Bulgaria-Romania ties blossom after EU accession
Relations between Bulgaria and Romania have flourished since they joined the Union in January 2007, Romanian Socialist MEP Victor Bostinaru told EurActiv in an interview, calling for regional cooperation to be extended to the whole Black Sea area.
Victor Bostinaru, who is an historian by training, sits in Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development and the Delegation for relations with the countries of South-Eastern Europe
As a MEP you have been promoting regional cooperation. What’s new in this field, especially since Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in January 2007?
To better describe relations, I will start with a negative example. A high profile objective has always been building a new bridge over the Danube [Vidin-Calafat will be the second bridge over more than 300km separating Bulgaria and Romania, the first one at Ruse-Giurgiu having been built in 1954]. This bridge could have been completed a long time ago, and I should congratulate the Bulgarian side for their commitment to this extremely important project, but not the commitment of the Romanian side in the past, especially when Mr. Traian Basescu [now the President of Romania, then Minister of Transport] was opposing the project. But things change and I don’t want to be pessimistic.
The most important and relevant projects are in the transborder infrastructure and environment issues. And let me add that Romania and Bulgaria’s projects also involve Serbia. I think this is very important in view of Serbia’s EU accession perspectives, which we strongly support.
Another major project is the ‘Union for the Black Sea’. This project, initiated by the Socialist Group, will be officially presented in Sofia on 17 October, in the presence of a high level delegation of the Socialist Group. Again, it’s a regional cooperation project which does not involve just EU members, but it concerns an area which is becoming more and more vital for Europe, bringing EU members and non-EU members such as Turkey as a candidate country, Ukraine and Moldova as countries who wish to join the Union and a country which will probably never express the wish to join the EU – Russia. It’s an area where major pipelines will be built and where the need to achieve stability and security is a very high priority, especially in the light of the recent Georgia crisis.
But this is not the first initiative for the Black Sea region. The EU has a role to play in the recently-launched Black Sea Synergy initiative, while another forum, called Black Sea Economic Cooperation, was established in the early nineties. Don’t you think the region needs concrete projects more than political declarations?
Indeed, there is often a lack of consistency between the political will and the concrete achievements. Back to the second bridge [at Vidin-Calafat], Bulgaria and Romania should join forces not only to build one new bridge, but several. Two bridges to take the entire truck traffic between Asia and Europe is almost nothing. And we should also do more to eliminate the fee for crossing the Guiurgui-Ruse bridge. This is another project where the two Socialist delegations are cooperating, somehow against the will of the Romanian Government.
Sorry for blaming my government, but here, I would like to stress that together with Adrian Severin [MEP from Romania, PES], we have discussed the issue with our socialist friends in Sofia, we have sent a letter to Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev asking him to eliminate the Bulgarian fee – it’s eight euros tax to be paid on the Bulgarian side and another 8.50 euros on the Romanian side – and now the ministers of transport of the two countries are meeting over the issue, with a good chance that the fee will be eliminated.
Specialists comparing Bulgaria and Romania to Western countries with regard to the Danube noticed that the two countries make little use of the river as the cheapest and cleanest transport route.
I completely share this view. Now is the time for the two countries to come up with joint projects, and I’m sure the European Commission will support them. Bulgaria and Romania should develop an automatic reaction to develop joint projects for the Danube, for example environment-related. This could have a huge impact for safeguarding the unique ecosystem of the Danube delta.
What has changed between Romania and Bulgaria since the accession?
Before the accession the level of contact and of cooperation was very modest. Both countries kept the focus on Brussels, neglecting their neighbours. This was highly counterproductive for our bilateral relations. Since we joined the EU, the European behaviour of cooperation between neighbours becomes more and more our behaviour too. And the change is almost unbelievable.
