What can Romania and Bulgaria do to reduce the queue on their border crossings?
Doru Dragomir of the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce Romania-Bulgaria shares a number of ideas for easing of the traffic burden on the Bulgarian-Romanian border and tells what his organization has been proposed as solutions
Vladimir Mitev talks to Doru Dragomir – the president of the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce Bulgaria Romania, about the annual summer problems at the Bulgarian-Romanian border crossings – the long queues of vehicles. Doru Dragomir tells about a number of ideas that Bilateral Chamber of Commerce has proposed to both governments – such as electronic payment of the bridge tax, special subscription cards or green lines for people who travel for work. He also says that right now there is a not-well-known possibility for payment of the bridge tax on the Romanian side of the border through pre-paid vouchers – a possibility known and used mostly by Romanian transport companies. Vladimir Mitev mentions that the two countries theoretically could try to create their own space without border control, something like a mini-Schengen. At the end Doru Dragomir tells about some good practices that have been applied – e.g. the small trucks now have a fast lane at the Rousse-Giurgiu border crossing.
The recording of the interview can be heard here:
Welcome to an extraordinary edition of the podcast, which the Bridge of Friendship blog does with the President of the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce, Bulgaria- Romania, , Doru Dragomir. Our topic today is very current. Every summer there are large queues on the border between Bulgaria and Romania on both sides. A lot of long vehicles, trucks, wait for days to pass, and also many people who travel for tourist purposes or just travel just past the border, have to wait for long periods, sometimes hours in order to pass.
So let us start with that. We will discuss what can be done and also the own experience of Doru. Dragomir is somebody who is acting in the Bulgarian-Romanian space and offering some solutions. So, first of all, Doru, what is your own impression? You have passed this border many times this summer. So what do you see when you pass the border?
I would say that nothing it’s changed. Or at least if we are comparing with the last two years and the pandemic situation and the restrictions, this year, it’s a little bit worse than the last two years due to the fact that the vast majority of Romanians that are traveling just for tourism are going outside the country. And as we know, one of the main destinations for Romanians’ holidays is Greece. And Bulgaria is a destination too.
I saw the last figures for Bulgaria this year. Romanians are the number one in terms of the community of tourists that visit the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Almost 500,000 Romanians were registered this year on the resorts of the Black sea coast of Bulgaria. According to the latest statistics, about 4 million Romanians are travelling across Bulgaria to Greece, Turkey every year, especially in the summertime in the peak season of holidays. And of course, the results of this intense travelling can be seen on the border area, especially on the border points where they can pass directly. That means the two bridges at Rousse-Giurgiu and Vidin-Calafat and the area of east on the seacoast where again they can pass directly. There you can see huge queues, as you said earlier.
Indeed, in my last couple of travels, I waited around 40 minutes to one hour, in Rousse-Giurgiu especially, even though the border police in both countries, Romania and Bulgaria, did whatever they could to speed up the process. When we are talking about huge volumes of cars and people, it’s complicated.
The main problem from the Bilateral Chamber’s point of view, it’s related with the fact that this is somehow interfering with the normal business travels, because the companies should send people over the border, they should send their employees, they should send their management, they should send their representatives. And we are not talking about the people that are working as transborder employees and they are traveling each day. For them, it’s a huge problem due to the fact that we are not having any type of, let’s say, differentiator between the people that are going and passing as a tourist and the people that are passing for economic reasons. And that is one of the fights that the Bilateral Chamber has been doing for a long period of time. We did a lot of activities in the relations with authorities in order to help the businesses to pass the border a little bit faster.
So what can be done in your view and in the view of the Chamber of Commerce?
Well, I can tell you what we already did as steps. We proposed to both authorities in Romania and Bulgaria to create a kind of green line for business in the border, green line like the diplomats have. But for the business, unfortunately none of the Romanian or Bulgarian authorities agreed with this type of solution. We also propose to them to create some kind of subscription fee for paying the taxes. For passing the border, especially in Rousse and Giurgiu. And unfortunately, again, none of the authorities agreed with this type of solution, there is just a solution for paying somehow upfront the tax for the bridge for the big trucks. This is valid in Romania. You can pay, you can take some kind of vouchers. You pay them upfront and you are having the possibility to pass, I don’t know, 10 times, 20 times, depending on how many vouchers you are paying. But unfortunately, this is used mainly by the Romanian truck companies. The Bulgarians either are not knowing about this facility, or they are not using it. Nevertheless, the number of companies that are using it for their trucks is not that relevant at this moment.
