26 March, 2023
Codru Vrabie (photo: Vlad Stanciu, INK Assocation)

Interview with the Romanian expert on good governance on the idea of a Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen, on a similar initiative for a regional Schengen in the Western Balkans and on the barriers before Romanian-Bulgarian cooperation

Vladimir Mitev

Codru Vrabie is a civic activist, trainer and consultant on good governance, transparency, responsibility, and integrity in the public sector. He has contributed to many reform measures in justice and public administration. Vrabie has BAs in legal and political sciences (Romania, Bulgaria, the USA) and MAs in administrative sciences and European affairs (Romania, the Netherlands, Spain). He has worked for various Romanian civil society organizations since 1998. In 2010, Vrabie started working with the Leaders for Justice” programme, which was replicated in 2017 by the Republic of Moldova. In April 2018, Codru joined the team of telegraful.net – a project of the Courage Ahead Association (Curaj Înainte).

After the last CVM report Romania and Bulgaria remain outside the Schengen area. In this context the blog ”The Bridge of Friendship” tries to bring the attention at a less-disccused idea in our countries – the creation of a bilateral Schengen area between Romania and Bulgaria. Interviews with supporters and sceptics to this idea will be published. 

Mr. Vrabie, in an interview for the Bulgarian magazine ”Tema” in 2014, you have formulated the idea for the establishment of a bilateral Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen. Taking into consideration the mini-Schengen, which was announced this month by Serbia, Albania and Northern Macedonia, I ask you to return to this idea. What goals would such an initiative have? What advantages and disadvantages could its realisation have for the two countries?

I remember with great pleasure this interview. It was the first time, when we met, wasn’t it? The idea for a Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen is not obligatory mine. I think I have read about it in 20112013, and afterwards I started to consider it more seriously. I would say that an agreement from the type of Schengen shows a high level of trust between the partner countries. Each one of them has trust in the capability and the capacity of the other one to protect certain part of the border, and in exchange can protect better the other borders. The immediate advantage is that using relatively the same resources a state can concentrate on a smaller segment of entrance border checkpoints, therefore it can be more efficient. The disadvantage is that each state has to invest resources and in the capacities of the partners from the agreement, even if we speak only about evaluation missions. At that moment – 4-5 years after our countries had entered the EU, I thought that this idea is very good. Both countries believed that they meet the technical standards, that they have the capability and the capacity to enter Schengen, but didn’t have the trust of the other European states. Therefore, it seemed a good idea to shows that at least Romania and Bulgaria can abolish the border on the Danube. That is how we would show the other European countries that Romania and Bulgaria are indeed ready to enter Schengen. Also, it would be the first sign that our countries understand what European integration means in bilateral sense, not only in the relation with Brussels. However, in 2019 I think that the mini-Schengen in the Western Balkans is more interesting that the one that could exist between Romania and Bulgaria.

What would a Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen mean in technical terms – for the regime of visa issuance, for tourism for the economic activity, for the juridic and managerial organisation of the free border? How is the problem with the cross-border criminality resolved in the conditions of a zone without border or customs control? Would it be necessary that Romania and Bulgaria make a database similar to the European Schengen’s database? Would both countries issue visas for both countries simultaneously? What would change for the institutions of order and security in the context of a bilateral Schengen?

I am not an expert in these issues, but I believe that the answers are evident: with regard to the visas and to the management of the common border I think we can use a copy of the Schengen system with the same database. With regard to criminality, it would be an effort on a smaller scale in comparison with what we would have to do if we enter the big Schengen. Institutions would undergo the same changes, which they would await from the entrance in a veritabil Schengen, but we will have to manage only 2-3 relations, not 25. You know what is said, exercise makes you better. I think that it could be valuable if you can stay in good shape like in football, to play in B division, until you get promoted to the A division. The Idea of this mini-Schengen is that we create together the B division, so that we could stay in form.

Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Albania have announced that they will create ”a small EU” in the Western Balkans – a zone of free movement of ”people, goods, services and capitals”. How is their initiative explained? To what extent it is provoked by the internal understanding of the need for such an union and to what extent it is the realisation of a vision for the development of the Western Balkans, which comes from outside the region?