Tens of thousands of Romanians started going on holidays in Bulgaria, for very good reasons: the service is good, the prices are lower, and also because the tourist industry in Bulgaria is more advanced. Also road and traffic conditions are better in Bulgaria. I also go on holidays in Bulgaria and my experience is excellent. From Bucharest to Ruse, then Shumen, I reach Zlatni Pyassatsi [at the Black Sea] in less than four hours. Also many Bulgarian businessmen are becoming active in Romania where they take advantage of a larger market. And many people travel for cross-border shopping, for example many Romanians go to the hypermarkets in Ruse, because prices are lower and quality is good. But also Bucharest is the biggest airport for the northern part of Bulgaria. More and more Bulgarians are flying to Europe from Bucharest. Also Romanians go to the Romanian Black Sea through Bulgarian territory, because it’s more convenient, the roads are better.
People are starting to learn the language of the neighbours, and my Bulgarian is getting better. On a personal level, I am discussing with a Bulgarian friend, Professor Vladimir Dossev, how to develop regional projects between our universities, in Varna and Constanta. Not only would the students be trained to contribute to regional projects, but also these universities could develop as a training hub for the entire region.
Back to the Black Sea regional projects, experience shows that Russia is reluctant to take full part in them, or fears that the EU and NATO would claim the Black Sea from them through such projects. How would you expect this to change considering the worse climate following the Georgia crisis?
The project we will be launching in Sofia is open to Russia. We can shape it together and then it would take into account the sensitivities of the different actors. If problems of energy and security are adequately addressed, this project may even contribute to lowering the current tensions.
In any case, the project is not about NATO, it’s not about spheres of influence. On the contrary, it’s about fostering cooperation while lowering tensions and risks and I think Russia will find its interest in the project. Because if Europe is addicted to Russian gas and oil, Russia is also addicted to the European markets. The cheapest way for Russia to export its oil and gas is to do it in Europe. That’s why we are optimistic about having Russia aboard.
How concerned are you that Russia will unfreeze the Transnistria conflict based on recent developments in Georgia?
There are similarities, but also differences in the two cases. The Transnistrian dossier does not concern only Romania, it’s on the table of the EU. My feeling is that if Romania and Moldova work together with the EU to enhance the European commitment toward Moldova, and to have the EU onboard for negotiating the Transnistrian dossier, we might reach an acceptable deal and avoid the scenario you alluded to.
But I’m disappointed with the Romanian government’s handling of the Moldova dossier, which is a defeat for Romanian foreign policy, considering Romania is an EU member. Romania should help Moldova’s European project in a more consistent way. The case of Moldova is easier for Europe compared to other countries. And now, after the Georgian crisis, I feel a greater interest from the EU with regard to Moldova. We should think strategically.
Also strategically, if the EU wants to do more for Ukraine and Moldova, wouldn’t an initiative for visa-free travel greatly help these countries and bring them together with the Union?
It’s feasible, and Europe also needs such initiatives for the sake of its labour market. Also the Western countries should be aware that the current trend of Romanian and Bulgarian workers going west will stop. Therefore such an initiative is timely under many aspects.
Romania has important insight into Russia as a country situated close by which bordered the USSR in the past. Do Western countries take advantage of this expertise? Do Romanian opinions carry weight in European decision-making?
The answer is no. One reason is that in Western capitals perceptions about Russia are almost theoretical, and the post-war memories are highly different. But even in Romania, there are no clear views on Russia. I don’t completely share the vision of the current Romanian Government on Russia.
Do you think it has been too hawkish?
We should face realities. Romania needs to improve its own relations with Russia, as do many other EU members which recently joined the Union, and also Bulgaria, with a sense of modesty. We should be wise enough not to provoke Russia, not make inconsiderate statements about Russia, because Russia is important as a major trading partner. Let me mention also that in our case the deficit is extremely high. Russia is a vital, strategic partner for Europe not only in energy-related matters, but in terms of peace. Europe should be more pragmatic. It should design a common European energy policy with Russia.
The Lisbon Treaty in fact provides for such a shift, but do you think that you, the politicians, explained this to the Europeans?
Not enough, not enough in my country and certainly not enough in Ireland. And in the absence of the Lisbon Treaty Russia is taking advantage of the situation and this is why we are experiencing these tensions. Those campaigning against the treaty in Ireland should be aware of the consequences, but I don’t think they are.