Another request that we had for the authorities in order to support the business was to create some kind of solution to pay the tax for the bridge electronically like it is the case to pay the vignette in Romania and Bulgaria, electronically. Basically, you can also pay this tax, also this initiative of the chamber was rejected by authorities on both sides with different reasons. It’s not the place and the time to discuss the reasons that they are having. But we had these initiatives in the last years. And we are considering that something should be done, because unfortunately, in between Romania and Bulgaria, as we know and we are discussing for years, we are having a huge problem with the infrastructure that is connecting the two countries. And if we are not having the infrastructure, we have to find other solutions. If we would have had, I don’t know, ten bridges over the Danube for sure, would not have been a problem to travel between Romania and Bulgaria.
I can tell you that the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been making announcements in the last one month, I think every week, to the Romanian citizens that are traveling to Bulgaria to use all the possible travel points and border crossing points. But of course, it’s much easier to pass the bridge than to wait for the ferry în Silistra-Călărași or Oreahovo-Bechet. Also, in the last two weeks, we are having a problem with the level of the Danube and some of the ferries were stopped. In Bechet and Oreahovo they are not working in the last two weeks. So it is not just the fact that there are a lot of tourists. It’s also the nature that it’s somehow giving us some signs that maybe it is time to get back to the initial idea and to do something about the infrastructure between our countries.
So what is going on, in fact, with these discussions about more bridges on the Danube? Let me remind you that the government of Kiril Petkov announced that possibly five bridges could be built between Bulgaria and Romania, and some talks were initiated on that, especially with regards to Rousse-Giurgiu, where a new bridge could be built. What is going on now in this regard?
Based on our information, and you know that we are involved a lot on this topic, starting from the Bilateral relationship Romania-Bulgaria up to the level of Three Seas Initiative, all of these initiatives having in mind the infrastructure between Romania and Bulgaria… Yes, we are having these so-called legends about five, six bridges over the Danube. The last talks about this, I heard the mayor of Giurgiu a couple of months ago saying, okay, everything is set. We’re going to have five, six bridges over the Danube. But again, talking about our information from the moment of the visit of Kiril Petkov in Bucharest in the spring, I didn’t show any concrete actions in this direction.
More than that, when you are talking about infrastructure, you cannot talk just about the bridge. Okay. The bridge will be made, sooner or later. The problem is how we are connecting that bridge with the rest of the infrastructure of the country. And unfortunately, Romania and Bulgaria in this moment, Romania on its southern part and Bulgaria on its northern part, are not really having an infrastructure to connect the bridges, when those bridge will be made. Rousse-Giurgiu can be done – the second bridge, there is no problem. The question is from Rousse, where exactly we are going to go with the traffic, because there is no highway, no fast road in the area. From Giurgiu, it is going to get to Bucharest quite fast. And from there we are going to link to the to the highways of Romania, to Constanta and the West eventually. But except of Rousse-Giurgiu in Romania there is no close connection to the high-speed infrastructure for the trucks. And now we are getting back to the long queues of trucks on both bridges, Rousse-Giurgiu and Vidin-Calafat.
And I can give you a simple example. I was having some talks with a company from Razgrad. It’s 60 kilometers from Ruse. That means about 120 kilometers from Bucharest. There they are making furniture and the owner of the company told me when I asked of course, how much from your business it’s done with Romania and mainly with Bucharest.. And he told me, unfortunately, even though Romania, it’s a market that it’s interesting for me in terms of prices, in terms of requests and so on, we are not doing so much business with Romania. And I ask, okay, why is this happening? And he explained to me: ”If I’m putting the furniture in my own truck, so he’s having his own transport trucks, and I’m sending it to Bucharest for 120 kilometers. My truck is going to travel for three days because we’re going to travel 2 hours to Rousse, we’re going to wait there about 24 hours plus minus. We’re going to go to Bucharest another 2 hours. Unload, come back to Giurgiu and wait there another 24 hours. For business, this time that they are spending just waiting, is just loss of money.
And I’m not even talking about the level of the prices. If you are asking a transport company to move some stock from Rousse to Bucharest, you’re going to have the surprise that the prices that they are asking are huge compared with the amount of kilometers in between the two cities. And it’s normal to ask these huge prices because they are spending a lot of money just waiting in the queue without doing anything. So from the business point of view, the companies, the businesses, the community of business are losing a lot of money due to the lack of infrastructure in between us.
Let us explain here to our international listeners, especially those from Western Europe, that Bulgaria and Romania are not members of the Schengen space, and that is the reason why such large queues appear. And in fact the transport sector in both countries is very much interested, in both countries, into the Schengen area. There has not been political will for that for more than a decade and there are always hopes that maybe this political will appear. But of course, this is something which is maybe even geopolitical. It deals with a certain balance between various international forces. So, Bulgaria and Romania are not members of the Schengen area.
