Ion Lixandru: The time has come for a large-scale Bulgarian-Romanian cooperation in infrastructure

Can Romania and Bulgaria cooperate in infrastructure development? (photo: Wikipedia)

The coordinator for Infrastructure and Transport at the Coalition for Romania’s Development has come out publicly with proposals for joint action between Romania and Bulgaria and infrastructure, which he outlines in this interview for “The Bridge of Friendship” blog

Vladimir Mitev

Ion Lixandru was born in Bucharest 61 years ago. He has graduated from the High School of Transport. He was a worker at the construction of the channel Danube – Black Sea in 1977 for three months. He comes from the family of heavy truck drivers (for internal and international transport).

In the 90s he established a firm for cargo transport. His companies deal with international cargo transport, platforms for reparation of heavy vehicles in Bucharest, Sibiu, Oradea and for activities of stocking in warehouses at an industrial platform in Bucharest.

Starting with 1994 Lixandru became a member of the National Union of Transporters in Romania, whose vice president he was unti 2012. Under the aegis of this union he prepared the technical, economic and financial arguments for a few legislative proposals on transport, which are still in force today: the electronic allocation of the transport authorisations for international transport in a special electronic system, the heavy cargo trucks’ routes for access to Bucharest, the construction with priority of the highway in the Olt Valley as opposed to the highway through the Prahova valley. In 2015 he became a member of the Romanian Business Leaders – the most prominent association of the Romanian entrepreneurs, which is a member of the Coalition for Romania’s development – possibly the most important organization of the business circles in Romania. This Coalition has coordinators for Fiscal Policy, Education, Health, Transport/Infrastructure, Labour, etc. Within this organisation Lixandru has coordinated the domain of Transport and Infrastructure since 2016 as a proposal of the organisation The Romanian Business Leaders and of the Romanian-German Chamber of Commerce. 

On 29 June 2020 Agerpres reported a public speech of Ion lixandru, which took place at a meeting between employers’ organisations and the prime minister Orban, where he states: 

“We haven’t been meeting with our neighbours (Bulgaria) for some time. I believe that a new opening in relations with Bulgarian could be beneficial to us, with regard to the Group of Visegrad, because we have the Danube. We want to dredge it, but the Bulgarians don’t want it. We can go to Asia and to bring Asia to Romania. Now a big part of the transport to and from there takes place through Serbia. Turks and chinese invest in the Serbian infrastructure, which is not OK. I think that the Republic of Moldova will come into the European Union too, but I think that just in the way that Bulgarian need the Western Balkans, we need Moldova. But only together with them can we enter Schengen. Schengen brings us much more advantages than all the highways, fast-speed trains and airplane lines, because the goods and the passengers are still blocked at our southern borders (with Bulgaria) and western borders (with Hungary) between 6 and 24 hours. No need to say what this means for tourism and all the cooperation that takes place between Romania and Bulgaria, including the food and beverage industry – they are good farmers, while we have processing capabilities.

We could work in a cross-border way. We could open up investment in the Danube. I propose to you the restart of discussions on a hydro power plant on the Danube, which is to have also the motorway and the railway that connects Sofia to Bucharest in a better way. Not only would it link Sofia to Bucharest, but it would also link Thessaloniki and Athens and all the southern zone to Bucharest. Let us don’t forget that the Balkans are a bit isolated from the standing point of the security, because of the Danube and Black Sea. there are many things, which could become much more attractive, if together with Bulgarians we become a counterweight to the Visegrad countries, which protect their interest better. 

On the occasion of this public speech the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” discussed more with Lixandru on 5 July 2020 before the start of the protests in Bulgaria:

Mr. Lixandru, you have made an interesting public speech for both Romanians and Bulgarian this week, which was reported by Agerpres. But before speaking about your theses, I would like us to put the thinks in context. The programme for economic restart of the Romanian government was launched this week. This programme aims at the development of the internal infrastructure in Romania – e.g. the connection between the historical provinces and the development of railways. What is your attitude towards this programm? In what way do the Balkan countries and Bulgaria could benefit from it? 

