This article is part of our special report From Calarasi to Vidin: common borders, common solutions.
Strahil Karapchanski, the deputy mayor of Ruse, the largest Bulgarian city on the Danube, told EURACTIV about the history, the present and his hopes for the future of cross-border regional cooperation with Romania, which he has helped to oversee.
Born in 1983, Strahil Karapchanski was appointed deputy mayor for European development of Ruse municipality. He is fluent in English and German and has a working knowledge of French and Romanian.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s senior editor Georgi Gotev.
You have an interesting professional biography. Obviously, since your student days, you chose regional cooperation as your profession. How did you make this decision and wasn’t this topic uncharted waters at that time?
I chose European Studies at Ruse University in the years when Bulgaria was actively preparing for joining the European family. It was a period rich in challenges and opportunities for a young person dedicated to European issues. I am delighted that during my studies I had the chance to plunge into the deep waters of regional and international cooperation and to start career development in the public administration.
The practical experience I got prompted me to continue my higher education in the same field and in 2014 I defended a PhD dissertation on Integrated Management in the Bulgarian-Romanian Cross-Border Region: State of affairs, Potential and Perspectives “.
At present, as part of the management team of the municipality of Ruse, I can confirm that the good positioning and leadership position of Ruse in a cross-border context are prerequisites for very active cooperation and seeking solutions to shared problems, together with the opposite Romanian city of Giurgiu. Since 2010, Ruse has been actively involved in debates on the definition, and later in the actual implementation of the Danube Strategy, which has opened new horizons and has expanded the range of partnerships and potential projects.
Bulgaria and Romania seem in the same boat, viewed from Brussels. They joined the EU in 2007, they are still under the same monitoring mechanism, and both are trying to join Schengen. But the countries are quite different, they do not really know each other well, and the Danube has “successfully” divided them for a long time. Moreover, for many years, there have been mutual accusations of cross-border air pollution. Regional cooperation is probably a big challenge in such circumstances?
The fact is undeniable that for decades, both Bulgarians and Romanians felt the River Danube as a barrier that divides states, peoples, cultures, languages. I also remember the euphoria that occurred on 1 January 2007, when citizens on both sides of the Danube literally jammed the bridge in their desire to go “on the other side” [all controls and restrictions for crossing the border were lifted on the day Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, except a fee for crossing the bridge by car].
It cannot be denied that 10 years later, Bulgarians and Romanians are still learning to work together and to speak in a “common” language. However, the experience has so far demonstrated in a very categorical way to both sides that cross-border co-operation brings together success stories and brings long-term benefits to the local communities.
What are the big projects you think could contribute to the regional cooperation between Bulgaria and Romania? Are more bridges needed?
Facilitating cooperation requires a purely physical opportunity to get to the other side. In this sense, the presence of only two bridges along the 450-kilometre border is certainly an important barrier to more intensive exchanges between Bulgarian and Romanian regions. This gap is recognized by both Bulgarian and Romanian authorities and overcoming it is also a priority for the EU transport and regional policies. Indeed, the realisation of such large-scale projects for the construction of new bridges over the Danube or other connecting infrastructure will improve cross-border cooperation and will also serve as a showcase of such cooperation.
The Danube Bridge in Ruse [opened in 1954, with only one track in each direction for road transport] is the first facility [it’s the only bridge on the 450-km Danube border until the “New Europe” Vidin-Kalafat bridge opened in 2013], and its capacity does not correspond to the ever more increasing flow of light and heavy vehicles in both directions. Its proximity to Bucharest, a capital with 2 million citizens, as well as its role as a crossing point of two trans-European corridors (N.7 and N.9), puts the construction of a second bridge between Ruse and Giurgiu on the agenda.
Do you speak Romanian? Or is the language of the experts English? Who are your main interlocutors in Romania? How do you come up with joint proposals, how do you defend them in front of Brussels?
My training under the Master programme in European studies at the Bulgarian-Romanian Interuniversity Europe Center (BRIE) in Ruse included a compulsory study of the Romanian language, which helps me communicate better with the Romanian partners. English is universal in terms of joint project formulation and management, but the fluency in colleagues’ mother tongue creates additional trust and shortens the distance.
