29 September, 2023
Karadeniz Press on the current political issue and evolution in the Bulgarian-Romanian Relations
(source: Facebook)

Paul Popescu, Karadeniz-Press, 19 July 2023

Collaboration within NATO, the issue of Schengen accession and the complex realities of Balkan and Pontic geopolitics are forcing the authorities in Sofia and Bucharest to work together much more deeply than they are doing at the moment. Overcoming the obvious problems of collaboration, exacerbated by decades of mutual mistrust and a provincial mentality specific to the two political elites, the two EU and NATO member states need to identify as soon as possible a way to consolidate the strategic partnership and relaunch joint efforts to integrate into the Schengen area. The recent visit of Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov to Bucharest seems to give a boost to bilateral relations.

10 billion Leva

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is interested in investing in the construction of a second bridge between Ruse and Giurgiu, as well as in railway infrastructure projects in Bulgaria, a meeting between Transport and Communications Minister Georgi Gvozdeykov and EBRD representative in Bulgaria Anca Ionescu revealed on Tuesday, the Bulgarian Transport Ministry was quoted as saying by Bulgarian media, which was picked up by Bucharest media.”The construction of a new bridge across the Danube is a priority issue that needs to be solved quickly, as traffic along this route is increasing daily. We believe that Bulgaria and Romania, as two countries of the European family, should work together and in partnership with the European Commission for the implementation of this strategic project”, said the Transport Minister. He added that any support that will help the implementation of investments under the PNNR and other European programmes in the transport sector is important. “We have the necessary financial instruments, which gives us great opportunities to achieve our goals, but we need to significantly accelerate the work on their implementation,” Minister Georgi Gvozdeykov added.So far, the EBRD has invested more than 10 billion leva in transport projects in Bulgaria, i.e. about €5 billion. Its priority is a second bridge across the Danube at Ruse-Giurgiu, which is increasingly important at European level, Ionescu said, adding that it is ready for future discussions on the construction of a maritime logistics hub in the port of Varna-West. As for green transport, the EBRD wants to invest both in the rehabilitation of rail infrastructure and in the construction of electric vehicle charging stations.Gvozdeykov stressed that the Ministry is ready at expert level to immediately consider all EBRD proposals, taking into account the projects already planned under European support programmes.

Schengen target

The “excellent” relations between Romania and Bulgaria are also confirmed by the existence of the strategic partnership agreed between the two countries, Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu said during joint press statements with his Bulgarian counterpart Nikolai Denkov, who is on a working visit to Bucharest.”Today I discussed with Prime Minister Denkov the excellent relations between our countries, which are now confirmed by the existence of a strategic partnership agreed in March this year by the Presidents of the two countries. We had a substantial exchange of views on common priorities, with the aim of unlocking new areas of cooperation for the benefit of the economic development of our countries. Our discussions touched on areas of impact for our citizens, such as transport and energy,” Ciolacu said. He underlined the interest shown by both sides for the implementation of the European project that will ensure a navigable Danube, as well as for the construction of a second road bridge Giurgiu – Ruse.”Secondly, in the field of energy, we are considering, on the one hand, a better interconnection of natural gas transport corridors, but also a joint effort to diversify energy sources, along the lines proposed by the European Union to ensure the green transition,” said Marcel Ciolacu.According to him, the discussions also focused on the expansion of the Schengen area and the completion of the accession process of Romania and Bulgaria “as soon as possible”.”Already, after the recent installation of the Romanian and Bulgarian governments, our countries have made additional efforts to achieve this goal. We remain committed to strengthening European instruments for migration management and the protection of external borders (…) We have agreed to maintain direct dialogue with each other as well as with other European partners,” Ciolacu said.The Head of the Executive in Bucharest also underlined the interest in continuing close cooperation to promote stability and security in the Black Sea region. “I also discussed with Prime Minister Denkov the security situation in the Black Sea region, so deeply affected by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. We underlined the interest to continue the close cooperation between Romania and Bulgaria to promote stability and security in the Black Sea region and to keep the security developments in this region under allied attention”, Ciolacu said.