But let me say that there have been some ideas that maybe a mini-Schengen space between Bulgaria and Romania is possible, and some people argue that it is not possible legally. But we need to remember that during the coronavirus, when the Schengen area broke apart in the EU. In fact there were a few mini-Schengen areas such as the Baltic countries or other areas. So, it is an issue which I may like generally to put for discussion to the public in our countries, because the existence of a Schengen area shows a certain level of trust and it also requires the institutions of the states to have a higher level of cooperation. It also means no queues for the transport. It also advances the economic dynamic between the countries. So these are the positives, but maybe there is apparently the fact that this idea is not discussed by anyone in our media suggests that maybe there are some obstacles or there are some there is some unwillingness, some bad side to that idea. And maybe you know yourself why that such idea is not being discussed? Maybe it’s not realistic with regard to our countries?
Well, first of all, I also have some information that based on the Schengen convention, Romania and Bulgaria are not able to do this as a Schengen as you are calling it, mini-Schengen. It’s an old idea. Everybody was talking about it. And we would like to use this concept of mini Schengen. But I would say that we don’t have to put it like this. We have to put it in terms of trust.
We don’t have to forget that the main reason the European Union countries are refusing to agree that Romania and Bulgaria to be part of Schengen is related to corruption. And in other words, it means that basically the Western European countries are saying that they are not trusting Romania and Bulgaria as border countries of the European Union, that they will not allow to enter in European Union goods that are not normally being allowed in the Union.
Now, the question about trust, is not necessarily if the Western Europeans are trusting Romania and Bulgaria for our borders, internal borders, between Romania and Bulgaria. I think it’s also the trust between the two countries because if on the governmental level, it will be of some kind of interest to do something about it, for sure some solutions can be found. Maybe not on the level of having free traffic between the two countries on the border. But to make something different.
I’m not an expert on this area. As a result, I don’t want to give ideas and solutions because I don’t know if they are fitting or not. But as a person that is travelling extensively between Romania and Bulgaria, I can tell you that the main problem is related with the trust between the two governments in Bucharest and Sofia, because if the government would say: “Yes, let’s find a solution”. I’m pretty convinced that the experts on both areas could find some solutions not to solve it 100%, but at least to increase the possibility of fast transport between the two countries. Now, what happened in the last years with Schengen and the European Union during the pandemic, it’s a totally different story. And we can discuss this in a potential next interview discussion.
With regards to just Romania and Bulgaria, I would say that some of the steps are made because I don’t want to be 100% negative. And just to say: “This is not working, this is not working.” You know that we have to be positive. We have to appreciate the things that are done properly. And I can tell you that, for example, on the border, Ruse, Giurgiu, there is a green line now for small trucks. They are having a different line than the rest of the cars and they are passing much faster. That increased the speed and the quality of the service of the courier companies, between Romania and Bulgaria. Three, four years ago, if you wanted to send some documents between Bucharest and Sofia, it would take you three days to have a small envelope with documents. Now it’s maximum 24 hours, and this is a huge step further. And it’s not about documents. It’s about a lot of small stocks that it’s moved from Romania to Bulgaria. I know that this year, for example, the authorities and the embassies in both countries were discussing a lot about opening or reopening the ferry line between Ruse and Giurgiu. For now, it’s still not operational, but I know that they are talking and they are trying to do something about this, to increase, again, the level of trucks mainly, and the cars that are passing from one side to another of the Danube. So, some steps are done. Now, the question is how fast we are able to move further with this.
On the level of the Chamber, we already had some discussions with the Ministry of Transport of Romania about the taxation of the bridge, to see if we can move further. As I told you initially with the electronic taxation, to be able somehow to pay by SMS or other electronic solutions. We are still on the level of waiting the authorities to decide which is the best solution for them and for the business. And from there further to start implementing those solutions that they are going to find.
Thank you very much for this discussion. It’s important that there are people who think about solutions and have ideas. And I hope the ideas which you shared now with us, which we discussed about, will somehow have realization and further expansion. So thanks for this discussion and I hope it was useful for our listeners in both countries and internationally.
Thank you too. And one more important thing that I want to tell you before we are closing, was the idea that I gave to everybody, all the authorities, all the stakeholders in both of the countries, if they are needing support from the business community, ideas from the business community, we are more than open to join the efforts in order to improve the quality of transport and connection and interconnection between Romania and Bulgaria. They just have to tell us what they are needing from the business and the business is ready to support.
Photo: The New Europe bridge at Vidin-Calafat (source: PIxabay, CC0)
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