We work with colleagues from the Municipality and the District Council of Giurgiu in a constructive spirit and with common priorities. We haven’t had controversy over the choice of joint projects as we often meet, discuss and have a preliminary list of ideas on what we can do together. Here I have to point out that the municipalities of Ruse and Giurgiu are the only ones in the region that have a common long-term cross-border master plan for development by 2027.
In addition to representatives of the local and regional government in Romania, we often communicate with ministry officials in our northern neighbour who have competences on cross-border cooperation issues. As you know, in the past and in the current programming period, the Interreg Romania-Bulgaria Cross-Border Cooperation Program is managed by Bucharest, and the Joint Secretariat, which directly connects with the beneficiaries, is located in [the Romanian city of] Calarasi.
Which authorities are easier to work with, the ministries in Sofia and Bucharest or the European Commission in Brussels? How many years ahead are the projects being planned, to what extent do they depend on national priorities, national funding?
It is of the utmost importance for a well-functioning institution to ensure long-term planning and adequate formulation of strategic goals, and this is what the Ruse Municipality aims for. The preparation of the Municipal Development Plan, which timing coincides with the duration of the 7-year EU Financial Framework, is the result of careful consultations with different communities, of weighing alternatives, prioritizing and exploring, to the extent possible, the potential sources of funding.
This is a laborious process which requires competence and dedication, but it leads to a practical and publicly agreed strategic document that defines the direction of development of the municipality, and the administration follows it. There are projects that have been a dream for generations of citizens of Ruse, and we have been able to implement them, thanks to the European structural and investment funds and the good interaction with the state authorities.
Tell us about specific projects that you think are successful and have the potential to be replicated elsewhere?
At present, Ruse Municipality manages a wide portfolio of projects funded under the Operational Programs, the Interreg V-A Cross-Border Cooperation Program with Romania and the Horizon 2020 Program. The network of partnerships we have built over the last years helps us to be on the same page, but also to promote good practices with a Ruse address.
The administrations of the Ruse and Giurgiu municipalities have successfully developed a joint project “Development of the Danube River Basin for Better Connectivity of the Euroregion Ruse – Giurgiu with Pan-European Transport Corridor No.7”, which is a complex of activities aimed at ensuring safe transport by improving the inland waterways of the Danube. The rehabilitation of the quay walls of the passenger terminal “Ruse – Center” is underway in the territory of the Municipality of Ruse, aiming to improve the navigation conditions and allowing the mooring of large passenger ships, the number of which increases steadily every year.
With this project, Ruse Municipality completes the activities for the complete transformation of the Ruse wharf and accentuating the river in the life of the town. Under the “Regions for Growth” Operational Program 2014-2020, we are also implementing two major projects in parallel, aimed at modernising the coastal zone and integrating it into the central city area.
Due to the systematic efforts of the entire team of Mayor Plamen Stoilov, we have managed in the last seven years to attract European funding worth more than €13 million, which will make it possible to fulfil a decade-long dream of the citizens of Ruse – turning the city so it would face the Danube.
There is an ongoing about the new long-term EU budget. What place do you think regional policy and cross-border cooperation should have in the budget’s priorities?
The EU’s economic, social and territorial cohesion policy aims at overcoming regional disparities and, as such, is a key element in the member states’ agenda. Since Bulgaria became an EU member, the Union has been allocating about one-third of its budget for Cohesion Policy. Funding on this line in Bulgaria over the past programming period accounts for 80% of public investment, of which about 20% is dedicated to local and regional development and transport infrastructure.
The effect of the invested funds on people’s lives cannot currently be matched by alternative sources of funding. I believe the interest of countries like Bulgaria, but also of the countries of the so-called net donors, is to maintain the weight of Cohesion Policy and regional cooperation in the overall mix of EU policies, certainly ensuring transparency and accountability, efficiency and clear definition of priorities, based on bottom-up approach.