Strategic bridges

The construction of a second bridge at Ruse – Giurgiu has taken on a new dimension with the start of the war in Ukraine, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov said after talks with Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu at the Victoria Palace, but until the project is completed the Bulgarian official is pleading for a ferry line between the two cities to be put into operation as soon as possible to cope with the heavy traffic.”For years we have been discussing a second bridge at Ruse – Giurgiu. It is a very important link between Bulgaria and the capital Bucharest. This route took on a new dimension with the start of the war in Ukraine by Russia. It is part of the logistical direction in terms of preparing the defence of NATO’s eastern flank and we have every reason to speed up the planning, design and preparation of this bridge as soon as possible. That is why we discussed possible sources of funding. Both countries want it to be completed as soon as possible. At the same time, given that this task still requires time, we have also raised the issue of getting the Ruse – Giurgiu ferry line up and running as soon as possible, so that we can help this heavy traffic, which is linked both to the highly developed business relations between the two countries, but also to the need to relieve traffic congestion along economic lines. We also want to help tourists travelling in both directions,” said Nikolai Denkov.

On accession to the Schengen area, Nikolai Denkov stressed that Romania and Bulgaria have met all the accession criteria and that the process should be completed jointly by the two countries. “This is my first working visit and it is not by chance that it takes place in Romania. We are strategic partners, not only do we have an agreement signed in this regard, but there are several projects, which must be implemented, as they are for the benefit of our peoples and our states, which also have a European dimension. We need to compensate for the short time we have with much more intense activity. (…) First of all Schengen, we unanimously agree that we have met all the criteria that have been set by the European Union and it is also not by chance that we have a positive decision from the European Commission, from the European Parliament, we have to finalise the process and we have to finalise it together, in discussions, both at political level and at expert level with those states that still have certain reservations. We have made concrete plans of action between our Ministries of Interior, Border Police, at political level and we will work together with you to bring this process to a positive conclusion”, explained the Bulgarian Prime Minister.

“Obviously, we have to be very careful in what we say to people in our states, because not everything depends on us. There are internal processes, both in the Netherlands and in Austria, over which we have no control, but we have to do our best and say these things, both at European level and to the governments and parliaments of the Netherlands and Austria”, added Nikolai Denkov, quoted by Romanian media.

Military partnership

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said at the end of the NATO summit in Vilnius that air defence must be strengthened, pointing out that Romania will play an important role in the regional training hub for F-16 pilots to be built in Romania, together with the Netherlands and other international partners.”We have approached new possibilities for cooperation within NATO and in relation to the Alliance’s partners, to facilitate the development of capabilities and the defence industry, approaches that also favour the revitalisation of the Romanian defence industry. We also need to strengthen our air defence. This is why we have decided to set up a regional training hub in Romania, together with the Netherlands and other international partners, for Romanian F-16 pilots, but this hub will also be accessible to Allied and Ukrainian pilots. This is an important role that Romania has taken on”, said the head of state at the end of the NATO Summit.

He also announced at the NATO Summit the creation, together with Bulgaria, of a regional command dedicated to special forces, open to allies and partners.The two defence ministers, Angel Tîlvăr and his Bulgarian counterpart Todor Tagarev, signed a letter of intent to jointly establish a Regional Special Operations Component Command (R-SOCC). The event took place on the margins of the NATO Summit in Vilnius, marking the importance of the Baltic flank for the North Atlantic Alliance.Mr Tîlvăr highlighted the excellent cooperation between Romania and Bulgaria in the field of defence, both bilaterally and at allied and European level. He also thanked his Bulgarian counterpart for Sofia’s constant commitment to regional security and for the participation of military personnel in NATO-led projects in Romania within multinational commands.”Recognizing the strategic importance of the Black Sea region and the fact that this region has become a critical border for the new European and Euro-Atlantic security architecture, Romania and Bulgaria have decided to advance cooperation in the allied context by establishing this regional command for special operations. The regional special operations component command will be part of the measures to strengthen the deterrence and defence posture on the Eastern Flank,” MApN in Bucharest said, as quoted by the media.As a signal of the good military cooperation between the two countries, Bulgaria has sent soldiers and two ships (the mine hunter TSIBAR and the dredger SHKVAL) that will participate from 14 to 21 July in the exercise “Poseidon 2023”, organised annually, alternately, by Romania and Bulgaria.

