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Free Calls to the New Balkans

More just a strain on Balkan pockets, roaming charges over EU borders are another example of how deeper regional integration could make everyone’s life easier. 

by Boyko Vassilev 20 December 2017

If you want to study the new geography of the Balkans, just follow mobile roaming.


Bulgarians know: the fees are the same if you go north and south, because Romania and Greece are European Union members. Turkey, Macedonia, and Serbia are not, so going in the other directions can turn expensive. Going west from Bulgaria is especially painful – and frustrating, since it’s enough to venture just a few kilometers into Serbian territory to be subjected to the unbelievable roaming rate of three (or more) euros per minute. That is a high price to pay for a neighbor’s non-EU status.


On the other hand, the entire situation shows how much the EU matters. Open borders and a higher standard of living have led Bulgarians and Romanians to travel more for pleasure. And when the economic crisis hit, northern Greece was blessed with hoards of tourists coming from these countries and did better than other parts of Greece. In Bulgaria, hotels and restaurant owners in the northeast quickly learned Romanian – and for that matter their Serbian colleagues learned Bulgarian in return. If only the roaming was not such a cash killer.


In the meantime, politicians quickly sniffed out an issue that voters care about, and roaming is on the table as part of the framework of the so-called Berlin process. Started in that city in 2014, this flagship German (and EU) initiative intends to boost regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. Brussels cannot offer these countries a clear perspective of EU membership in the foreseeable future, but wants to keep the process rolling, so it comes up with incentives to sweeten the pill. Here, Bulgaria is instrumental, since Sofia will hold the rotating EU presidency for six months starting this January.


There has been action already. On 23 November, Bulgaria and Macedonia signed an agreement to ease the price of roaming, and, on 9 December, Bulgaria struck a similar deal with Serbia. “This is among the issues that are not just political,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told me in an interview. “They have real value to people.” Everybody hopes that when governments lead, private companies like telecoms will follow.


Pragmatism is in the air, and not only about roaming. Bulgaria and Serbia talk about roads (the Sofia – Nis highway is expanding), gas interconnectors, and common projects. Additionally, Sofia is mediating between Belgrade and Brussels, and offering Serbia its expertise on fulfilling the EU accession criteria required for membership.


Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov seems to be in constant contact with his counterpart, Brnabic, and especially with the strongest figure in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic. On 7 December Borissov met Brnabic in Sofia – together with the leaders of Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – for talks about projects funded by the World Bank. Two days later, he was in Belgrade with Vucic in another format, featuring three Orthodox countries that are EU members (Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece) and one that is not – Serbia. The message was clear: its “brothers” will help Serbia with EU integration as long as Belgrade stays on the European path. There is an additional bonus on the top of that: taken together, the four countries are a big enough player to pursue common projects with China – and they plan to broach this subject with Beijing in the future.


Of course, history cannot be forgotten. As the Balkan neighborly tradition often goes, Serbs and Bulgarians share uneasy memories, having been at war with each other four times in the last 135 years. Old enmities can sometimes surface, as an incident showed that flared up on 11 November when Serbian police detained Bulgarian doctors who were performing free examinations in the Serbian town of Bosilegrad, allegedly to help the large Bulgarian minority there deal with the lack of adequate medical care. Brnabic, however, downplayed the issue: “It was not political but administrative … it was about not having permission to examine [patients]… it remained on a local level.” Brnabic insisted several times that the country needs to move on from the past, even when asked about the indicted war criminal General Ratko Mladić. “Serbia looks to the future,” she said. “Serbia is concentrated on European integration.”


For his part, Borissov also constantly repeats that no good can come from fixating on history. “If we all start to talk about it, no one would then be able to tear us apart. Let historians discuss history.”


Recent history can be as inflammatory – and paradoxical – as the distant one, these politicians know. About 30 years ago, Serbs used to look down on Bulgarians. Being part of then-Yugoslavia, they were proud to be more “Western” – with their jeans, U.S. movies, and passports for free travel – than the most faithful Soviet satellite to their east. Now, things are the other way around. Serbs have kept their pride, but they now seem keen on advice and assistance from Bulgaria. The East has switched spots with the West.  


Ordinary people have their own considerations. Bulgarians like the Serbian joie de vivre, songs, and grilling – and Serbs like to host as many tourists as they can. People cross the border to buy what they deem better on the other side – and everyone seems to profit. “We are studying the experience of Bulgarian start-ups,” Brnabic said, giving one example, “and one Bulgarian fund has helped our start-ups by investing in them.” 


Small things matter most – and this is how the EU’s impact can be measured. Bulgarians associate their entry into the Union with visa-free travel. And if mobile roaming is lifted, they will remember this as well. Will the spirit of cooperation end with the Bulgarian EU presidency? I hope not. But call me again in six months.
Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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