your heart. And thank you very much for being here with me today to comment on Schengen and many Schengen issues, and to send best wishes from Poland to the Romanians and Bulgarians. That concludes this conversation. Thank you very much for being here, and don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-border talks so you don’t miss any of our new content that we put on YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and all the other social media. You know we will. Thank you and have a good day.

Photo: The Romanian-Hungarian border (source: Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

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