View from Sofia: Geography lessons

The closure of the Aegean route for migrants may put new pressure on the Bulgarian border

When Europe was dealing with the financial crisis, a dividing line presented itself in the EU between the rich rule-based centre and the poor unruly periphery. Back then it was in Bulgaria’s best interest not to disassociate itself from the periphery. Belonging to the club of Central European member states was a privilege, and Bulgaria was set on doing what it took to be decoupled from the South.

Three years later the geography of the EU has changed and the V4 countries do not conjure a positive image. Being marked by a strong nationalist surge, these countries are responsible for a large portion of the negative coverage that has arisen in dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe. By being in support of, and in some cases actually closing their borders, they have become (together with Austria) the key opponent to Germany’s policy of open borders. Where Merkel calls for a common European response, V4 leaders advocate for a national solution to the crisis.

Bulgaria has wavered in its support for Merkel. Most recently it has swung in the direction of Austria and the V4. Austria’s minister of the interior visited Sofia after the EU-Turkey summit and toured the borders with Turkey. He promised Bulgaria all the help it needs to protect the border it shares with Turkey. Moreover, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs arrived in Sofia earlier this year, followed by Prime Minister Orbán. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov paid a visit in return before the Council meeting in February this year.

In principle, the closure of borders may become less contentious when the EU-Turkey readmission agreement based on the “one for one” rule comes into force. The agreement will create a legal route for migrants which, in combination with other measures, should contribute towards reducing the number of asylum seekers who cross the EU border illegally, often at the cost of their lives. However, until this plan is implemented and the illegal networks of traffickers are dismantled, there is always the danger of migration flows being re-routed. With the closing of the Western Balkans route, there are three other options – to pass from Greece through Albania to the EU, to go back through south Italy and finally, to go from Turkey through the Black Sea to Bulgaria. When Prime Minister Boyko Borissov asked for the creation of a so called “hot spot” in Bulgaria several months ago, many were puzzled as the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria had been small. Many judged that he was advocating for one of these centres “for the money”. His position however was likely based on anticipation that the closure of existing channels might force refugees to seek an alternative route passing through Bulgaria.  

Bulgaria was the first country to build a fence at the border with Turkey in 2013. At the time this development passed under the radar. As a consequence, Bulgaria didn’t face the criticism directed at others who erected fences during the course of 2015.

Bulgarian institutions are currently doing their best to cope with the situation. As a new member state, Bulgaria is finding that European rules are sometimes even more important than national ones. One of the reasons asylum seekers stopped taking the Bulgarian route is because Bulgaria enforced the Dublin regulation. Refugees headed towards Greece and the Western Balkans instead, as this route allowed them to reach Germany without being registered on the way. By taking these alternative routes refugees avoided the risk of being returned to the country they were first registered in.

When the border between Macedonia and Greece was closed, the main thoroughfare of the Balkan route could no longer be taken. This left tens of thousands of refugees in Greece on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. Against this background, and immediately after the EU-Turkey summit, Prime Minister Borissov sent a letter to the European Council President Donald Tusk, reacting to the proposed deal with Turkey. He insisted that the EU should provide protection for all of the external EU borders with Turkey and not only the Schengen border between Turkey-Greece. Borissov wants to ensure that all the support he needs – be it technical or financial – is in place, in case the migrant route is diverted towards Bulgaria. Indeed, he could have raised concerns about this route through the Black Sea earlier – at least before the Turkey deal was proposed. While this may be attributed to piling anxiety about the readiness of Bulgarian institutions to deal with a new flow, the concerns of Bulgaria pale to insignificance compared with those of Cyprus, Spain or Austria. Of all the countries capable of derailing the deal with Turkey, Bulgaria might just be the easiest for the EU to appease. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Programmes Manager

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