Against the backdrop of the Dutch EU Council presidency, OneWorld.nl has sent Reinier Vriend on a mission to identify the everyday European values and concerns. In the interview series #ThisIsMyEurope he speaks with colourful individuals in and of the continent, trying to find out what ‘Europe’ means to us. This weeks he speaks to Hristo in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“I remember well when we’d take the bus to Western Europe. Until the Slovenian border you weren’t entirely comfortable in your seat, because you knew they could send you back. It happened regularly, you’d see someone standing on the Croatian side, waiting for a bus back in the direction of Sofia.”
Hristo Bel Hristov (30) works as technical support for an internet giant in the Bulgarian capital. “The IT sector here is growing rapidly. The reason is our high standard of technical education. Apart from that we’re ridiculously cheap, of course, and we have an attractive tax level.” This has caused plenty of internet companies to move their customer services from India to Bulgaria. But it might not be Bulgaria’s golden ticket. “These are all big international companies that place only parts of their empires here, maybe just temporarily. We’re not building much ourselves here.”
We’re ridiculously cheap, of course, and we have an attractive tax level
“For me, Europe means diversity. There are so many extremes between the far corners. I feel there are two borders that split the continent: between east and west and between north and south. A difference between east and west are the facilities and services. Public institutions here in Bulgaria are not up to scratch. That’s different in the South-West.”
We have so many uncertainties here, that make us long for Western Europe. But at the same time, it bores us to death
It creates an interesting contradiction: “We have so many uncertainties here, that make us long for Western Europe. But at the same time, it bores us to death.” South Europe has similarities too. “Take Italy, no-one there respects personal space. In the Northern countries everyone orderly waits on the right side of the escalator. Here this wouldn’t happen, not even in a hundred year.”
What did accession to the EU in 2007 mean for Bulgaria? “Only recently I was surprised about how quickly I’ve gotten used to the changes. The liberty of movement has increased massively.” Bulgarians are generally happy with the changes. “It’s a bit like smoking: if you have been denied access to a cigarette long enough, you’ll be ecstatic when you can go out to smoke one. The same happened to us with travel. I remember the first time when I could travel west without a visa. I went to Cologne. And Cologne is not such a special town, but I had the time of my life! Now that it has become more normal, the kick is not that strong anymore. You might be an EU member, but the next day you still wake up in the same city, with the same people.”
Our border with Turkey is both geographical and emotional. It may be our neighbour, but culturally, we’re worlds apart
Hristo expects the EU to return to the core economical union. “I understand that countries with the highest GDP’s are complaining. That’s also the reason why us Bulgarians are satisfied, we benefit. But I think that having a strong economy will become more important.” Hristo thinks that the strategical positioning of the last decades has had its day. Inclusion of Turkey should not be expected. “Our border with Turkey is both geographical and emotional. It may be our neighbour, but culturally, we’re worlds apart. You can see that with Turkish communities in Europe, they don’t mix. An EU with Turkey would never be a success.”
Hristo notes how far removed Sofia seems to be from Istanbul. “People here in the Balkans underestimate the opportunities that Istanbul has to offer. It’s a metropolis that fits right in with cities like New York and London. And it’s only a few hundred kilometres away from here. The sense of distance is not just created by the lack of transport connections. Bulgaria looks west. To us, Milano and Brussel seem closer than Istanbul.”
This interview is part 10 of the series #ThisIsMyEurope. Join the conversation on Twitter [@OneWorldNL] and read the other interviews on the special #ThisIsMyEurope Oneworld page.