“More than 750 military personnel from the Romanian Naval Forces, from other structures of the national defence system, as well as from Bulgaria, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States of America (NAVEUR, Alabama National Guard) and Turkey will carry out joint activities in the military port of Constanta and in the training districts on the western side of the Black Sea from 14 to 21 July, as part of the multinational tactical exercise ‘Poseidon 2023’, organised annually, alternately, by Romania and Bulgaria,” the source said.

The main objectives of Exercise “Poseidon 2023″ are to increase the level of interoperability between the participating structures, as well as to evaluate and certify the capabilities of the Romanian Naval Forces for NATO and EU missions and for national defence activities, the SMFN said, quoted by the media.”Also, ‘Poseidon 2023’ focuses on increasing the operational capabilities and training level of all participating forces, practicing NATO combat procedures and tactics, in a multinational joint context, in maritime, land and air environments, on the use of NATO rules of engagement and procedures for command, control and communications. The exercise is a good opportunity to reinforce the high level of planning, conduct and evaluation of specific mine action, surface combat and anti-aircraft activities,” the statement added.At the same time, during the exercise, the Romanian Naval Forces will also carry out specific activities to evaluate and verify the frigate “Regina Maria” (F-222) for the NATO Rapid Reaction Force (NRF 23) and the single force package made available by our country to NATO and the EU.

Schengen bomb

The European Parliament recently adopted a resolution based on a petition submitted to the EP by Romania’s civil society, calling for the legality of Austria’s veto against our country’s accession to the Schengen area to be challenged. In addition, the resolution asks the European Commission to calculate the financial losses suffered by Romania and Bulgaria by not joining Schengen and to find compensation mechanisms. The document was adopted with 526 votes in favour, 57 against and 42 abstentions, media report.The European Parliament points out that Romania and Bulgaria have already fulfilled the necessary requirements for admission to the Schengen area. MEPs regret the EU Council’s decision of 8 December 2022 to reject Schengen membership “without any legal justification related to the accession criteria having been presented”. An enlarged Schengen area without border controls would make the EU stronger, say MEPs, noting that all Member States have the right to join Schengen once they are ready. Romanians and Bulgarians are discriminated against The fact that Romania and Bulgaria are still outside the free movement area is a burden for businesses and people in the two countries in social and economic terms, say MEPs. Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are discriminated against as they face delays, bureaucratic difficulties and extra costs when travelling or doing business abroad, compared to their counterparts in the Schengen area. MEPs note that delays at border crossings faced by Romanians and Bulgarians can last from a few hours to days – compared to an average of 10 minutes without internal border checks – which also worsens working conditions for lorry drivers.In addition to the damage caused to the EU’s single market by obstructing the free movement of goods between European member states, the text mentions “irreparable damage” to the environment, which is not in line with the EU’s climate neutrality objectives. The health of drivers, customs officers and people living near border crossings is put at risk by the increased pollution caused by the many vehicles waiting to cross the border every day, with around 46,000 tonnes of CO2 emitted every year, according to MEPs. Compensation for Romania and Bulgaria The resolution calls on the European Commission to estimate the financial losses, foregone gains and environmental damage that Romania and Bulgaria have suffered since June 2011 as a result of the “negative and unjustified decision” taken on the two countries’ accession to the Schengen area and to examine possible mechanisms to compensate for the financial losses.

Russian propaganda

MEPs point out that the current situation “is instrumentalised by anti-EU propaganda, including Russian propaganda” and “undermines the EU’s ability to promote its values and good governance in countries outside the EU”. Currently, all EU Member States except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland and Romania are part of the Schengen area of free movement, which also includes non-EU countries (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). The European Commission has assessed that Bulgaria and Romania are ready to join Schengen, and the European Parliament has consistently supported the accession of the two countries, most recently in a resolution on 5 October 2022 and in a debate on 14 December 2022.

