Can you imagine such a tempting offer: A shopping excursion to Istanbul, leaving from North Macedonia by bus, spending three nights in a four-star hotel at the Bosporus and back, total cost of €79? With an option for a five-star hotel, bringing it to €85?
This is exactly the offer the passengers of the coach of the Macedonian company Besa Trans Shkup that crashed and burned in Bulgaria took. The official toll is 44 dead, including 12 children and teenagers, with only seven survivors, who escaped by breaking a rear window.
The Company’s motto is “Bus travel for European standards”.
As preliminary results of the investigation have shown, the coach had no license for international transport of passengers and if it was allowed to cross the borders, it was most certainly thanks to (wink-wink) bakshish to civil servants at the borders.
That is hardly unusual in this part of the world, although Bulgaria has been an EU member since 2007.
The investigation is ongoing, therefore we will not prejudge the possible cause of the crash. Instead, we will speak about the context.
Such tourist excursions in the Balkans usually take place in the form of long night-time bus transfers. The goal is to save on accommodation: two hotel nights less.
But Balkan roads are notoriously treacherous. On 4 April 2004, a Bulgarian bus returning from a trip to Croatia during the night fell in the Serbian river Lim: twelve Bulgarian children died. Since then, Bulgaria banned bus transport of children at night.
But this did not prevent 12 Macedonian children from dying near Sofia.
As for the burning of the bus, there have been reports of an explosion and it going up in flames in a matter of seconds. Ongoing forensic investigations will hopefully shed more light on the matter.
In the meantime, it is an open secret that many bus drivers fill 20-litre plastic canisters with fuel at gas stations in Turkey because the fuel is less expensive there. Even the respective filling stations have been identified.
Transporting fuel in plastic canisters is forbidden, but who cares? To avoid controls, bus drivers reportedly load canisters in the spare-wheel compartment, and the wheel is moved to the luggage compartment. Everybody knows the scheme but with a small bakshish at the border, it just works.
In the same way, gambling-minded Greeks fill up their tanks and canisters in Bulgaria, where fuel is cheaper. They believe this reduces their expenses at casinos across the border.
Contraband is commonplace in Balkan travel firms.
A source known to this author once incidentally opened the door of the toilet of a Bulgarian Brussels-bound coach. The entire toilet compartment was stuffed with stacks of beer, obviously to be delivered to one of the Bulgarian shops in Brussels. Many of the passengers probably noticed but nobody said a word. It is widely known and widely assumed.
Sometimes bus transport companies respect the rule of having two drivers on international travel, but sometimes the second driver is only on paper.
Controls are hardly a problem, apparently, because bakshish always works. Officially, a company like Besa Trans Shkup has only four coaches (the one that burned near Sofia is not on its official list). To meet the demand, the coaches must travel non-stop back and forth. That’s a lot of driving, especially for a single driver.
And then, there are the roads…
Even if a road is newly built (as was the one where the Besa Trans coach burned down), everywhere in the Balkans, there are incredible shortcomings.
There are usually no horizontal reflective markings, only traces of old markings, which are misleading.
In bad weather, even experienced drivers get lost. Road signs are missing or are invisible, because local entrepreneurs plaster them over with their advertising, or because someone has stolen them. In the case of the road where the coach burned, this is what the reflector studs look like.
The Balkans is indeed a special place, in terms of geography and mentality: Black Friday is every day.
This Brief may come as a shock to non-Balkan readers but in the region, it can readily act as advertising. An excursion to Istanbul for a give-away price is tempting. What the hell, one bus burned, hundreds arrived at their destination. At this price, let’s book a seat.
A message from ENTSO-E — ENTSO-E Conference 2021: “Net Zero: an energy system for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050”
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A new draft EU directive, due for publication on 14 December, introduces minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings undergoing major renovation works as part of a renewed push to achieve zero-emission buildings by 2050. Around three-quarters of buildings in Europe are currently energy inefficient, and EU buildings are responsible for around 40% of the bloc’s energy consumption and 36% of its greenhouse gas emissions.
And a new study says that electric heat pumps are the best and most economical solution for individual heating, and are “the most affordable option for consumers who wish to decarbonise their heating.” But this comes at a steep price, with production, purchasing and installation costs adding up to €3,000 to €6,000 in Poland and between €2,500 and €5,000 in the Czech Republic.
The new German government released its coalition agreement yesterday, including some landmark climate plans. EURACTIV’s got you covered with a comprehensive German roundup:
First off, leaders have agreed to pull forward the country’s coal exit, “ideally” to 2030 instead of 2038, and rapidly speed up the rollout of renewables. The coalition aims to deliver on the parties’ key climate policy promise to get on an emissions reduction path compatible with the 1.5°C-degree global warming limit of the Paris Agreement.
The aforementioned coal exit comes with a push for 80% renewable energy capacity by 2030, but this plan isn’t without its downsides. The transition will rely heavily on gas, with a planned 50% increase in gas power generation to replace the coal and nuclear plants that are being phased out.
Germany also aims to have at least 15 million electric cars on the roads by 2030, up from its previous goal of 14 million. The Greens previously called for banning the production of fossil-fuel burning cars by 2030 and reserving use of e-fuels for industrial, transport, ships and planes, but neither of the other two groups were behind such a ban.
And Germany will remain part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement under the new government, a move that will prevent a rift in the Western military alliance amidst rising tensions with Russia. Germany does not possess nuclear weapons, but hosts US nuclear bombs that German Tornado fighter jets are meant to carry to target during a conflict.
In other news, the European Commission has proposed that the COVID-19 booster shot be required for travel to other countries within the bloc next summer, if travellers want to avoid tests and quarantines. The proposal also indicates the acceptance of all vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, which would allow non-essential travel from outside the bloc for people vaccinated with Chinese and Indian shots.
And French officials have announced that France will not go into lockdown or under curfew, instead speeding up its vaccination campaign to slow the increase of COVID-19 cases amid the European fourth wave. The country’s national health authority reduced the recommended booster time frame from six months to five, and the jab will be available to French citizens 18 and over.
The Commission has also launched a proposal to regulate political advertising, introducing transparency obligations for marketers and strict limits on the use of sensitive personal information. The proposal aims to protect the electoral process and democratic debate from manipulation and interference, and will ideally be in place by spring 2023, one year before the next European Parliament elections.
The French government notified the Commission last week of a new bill aimed at ensuring electronic devices like computers, phones, gaming consoles and tablets sold in the country have parental controls pre-installed. The bill’s authors are “very confident” Brussels would not oppose the proposed law.
Look out for…
- EU and Asian leaders meet virtually in the annual Asia-Europe Meeting.
- Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson speaks at the 2021 ENTSO-E Conference on net zero.
- Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean meets with officials in Moldova to discuss EU support for transportation infrastructure.
Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]