I have known the prime minister Ludovic Orban since 2003. I have spoken with him, even when he was the minister of transport in 2007-2008. In the recent crisis period, I cooperated with him for the management of the transport corridors between Romania’s borders, separating the cargo transport from the passenger transport. Romania had a special customs for cargo trucks at the border with Hungary and another one for the passenger cars. I participated at many congresses of the National Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party as an infrastructure expert, presenting the private sector’s vision for development and investment in infrastructure. 

If Romania had had its Bucharest’s ring ready, it would have developed the metropolitan are a lot. There would have been more investors. This is what happens now with Sofia, which built a highway ring at Western level. The first thing, which I have always insisted on are the completion of the highways Nădlac-Sbiu-Piteşti; Oradeua – Târgu Mureş, the link between Turda and Sebeş and then to try to connect to our neighbours through speed roads. 

The map of Europe with the European transport corridors has entered a new threshold. The economic relations to Thessaloniki and Istanbul need to be reestablished within those European corridors. Romania can’t develop alone without neighbours. Hungary has had developed infrastructure ever since the times of Austro-Hungary. The same is valid for Czechia and Slovakia. The Bakan Romania (the provinces to the south of the Carpathes), Bulgaria, Macedonia, Northern Greece, Albania are zones with population at another level of development, with other customs, another history, another culture. 

Bulgaria and Romania profit from the Danube and the Black Sea. 

After 2015 I have been asking myself why Romanians and Bulgarian don’t develop together. Serbia was an economic and military ally of Romania against the USSR in the times of the Cold War. Today the situation is different. We need to develop together. To work in a cross-border way. This happens in all the countries of the EU.

Switzerland’s neighbors – Italians, Frenchmen, Germans work in Switzerland. Hungarians work in Austria, Chechnya, Slovakia. Romanians from the Western part of the country go to work in the cross-border zones in Hungary. 

We need to construct roads, railroads, etc, in order to create economic centres. Then it would no longer matter who is Romanian and who is Bulgarian. 
What concrete dimensions could have the Romanian-Bulgarian cooperation in infrastructure?

In order to understand that, we need to know why we do it. If only Romanian invests in connections, we won’t make great progress. It is important that the connections need to continue beyond the border. We need to invest together in projects with EU funding, especially in the development of the infrastructure of the future such as railroads and water.

For two-three years the railroad gains terrain in Europe, while road transport loses importance. Because railroads are safer, more ecologic, and more profitable. The trucks can’t travel 7 days in the week, 24 hours in the day. A train can transport 160 trucks with two locomotive mechanics. 

An example of cooperation and perseverance is the railroad line Asia – Europe, between Beijing – Moscow – St. Petersburg – Warsaw – Brussels, at the start of the work in 2006 – it has been operating for 2 years. Connections/terminals were opened in Budapest and Bratislava is getting ready. The continents were joined by such a railroad of thousands of kilometers. And we can’t do such a thing over the Danube?

Another example in the neighbourhood is that Chinese and Turks invest in Serbia so that the cargo from Asia could reach Europe, passing through Serbia – a non-EU country. 

If we look at the relationship between Romanians and Bulgarian in transport and infrastructure, for many years there was the issue of the bridges over the Danube. In 2019 an understanding was reached between the government Dancila and the prime minister Borissov on the construction of a bridge at Svishtov-Zimnicea. What happens in this moment within those discussions? It is good to cooperate and to open ourselves reciprocally, but what impedes this project for a third bridge?

At this moment we haven’t had a government, which had governed for the complete mandate of 4 years for 20111! Since then 20 ministers of transport have been changed. We changed in the last four years for prime ministers. The Social Democratic Party changed its own government three times between 2016 and 2019! The government Dăncilă was a marionette one. It didn’t have a real plan to develop infrastructure. It wanted benefits for the budget employees, who serve best the parties that rule.

In Romania we have 5 500 000 employees, out of which 1 700 000 are in the budget sector with 400 000 belonging to the public order and security institutions. A social conflict between the employees in the budget system and the private sector was created, with the latter paying for the incomes in the state budget, besides the population that pays taxes. The people in the administration consume disproportionally budgetary resources in comparison to their contribution to the economy, educational and health systems in the country. No one thinks about investments, because there are no remaining resources! The former minister of transport from the government Dăncilă – Răzvan Cuc, was not authorised to agree upon the construction of a new bridge over the Danube, because he didn’t have budgetary resources!

Does this mean that such an understanding about the future bridge at Svishtov – Zimnicea doesn’t exist?

