5 December, 2023
Interview with the president of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers on the idea of lifting border controls between Bulgaria and Romania
The authors of the Romanian petition, initiated by Răzvan Niculescu, which became a European resolution to put pressure on Austria regarding its position on the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to Schengen (source: Rzvan Niculescu)

Vladimir Mitev

Dimitar Dimitrov is the executive director of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers. In December 2022, he and his organisation declared their support for the abolition of border controls between Bulgaria and Romania. The Friendship Bridge blog wanted to find out how he sees the same idea about a year later.

What is the attitude of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers towards the Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen and what are the economic, political and other reasons for your attitude towards it? 

Both we and most European countries believe that Bulgaria and Romania meet the requirements for Schengen accession. The behaviour of Austria and the Netherlands is discriminatory against both countries and unfair. However, as long as countries play politics and diplomacy, the economic consequences for our two countries and for the whole European Union are enormous. Because stubbornness has a price, but it is paid by European consumers. Every HGV loses €10 an hour while it sits pointlessly and unnecessarily at the border. Romania estimates its losses at €10 billion a year. 

Europe must be seen as a whole. This is not the Union’s idea. And the big picture shows that transport in the eastern part of the continent faces very serious challenges – the war in Ukraine has led to ferries in the Black Sea being stopped because of the risks and insurance companies refusing to insure goods. This has increased the flow of heavy goods vehicles overland and strained border crossings. This situation cannot continue, even temporary solutions have to be taken and implemented, as the freight route from the East to Central and Western Europe passes through the Balkans. 

The Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen is a logical reaction to this crisis and is our response to the unfair refusal we have received, and several times. Europe must decide whether the Balkans are part of the continent or not. If it has difficulties, it should go back to history and examine the strategic importance and position of our countries. I do not want to use the term ‘convincing factor’, because that is not the language we should use, but the facts are clear – Bulgaria and Romania meet all the requirements for admission to Schengen and yet they are refused. In this situation, Bulgaria and Romania can conclude an agreement between themselves, or even with other countries, and the European Commission will be informed. 

The market must listen to consumers. And our accession to Schengen will have an effect on them because it will reduce transport costs, which form the price of any good. This raises a reasonable question about the motives of Austria and the Netherlands, their aggressive stance towards our countries and the bland silence of the other Member States. 

What would be the benefits of removing border controls between Bulgaria and Romania – in figures and overall? What do you expect a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen to change for the two countries, their businesses and ordinary citizens/people? What would they have to lose by implementing such an idea?

The benefits are obvious – faster transport of goods and passengers, which will immediately be reflected in the price and lead to a reduction of the price. We need to think more and more about price and price optimisation as military conflicts affect the price of oil. Fuel is a major factor in determining the price of the transport service. These processes are not up to us, but reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and administrative burdens on the sector will lead to a reduction in direct costs, a reduction in artificially long waiting times at border crossings. Let’s make no mistake – waiting at borders does not increase control. It is simply a waste of time and money. If the European Commission wants to increase control, that is a subject for another discussion, and it can be conducted in a meaningful and partnership-based way. However, the position of Austria and the Netherlands is neither partnership nor constructive. Signing an agreement between Bulgaria and Romania would give a clear signal that we are countries with a position and that we are strong partners. I believe this is to the benefit, not the detriment of Europe. 

I call on the members of the European Commission to make an objective report on the pressure of migrants in Europe and on the route of migrants at this time. Look at Italy, where the problem is much more serious than the potential problem in Bulgaria and Romania. Let’s talk openly about migrants and find a solution together. Restricting the transport of goods and passengers is not a solution, it is sweeping the problem under the carpet and a political diversionary move. 

To what extent is there political support for this idea – where do you find agreement and cooperation for its implementation and what arguments are used to deny you those politicians who do not support it?

We have great relations and full understanding from the majority of Bulgarian MEPs. We believe that we are a full member of the EU and that we have equal rights in European markets. At least that’s what the accession documents say, but it seems we don’t. I think the question is not whether we have support at political level, but what our national position is on this. At the moment, the Bulgarian Government is using all mechanisms to get us to join Schengen. If it turns out that all possibilities have been exhausted, then it will turn its efforts in another direction – towards a mini-Schengen. 

How do you assess the level of support for this initiative from Romania? What other elements could a closer cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania contain?

This cooperation is a fact. At the end of April, there was a meeting of Bulgarian and Romanian MEPs, which Bulgaria hosted. Mayors of Danube municipalities and business representatives were also present. The Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers was a participant. We have not only the initiative but also the expertise. In spite of all this, I believe that the main efforts of both countries are aimed at full Schengen accession, and this is the reason why not all possible efforts are being made to create a mini-Schengen.

To what extent do the European institutions, and in particular the European Commission, view a Bulgarian-Romanian mini-Schengen positively and would encourage closer cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania in a situation where the two countries remain in the internal semi-periphery of an EU that increasingly seems to be moving in more and more gears?

They hardly have a positive point of view. A mini-Schengen would be a failure for the European Commission and a failure for the idea of a union and a single market. In a way, I understand the position of Austria and the Netherlands – I don’t accept it, but I understand their consistency and their arguments. I do not understand the lack of adequate reaction from the other Member States. If countries within the EU start making agreements with each other because of laziness, sloth or lack of determination on the part of the Union, this completely undermines its functioning. Therefore, the reasoning behind any decision is very important, as is the assessment of the risk and its effect.

Photo: Dimitar Dimitrov (source: Dimitar Dimitrov)

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