In January, Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev and his Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to increased cooperation regarding trade, tourism, transport, energy and the economy.
The Danube River has been a driving force for trade and economic development in Central and Southeastern Europe since antiquity. Major cities such as Budapest and Belgrade have been founded on its banks. Its significance in terms of economy and culture cannot be understated.
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However, the river has been making waves in recent months for very different reasons. Bulgaria and Romania’s ultimately futile shared bid to join Schengen in 2022 has sparked debate over the state of their shared border – a region both countries have neglected in recent history.
With the exception of Dobruja in the east, the Danube forms the vast majority of the two countries’ border. There are only two bridges between the two EU members – the Friendship Bridge linking Ruse and Giurgiu, and the New Europe Bridge (pictured above) linking Vidin and Calafat. As both countries look towards border security to bolster their chances of entering Schengen, the lacking infrastructure emerges as a key obstacle.
The Danube is crucial for the economic cooperation between both countries, but the systemic underinvestment in the region has taken its toll. To remedy this, Sofia and Bucharest are looking into massive infrastructure projects, including new bridges and hydropower plants.
A tale as old as time
The Danube is a vital artery for trade in Central Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire utilised it to link its vast territories. The Lower Danube splitting Bulgaria and Romania is a very different story. Its massive width – 1,700 metres at its maximum – has relegated it to a natural frontier for the Ottomans and the Romanian Principalities.
Once both countries gained independence, there was not much infrastructure to build upon. The socialist governments that took over shortly after continued the isolationist trend and the Iron Curtain became an obstacle for using the river as a link to Central Europe’s economies.
It is no surprise then that the regions surrounding the Danube are among the least developed in both countries. According to the National Statistical Institute, northern Bulgaria produces only 25 per cent of the country’s GDP, contains 35 per cent of the total population, but encompasses roughly half the country’s territory.
The Bulgarian economist Adrian Nikolov points out that northern Bulgaria is not only limited by its geography, but more importantly a lack of crucial infrastructure, citing “the development of the road network, especially the connections between economic centres”.
A similar situation can be observed across the border in Romania. The southern region of Oltenia has for years been one of the least developed in the EU, with talent often relocating to Bucharest. It is the same story in Bulgaria’s Severozapaden, the poorest region in the EU.
There are additional geographic obstacles to overcome. The Danube Delta located mostly in Romania is unfit for navigation due to its marshy terrain, difficulty to navigate and lacking railroad connections. For this reason, the Danube–Black Sea Canal was built during the Nicolae Ceaușescu era, linking the river to the major ports of Cernavodă and Constanța.
In order for Danubian harbours to reach both countries’ interior, roads and rail need to be built across the Balkan and Carpathian mountain ranges, a very expensive endeavour which both countries are neverthless exploring.
Building bridges, taking down walls
In order to ease trade, Sofia and Bucharest began feasibility studies in June 2022 for the construction of five new bridges. The Bulgarian authorities have allocated 7.7 million euros to dredge the river, but progress will be slow.
Furthermore, two shared hydropower plants were announced in January 2023, modelled after the successful Iron Gates plants Romania already operates together with Serbia. Bulgaria’s Minister of Energy Rosen Hristov confirmed that the plants are part of Bulgaria’s strategy for the energy sector until 2053 and will be built by the Romanian state company Hidroelectrica.
In order to overcome the geographic barrier of the Balkan Mountain Range separating the Danube from Bulgaria’s industrial south, three tunnels are also in the works.
These projects follow over a decade of investment into the region. A key driver for this is the EU’s Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR) which has promoted regional cooperation since 2010.
Cristina Cuc from the EUSDR’s Danube Strategy Point office in Bucharest tells Emerging Europe that, “As neighbouring countries, Romania and Bulgaria have a long-standing cooperation and are focusing their efforts on exploiting all the opportunities provided by regional cooperation formats (such as EUSDR) and financing mechanisms provided by EU in order to grow prosperity and attain sustainable development.”
“Recognising the economic importance of the Danube River, in the last few years Romania and Bulgaria have strengthened their cooperation,” she adds. “They have been focusing on joint investments to improve connectivity and developing tourism, energy production, environmental protection – all these contribute to the economic development of both countries and to improving the local people quality of life.”
A case for enlargement
Further European integration is key for increasing cross-border cooperation. The limited border crossings on the Danube mean that waiting times at border checkpoints can reach up to 40 hours, increasing the cost of importing and exporting goods.
The Romanian Minister of Economy Florin Spataru claimed shortly after the Austrian veto in December that being out of Schengen costs the Romanian economy 10 billion euros annually.
Bulgarian exporters, in turn, lose 100 million euros due to waiting times at the border according to Yordan Arabadzhiev, executive director of the Union of International Haulers.
Schengen is a natural solution to this and a big reason for both Sofia and Bucharest’s ambitions to join as soon as possible. While negotiations continue, a clear commitment to cooperation will only strengthen both countries’ position.
Increased cooperation is a long-term goal for both Bulgaria and Romania, one which has been in the works for decades. As the two countries deepen their cross-border links, the Danube River has the potential to become a source of prosperity for a historically neglected region.
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