I think that the explanation is very similar to the one with the B division. From the economic point of view the six countries in the Western Balkans have a smaller population than Romania. With the exception of Albania they were part from former Yugoslavia. It seems to me natural that people would like to be able to move freely in this zone, without having the need for visas and border control. Well, it seems o me natural that people move freely over the whole of Europe. I think that if you make the people’s life easier, they will concentrate more on the development of valuable ideas, which will bring greater well-being for their compatriots and family. The agreement for free movement of the people, goods, services and capitals means exactly this – it makes the life of people easier and allows that better ideas are developed within a larger geographical region. In my view the needs for this has come from the inside, not from outside the region. The countries in the Western Balkans don’t enjoy a very high trust in Bruxelles and among the member-states of the EU. It is very probable that they don’t trust one another as well. That is why it seems to me that the mini-Schengen, which was announced in Novi Sad is an exercise of reconstruction of the reciprocal trust between the countries of the Western Balkans. It is not only a vision for the economic development is not only a small B division before the integration of the region in the EU. Maybe the people who take the decisions in the Western Balkans have learned something from the doubts towards Sofia and Bucharest. It remains to be seen how those countries will answer to the news that Serbia has entered a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union, because this gesture could be interpreted as a cheating of the trust or as a way to access other markets.

The countries from Western Europe, which oppose Romania and Bulgaria’s entrance in Schengen accuse Bucharest and Sofia in unresolved problems with corruption and in justice. To what extent the Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen would help to the resolution of the problems in justice, when we take into account that both countries are technically prepared for their accession to the big Schengen, so they don’t need to prove their capability and capacity to manage free borders?

As I said it is a matter of trust. As long as there is suspicion that everyone can enter in Bulgaria and in Romania by bribing a customs officer or border patrol, in Bruxelles, Paris, Vienna or Berlin will appear immediately the reaction that the Hungarian border is better protected. We don’t know if that is true, but it is good to understand how people think, to accept it and to work upon the elimination of suspicions. By itself a Danubian Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen would not help with anything for the resolution of the problems in justice, but it would show the Europeans that we trust one another. And with the passing of time, Europeans could see if their suspicions were unjustified and could give us more trust.

Isn’t the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism compromised? When the governments in Romania and Bulgaria are allied with the European People’s Party, the reports show progress, but when they are opposed the reports are negative. A lot of supporters of Laura Kövesi in Sofia believe that the Bulgarian prosecution is unreformed and stalinist, but the CVM supervision for Bulgaria is on the road to be eliminated without any significant condemnation of a politician for corruption. At the same time, Romania has travelled a long way and had a lot of condemned politicians for corruption, but receives negative reports, because the PSD government chose to change the balances in justice…

I see the CVM as a simple instrument. We know well that each instrument can be used in many ways, but that doesn’t compromise it. For example, a knife can be used for cutting bread or for murder of a man. The knife will not be compromised, if it is used in a wrong way or for an immoral goal. We will not ban the knife in this case, won’t we? But the knife can be compromised, if it is not sufficiently sharp. What I say with this metaphor is that the CVM is a good instrument, but could be criticised that it is not sufficiently sharp. It seems to me indisputable that Romania and Bulgaria have made faster progress under the MCV, that they would have done had they been left without CVM. It seems also obvious that Romania and Bulgaria have still a lot to do until they reach the European standards. But the goal of CVM is not to take the two countries to these standards, but to assure that they make irreversible progress in the direction, which will lead to the standards. Evidently, Bulgaria has convinced that although it hasn’t resolved all the problems, it is moving irreversibly in the right direction. Romania has demonstrated that it has deviated from the right way and moved in a wrong direction. I think that these things are not related to the European People’s Party, especially because Mr. Timmermans (the eu commissioner on justice in the Juncker commission), who is a social democrat, was the greatest critic of the PSD government in Bucharest on the issues of CVM.

