The millionaires of Europe’s eastern frontier

Despite billions invested in hi-tech surveillance equipment, the borders of Romania and Bulgaria remain some of Europe’s most porous. Sumptuous villas built by customs officers might provide a clue as to why. A report.

Published on 5 September 2011 at 12:05

SVILENGRAD, Bulgaria — The infrared cameras here near Bulgaria’s borders with Greece and Turkey are high powered enough to pick up rabbits scampering across farm fields in the dead of night.

But on a recent afternoon, the men inside the border station were focused on a car — moving a bit too fast along a country road. Maybe a smuggler, they thought. They called over their radios to have the car stopped. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Bulgaria and its neighbor Romania, which has spent more than 1 billion euros, developing an equally high-tech border operation, are hoping to join the European Union’s visa-free travel zone this month. They also hope to take over guarding some of the union’s outer borders.

A few years ago, such a move would probably have been routine, experts say, just another step in the European Union’s continuing, enthusiastic expansion. But today, there is a new conservatism at work in the bloc.

Both Bulgaria and Romania were welcomed into the European Union in 2007, despite lingering questions about organized crime, corruption and an ineffective judiciary. Now, however, as Europe faces an economic crisis, fear of more immigration from Africa and growing nationalistic fervour among member countries, it is paying more attention to these issues.

“It is nice to have a machine to check if there is an illegal person in the back of a truck,” said Karel van Kesteren, the Dutch ambassador to Bulgaria. “But if you can pay 500 euros to someone to look the other way, it makes no sense at all.

“When you give the key to your common home to someone else, you want to be sure that this person is 100 percent reliable and obeys all the rules.” Read full article in The New York Times

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