Well-known Bulgarian analyst Vladimir Mitev was recently quoted by Bulgarian media as saying that “my feeling is that Romania feels somewhat stronger, in the sense that the resolution clearly states that Austria is violating certain principles of the European Union, which was also written in Nicolescu’s own petition. And there is talk, as you said earlier, of discrimination against Bulgarians and Romanians, as well as compensation. In other words, this resolution now shows a clear political will, with more than 80% of MEPs voting in favour of it, that Austria should no longer be allowed to delay the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, that is to say Romania. On the one hand, I think there is still some hope.But, to continue the reasoning, I think in Romania they continue to be very cautious in their enthusiasm for Schengen. They are much more reserved. It seems to me, rather than the opinions in the Bulgarian press, perhaps because last December, when the last vote was taken on accession, there was an enthusiasm in Romania that was not justified. Then it took a different turn. So-called sovereignist views about the EU developed as a reaction to Romania’s refusal to be accepted into Schengen. And maybe that’s why they are now very cautious in Romania.”

Parliamentary diplomacy

Acceptance into the Schengen area, stability in the Black Sea area and the third bridge over the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria were topics discussed during the recent meeting between Bulgaria’s ambassador Radko Vlaykov and the chair of the foreign policy committee of the Chamber of Deputies, MEP Biro Rozalia-Ibolya (UDMR Bihor).”We discussed the possibilities of broadening bilateral cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania, taking into account not only foreign policy, but also certain priorities such as accession to the Schengen Area”, said the Chair of the Foreign Policy Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, the meeting taking place before the visit of the Bulgarian Prime Minister.

According to her, given that Bulgaria has had a new government for ten days, which is based on a coalition, it is very important that Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, not even two weeks after the formation of the cabinet in Sofia, has asked for a partnership and permanent collaboration with Romanian parliamentary structures (Foreign Policy, European Affairs and other committees).”Of course, we have on the one hand common interests in stability in the Black Sea region, which is a priority at the moment, and equally important, our acceptance into the Schengen Area. We are both countries in this situation, but that does not mean that we are linked together, each having our own path in this process, but the interest is indeed for both of us to enter the Schengen Area as soon as possible. That is why we also considered it necessary to discuss this possibility, the project of a third bridge over the Danube and ensuring navigability on the river, as well as the fact of organising in September a joint meeting in online format between the leaderships of the two Foreign Policy Committees, from Romania and Bulgaria”, said Romanian MEP Biro Rozalia-Ibolya, quoted by nass-media.

Nuclear brotherhood

Romanian and Bulgarian officials took part in a meeting of the 12 EU Member States in favour of nuclear energy on the margins of the informal meeting of EU energy ministers in Valladolid, Spain, on 12 July. Ministers from France, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden attended, with Belgium and Italy taking part as observers.Participants reaffirmed the key role of nuclear energy in ensuring the stability and resilience of the electricity grid throughout the European electricity market. They expressed the view that nuclear technologies and renewable energy sources complement each other in achieving the EU’s climate and energy security objectives. Ministers prepared a joint paper to the European Commission calling for adequate recognition and support for nuclear energy. They argued that the principle of technology neutrality and the sovereign right of member states to determine their energy mix should be properly taken into account in European policies.

Meeting with his Greek counterpart Theodoros Skylakakis, Minister Radev discussed the deepening of energy cooperation and the strategic development of energy links between the two countries. Enhancing the security of gas supply through the development of the necessary infrastructure, including the key infrastructure projects of the liquefied natural gas terminal near Alexandroupolis, the Greece-Bulgaria gas interconnector, as well as the Alexandroupolis-Burgas oil pipeline and dedicated hydrogen projects were also discussed.Strengthening bilateral cooperation in the field of electricity and gas connectivity was the subject of Minister Radev’s discussions with Romanian State Secretary in the Ministry of Energy Dan-Drago Drăgan.