Yes, it doesn’t exist. There was a diplomatic meeting. In order for such a thing to exist, money from the budget should be allocated and plans for the adjacent infrastructure must be made – railroads, roads, analysis for economic, social and military impact. Without those analysis and financial resources from the multiannual EU budgets no great investment can be made! We can meet for PR, we could draw some sketches on paper, but iit will be just a game or pretense that we built something – on paper!

But what follows on the issue of the bridges? How will their places, the investment, etc. be determined?

These decisions can only be taken in a trilateral form between Romania, Bulgaria and the EU. What appeared in Agerpres – my words at the plenary session of the Coalition for Romania’s development – was spoken in the presence of the prime minister Ludovic Orban and of all the sector experts in this coalition. It was connected to the construction of a Romanian-Bulgaria hydro power station together with roads and railroads. On this issue I discussed separately with the prime minister Orban and the leader of our organisation Dragoş Petrescu, saying that we have developed relations with the Bulgarian party and the Balkans over the issue of infrastructure construction.

We need to connect the Balkans together with Bulgaria. We need to reach Thessaloniki and Istanbul. Bulgarians need to reach Poland, Ukraine. Commercial exchanges between the Balkans and the northern countries – such as Poland and the Baltic countries, need Bulgarian-Romanian infrastructure. In Istanbul an enormous economic zone was constructed. The EU member states in our region are at a similar economic and social development level  – Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Baltic countries, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia. Together we are 100 million people. It is a big market. We need to connect this market, because at the economic and social level we are not at the level of the Western countries – Austria, Germany, France, etc.  

We need to cooperate, to develop together, in order to come closer to the level of development of the Western countries, in order to stop the exodus of the young people, which go to the developed countries. We need to invest and develop local productions, so that we are not only an export market for the developed economies. 

The economic/social situation, the competition from the West and the pressure from the East oblige us to develop together as it happens at the military level at the South-Eastern flanc.

We have a shared need for infrastructure development in order to answer those challenges.

 I suppose that at the level of the state and the experts there were meetings between experts from Romania and bulgaria. But the results are very few. What answers had your public speech received?

The prime minister Orban answered to my question that he had a video conference with the Bulgarian prime minister Borissov. In my view the prime minister Borissov and the prime minister Orban can not meet to discuss those infrastructure projects, until there is no stable government in Bucharest with a clear majority in Parliament. We would meet in vain in Bucharest, if we do it now, because in the autumn there will be elections and the government might change. He who can negotiate now is the Romanian president, who won his 5-year mandate in 2019, but he can’t agree upon investment. They are the work of the government. 

But the government is still not stable.

We can benefit together with Bulgaria from infrastructure development more than other countries, because we have the Danube, we have the Black Sea and our infrastructure can absorb a lot of European funds. There are many pan-European corridors, which pass through Romania and Bulgaria. If we don’t develop infrastructure within the European infrastructure corridors that pass through Romania and Bulgaria we will suffer. This is what the European Court of Auditors says. I speak about the corridors that go towards Thessaloniki and Istanbul/Asia.

You also say that Schengen is the joint problem, because we have a lot of queues and delays at our borders. How could this problem be resolved?

I have asked myself this question since 2014. Romania is not hindered in its relations with the West by the lack of infrastructure, but by the Schengen. There are always queues at the border, because border control is being made. This control leads to delays of up to 24 hours. No matter how good the infrastructure is, we will have those queues as long as we stay outside the Schengen area. 

If the trucks and trains wait so much on the border. It means that an import/export company from Romania or Bulgaria spends additionally for its cargo, blocked at the border 30-40% more than the German, Italian, French companies spend. The German firm needs 10 trucks in order to deliver its cargo, but the Romanian or Bulgarian firm needs 15 trucks, because 5 trucks stay blocked at the border.

How could this problem be resolved as long as there is not political will in Western Europe that we are accepted in the Schengen?

I have asked the same question to the former prime minister Cioloş (2015-2017), who is now the ladder of the liberal group in the European Parliament. He said: Bulgaria deals with the Western Balkans, while Romania deals with the Republic of Moldova. In another recent video conference the president Traian Băsescu said that now is the time to enter together with in Schengen, because together with Bulgaria our chances are greater. 