Aren’t the political motives for the rejection of entry in Schengen to Romania and Bulgaria explained by the specific geopolitical position of these two countries? They are in the middle between the West and the East, historically and culturally seem to have more similar things with the Northern East (Eurasia) and the Southern East (the Middle East)? How can this cultural and geopolitical fault line between these countries and Western Europe be overcome?

I don’t understand geopolitics and I don’t think that there are cultural factors, which predetermine a country’s destiny. I think that if we take a decision for the road to be followed and if we work seriously in this direction, we can overcome any obstacle. It seems to me relevant that ordinary Romanians and Bulgarians integrate excellently in Western Europe, when they go to work there. There they suddenly feel they are respected and appreciated for their qualities, and this motivates them to become better day by day. What is key is to construct the state on this principle – the respect and appreciation for every citizen. Then we will see that Romanians and Bulgarians who remain in their home, will become better day by day. There is no magic in that, just a lot of common sense.

If we return to the idea of a Romanian-Bulgarian Schengen, we see that the foreign policy elites of the two countries haven’t articulated such an idea in media and it seems that they haven’t thought on it. We need to note that the economic and tourist relations between the two countries are excellent, but there are no major projects for bilateral cooperation in their foreign policy. Both countries construct very slowly the infrastructure, which connects them. How can we expect such a high level lof cooperation as the one in the case of an open border? Wouldn’t our societies have to develop in the spirit of cooperation, before that states open reciprocally?

I think that I will be criticised a lot, but I claim that there is lack of good sense in our politics. I explain. We can call it lack of vision too. Foreign policy seems to me too much concentrated on the relations with the big actors on the international scene, while it seems to ignore the eventual valuable relations with the mid-sized and small actors. I am not an expert in international relations, but this seems to me an approach from the XIX century, when it was obligatory to position yourself in a certain influence zone. From this point of view, it seems to me that Bucharest ignores its relation with Sofia, just as it ignores the relation with Ljubljana, Helsinki, Lisbon or Copenhagen. I think that Sofia does the same in the opposite direction. If our states don’t support or encourage in any way the direct cross-border cooperation, we will not have substantial European integration. The road from Varna to Brussels, or from Suceava to Athens depends on this integration. That is why I speak about lack of common sense. We can imagine that we can travel with the airplane, but the cow milk or the mutton need cheaper means of transport. The good practices of the local administration in Varna can be applied in Suceava, but only if people meet, know one another, discuss, share their problems, needs and aspirations. Only then we will be able to say that we work together on reciprocally advantageous solutions – therefore European integration has succeeded. Thisi spirit of cooperation could appear from itself, only if the states support and encourage the existence and appearance of way of communication. But our politicians, led by an understandable inferiority complex, believe that only lessons from the Germans are valuable. This is lack of practical common sense. Germans (French of Swedish) no longer have problems like ours to resolve. These problems are face bus us, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greece, Croatians, Baltic people. But I don’t see somebody taking care – neither in Sofia, nor in Bucharest, so that we could open reciprocally to man-to-man, peer-to-peer forms of cooperation. We haven’t achieved a lot even with the bridges over the Danube.

Aren’t Romania and Bulgaria as foreign policy elites, too occupied with the changes in the international relations in the times of Trump and don’t have the resource to be proactive in such a bilateral initiative? Romania has a foreign policy vector towards the Republic of Moldova, while Bulgaria pretends that it must be the guide of Western Balkans towards the EU Where is the unexplored potential of the foreign policy for reciprocal activity of both countries? Does it exist in the NGO sector? In media? In other domains, where change could be made through soft power?

I don’t think that it is a luxury and that is why we don’t allow ourselves to do it. I think that we have “sight barriers of horses” – we see only in the direction of “the great powers” and lose from our sight a lot of opportunities, which are extremely valuable, in the mid-sized and small countries around us. I recommend a more applied discussion with my colleagues at Global Focus, a non-governmental organisation, specialised in this domain, on the question of the unexplored potential in foreign policy. They have already constructed a database with experts who can “export” the experiences of Romanian transition to other countries and publish regularly analyses on what happens in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Neighbourhood of the EU in the magazine “Eastern Focus”

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