Common interests

Agriculture Minister Florin-Ionuț Barbu will join his Bulgarian counterpart at the meeting of agriculture ministers in Warsaw to discuss solutions for the transport of grain in the context of the war in Ukraine, the release of warehouses and the export of part of the new harvest for Romanian farmers.According to a press release from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR), Minister Barbu will attend the meeting of ministers from Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova and Ukraine in Warsaw, the main topic being the situation on agricultural markets following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the measures to be taken to ensure fair competition rules for farmers in EU Member States and candidate countries.

At the end of the meeting, participants will sign a joint declaration by the agriculture ministers of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia on the need to extend EU preventive measures on certain products originating in Ukraine.Poland and Slovakia have called for a further extension of the embargo on Ukrainian grain until the end of this year, dismissing concerns that Russia’s decision to end an international agreement on the Black Sea corridor could disrupt food supplies, Bloomberg reports.

Ukraine’s two neighbors, along with Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, are currently applying restrictions on the purchase of grain from Ukraine until mid-September after an influx of cheap Ukrainian grain sparked protests among farmers in the five countries. The deal agreed by the European Union still allows grain to transit from Ukraine to other countries.”I don’t see any convincing argument for the current embargo to expire in mid-September. I hope that the embargo will not end, that we will be able to get it extended within our coalition of five EU member states,” Polish Agriculture Minister Robert Telus said Tuesday in an interview with a radio station.

The European Commission has previously signalled that it will gradually reduce and phase out “exceptional and temporary” restrictions affecting eastern European member states. Also, after Russia on Monday pulled out of an international agreement on the Black Sea corridor, Brussels announced it would “spare no effort” to support a stable delivery of agricultural products from Ukraine to world markets via so-called solidarity corridors.

Ukraine grateful

Recently, Kiev leader Volodimir Zelenski paid an official visit to Sofia, where he secured a promise from Bulgaria’s new pro-European prime minister Nikolai Denkov to increase Bulgaria’s military aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.The two did not detail to the press the agreed military aid, did not specify what arms and ammunition it would include, with Zelenski speaking only of a “defensive package, not an offensive one”, also mentioning that it included artillery. The aid also includes training and medical assistance for wounded Ukrainian soldiers.

Bulgaria is a major producer of ammunition, particularly compatible with Soviet-designed weapons in the Ukrainian army. Military aid to Ukraine is a controversial topic in Bulgaria, a country with strong traditional ties to Russia. While former pro-Western Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (who was sacked last year in a no-confidence motion) strongly supported giving Ukraine military aid, President Rumen Radev opposed it.Despite the president’s opposition, the Bulgarian government has been supplying Ukraine with arms and ammunition since the early days of the Russian invasion, but via third countries, and since then the Bulgarian arms industry has been working at full capacity, with record exports of some €4 billion last year.”

We can’t sit idly by and watch what is happening only hundreds of kilometres from our borders,” new prime minister Nikolai Denkov reasoned his agreement to further support Ukraine with military aid from Bulgaria after talks with Zelensky.

The latter also met in Sofia with his Bulgarian counterpart Rumen Radev, who was again reserved about giving Kiev military aid. He expressed concern about the dwindling stockpiles of the Bulgarian army on the one hand, and about fuelling the war with Russia on the other. “This conflict does not have a military solution and will not be solved by more and more weapons,” the Bulgarian president noted, urging “attention to a constant effort for de-escalation, ceasefire and the search for a peaceful solution through diplomacy”.Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski said in Sofia on Thursday, “I want to thank you, Bulgaria, for your support and protection of our people.”

Zelenski thanked Bulgaria for its support in the field of defence. “This is a defence package, not an offensive package. This is a package for parents to protect their children,” the Ukrainian president said, adding that at the beginning of the war Russian soldiers raped Ukrainian children, mass torture and mass burials took place. “We will continue the discussion on further treatment of Ukrainian soldiers in Bulgaria and training of medical personnel in Bulgaria,” Zelenski said.