So, the joint efforts have to be conjugated in order to enter together, as it happened in 2007, when we joined the EU. 

The infrastructure between Bulgaria and Serbia is better than the one between Bulgaria and Romania. I am interested in having the traffic from Asia passing through Bulgaria and Romania. 

If the government of the National Liberal Party wins the elections in the autumn, I think that the diplomatic channels will be opened and investments in infrastructure will become possible. Businessmen are also related to that. We have to propose, to ask for, to argue, to lobby so that the things happen. While the government will be expected to implement what we have supported. 

We have two great concentrations in the automotive sector in Romania now – Dacia and Ford. Both of them need to transport not only in the West, but also in the South and through the Danube. Things are very strict in the automotive sector. There is no care, which is stocked somewhere in the court of the producers, as it used to be before. What is produced, must go towards sellers. Things will start moving, if we open the communication roads. 

The bridge at Calafat was constructed 90% by the Bulgarian side and 10% from the Romanian site, because Romania wasn’t interested in the construction of a bridge there. A bridge at the value of 226 million of euro was made, which doesn’t give advantage neither to the Bulgarian party, nor to the Romanian party. 

Both parties need to discuss and to understand what is their common interest. We need to open the minds of those who govern, because we need one another. 

There is a specific subject, which was developed by “The Bridge of Friendship” blog. It is the establishment of a mini-Schengen Romanian-Bulgarian space. 

Such a thing has existed between Hungarians and Austrians. Before Hungary’s accession to Schengen, Hungarians could enter Austria without any problem. 

The project, which you speak about, is not utopian. It is a possible step before the entrance in Schengen, which is the big step. All is a matter of political decision. In the situation, in which both governments understand one another, we could make such a step. There are many regional cross-border projects, which are possible in the Balkans. Why don’t we shake hands? Romania has 20 million people. Bulgaria has 7 million people. The situation facilitates our coming together and opening of the common border through elimination of the custom control.

I don’t know what the security measures in Southeastern Europe. If there are situations, when the control is eased, the traffic of people, of narcotics could grow alarmingly and of course, the EU could decide to retain this customs control.  

There is another aspect of your public discourse. You said that Romania and Bulgaria could be a counterweight to the Visegrad Group…

Yes, I presented to you the idea of a cultural association on the Balkans. All that zone, including Northern Greece is part of the Balkan zone. 

Aren’t the words too much and the actions too few, when the issue is the regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe?

Our politicians think more about their pockets and how to receive votes. Few of them are professionals. We need long-term projects. Romania has had families of politicians, who have developed the country – for example the Brătianu family. We know the history of Bulgaria. We don’t have politicians with vision. If we don’t make policies with a look at the next 50 years, we don’t do anything.

The Bridge of Friendship at Rousse-Giurgiu was a Soviet project, not a Romanian-Bulgarian one. 

At the end, what will follow after those ideas have come out? With whom do you want to speak? What next steps will you do?

Together with Doru Dragomir – the president of the Bilateral Chamber of Commerce Bulgaria-Romania we will try to organise a meeting at the Romanian embassy in Sofia in the autumn. 

We need to understand that the Western brands are not the only ones that matter. We need to understand that the Bulgarian and Romanian brands also matter. Let’s buy reciprocally. The northern region in Bulgaria is a poor zone. The same is valid for southern Romania. Olt, Dolj and Giurgiu are underdeveloped economically. We need to make cooperation with the Bulgarian party. There is a lot of agriculture in Northern Bulgaria. It has tourist areas, which are well known. 

If I leave Bucharest I can reach Brashov, passing 165 km for 5 hours. But if go south to Veliko Tarnovo, I can pass 190 km in 3 hours. 

We need cooperation. The Bulgarian tourism has attracted a lot of Romanians since 2000. The prices were very good. Now Bulgaria is a top destination for Romanians. There are people in Bulgaria who speak Romanian language. It doesn’t matter in what currency Romanians pay there.

Photo: The Bridge “New Europe” at Vidin-Calafat (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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Author: Vladimir Mitev

Румъноговорящ и персийскоговорящ български журналист. Jurnalist bulgar vorbitor de limba română şi limba persană. A Bulgarian journalist, who speaks Romanian language and Persian language. خبرنگار بلغاری که زبان رومانی و زبان فارسی را حرف می زند.

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