The Ukrainian president called on Bulgaria to participate in the reconstruction of Ukraine in the educational and environmental spheres. “We discussed energy cooperation as part of the architecture of stability in each country. We need to protect people from price crises,” Zelenski said, expressing satisfaction that energy is becoming one of the priorities of cooperation between Bulgaria and Ukraine. He said the two sides also discussed cooperation in the sphere of European and Atlantic Euro-integration and signed a declaration. “I would like to note Bulgaria’s readiness to take part in these efforts,” Zelenski said, noting that consultations have been launched at the level of advisers and ambassadors and stressing that issues have started to be discussed at the level of ambassadors in Bulgaria. Zelenski said Bulgaria’s ambassador to Ukraine has not yet been appointed, adding that he would comment on the matter at his meeting with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev.

Current issues

Among the problems between Bulgaria and Romania is the issue of Romanian carriers transiting the Balkan state.Romanian road hauliers are obliged to park their trucks in Ruse only in the parking spaces of a private operator, which applies discriminatory and excessive tariffs for Romanian trucks compared to Bulgarian ones, in order to cross the border, reports the National Union of Romanian Road Hauliers (UNTRR), quoted by the media.According to the quoted source, the Ruse truck park was put into operation in June and is located near the Giurgiu border crossing with Romania.”

While the road transport industry is calling for the abolition of controls at the Romanian-Bulgarian border crossing points and the creation of special lanes to facilitate the passage of cars and trucks registered in Romania and Bulgaria, paradoxically, the Bulgarian authorities have supported the development of a private truck park on the land of the municipality of Ruse, which started operating in June this year without any official announcement, public and contact information on the web, email or media,” the release said.

According to the UNTRR, upon entering the parking lot, each truck is given a vibrating pager that beeps to notify the driver 10 minutes before his turn to cross the border.At the same time, Romanian drivers have to pay a discriminatory tariff of 25 euros when leaving the parking lot compared to Bulgarian drivers, who pay 3-4 times less, only 15 leva, about 7 euros.

On the other hand, Romanian hauliers complain that in Ruse Bulgarian and Ukrainian hauliers pass with priority, sometimes even without entering the car park, and if they enter last, they leave first before those who wait for more than 24 hours.

“This coordinated approach of the Bulgarian authorities violates EU principles and regulations which prohibit differentiated and discriminatory charging of hauliers based on nationality. If no measures are taken, this practice will spread and the border authorities will create longer waiting times in order to justify the establishment of such parking facilities and such abusive and discriminatory practices, which are contrary to the objectives of increasing the fluidity of movement of various means of transport within the Community, as set out in European Regulation No 1100/2008, which provides for the abolition of controls at the borders of the Member States in the field of road transport”, say UNTRR representatives.”Regrettably, the actions of the Bulgarian authorities are contrary to the claims of cooperation with the Romanian authorities to speed up the accession of the two countries to the Schengen area,” the press release added.

Harsh threats

In 2022, there were frequent situations where Romanian truck drivers were waiting up to three days to cross this border point, say the Union representatives.

UNTRR considers that the actions of the Bulgarian authorities, by obliging the use of this parking and differentiated charging, represent discrimination that cannot exist in the European Union. “If Bulgaria continues these practices, then we believe that Romania must decouple itself from Bulgaria with a view to joining the Schengen area, having nothing to lose in its relations with Bulgaria, where border crossing times are increasing anyway, but Romania can gain by eliminating waiting times at the border with Hungary, the border through which over 90% of Romania’s foreign trade road transport with EU countries is carried out,” the organisation’s representatives added.

UNTRR will continue to raise these issues with members of the Romanian Parliament, the European Parliament, the relevant Bulgarian authorities, including the competition authorities, until this situation is resolved.

Photo: The prime minister of Bulgaria Nikolay Denkov (right) and his Romanian counterpart Marcel Ciolacu in Bucharest (source: YouTube)

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