The first bridge crossing the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was not completed until 1954. Known as the Friendship Bridge, it was anything but that. The Soviet Union forced the bridge on Bulgaria and Romania. When hardline Stalinism is the only solution, there is a major problem. It is also proof that fear can be a historic motivator. Friendship was an ironic name for the bridge, Bulgaria and Romania have not been on friendly terms during much of their history. By forcing the two sides to agree on a bridge, the Soviets offered a preview of how an outside entity could get these two Balkan nations to cooperate. An outside power was also instrumental in the getting the New Europe Bridge built. In this case it would be the European Union.
Finding Their Way – Less Than Easy Access
The New Europe Bridge, which became the second bridge to span the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania in 2013, was a startling success when compared to its predecessor. It had only taken 59 years and the collapse of communism to come through with a follow up to the Friendship Bridge. That is light speed when compared to the seventeen years it took to bridge the divide between the last ancient and first modern version of a bridge crossing the lower Danube. The New Europe Bridge stretched from Vidin, Bulgaria to Calafat, Romania. First proposed in the early 20th century, getting the bridge built was no easy feat. Even after the Ceausescu and Zhivkov regimes ended in 1989, a series of obstacles stood in the way.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s was the necessary evil that inadvertently assisted in bringing the New Europe Bridge to fruition. The border between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was closed when war began to rage in Kosovo. This was a grievous blow to the Bulgarian economy. Its neighbor’s woes effectively isolated it. Bulgaria had enjoyed ease of access through Yugoslavia because their shared border did not require bridging the Danube. This had been the proverbial easy way out. It threatened Bulgaria’s lifeline to the rest of Europe. The old plans to build a bridge from Vidin across the Danube were dredged back up.
Seasonal Extremes – The Rhythm of a River
A bridge across the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania would alter time tested work arounds. In a region as tradition based as these two Balkan nations, the locals, as well as those looking to cover longer distances, used ferry services which ran between the two sides of the rivers. This romantic way of crossing the mighty waters of the Danube was a timeless mode of transport. Whereas ferries from centuries before would have been on a much smaller scale, modern ones allowed for vehicles to make the crossing as well. Of course, the river’s rhythms suffered from seasonal extremes. Low water levels during periods of drought or raging floods after torrential downpours were always a worry.
During the winter months, ice on the Danube could close the crossings for months at a time. The only way to then get across would be to head 191 kilometers further downriver to the Friendship Bridge, followed by traveling a similar distance to get back into southeastern Romania or northwestern Bulgaria. The lack of a crossing due to the vagaries of weather led to a great deal of frustration. The only way to permanently alleviate this problem would be to build a bridge between the riverbanks. This meant cooperation in choosing a suitable location, followed by securing the necessary loans to fund construction. Neither would be easy.
A Long & Convoluted Process – Engineering An Agreement
Getting a second bridge built across the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania was an extremely long and convoluted process. The shortest part was the actual construction which “only” took six years, from 2007 – 2013. Considering that seventeen centuries passed between the building of Constantine’s Bridge and the Friendship Bridge, the second Danube Bridge’s construction took place at light speed. The time it took for construction was only part of the story since a full twenty years had passed since the first discussions over where to locate the bridge and its final completion. Of course, this being the Balkans choosing a location was no easy task.
The Bulgarians and Romanians were adamant in advocating for where they believed the bridge should be located. The Bulgarians wanted to revitalize the city of Vidin, stuck in a location that suffered from few trade connections. The Romanians argued for a different location that would not have included Vidin. Their preferred location would have kept vehicles in Romania for the longest possible time. A study that showed the best location was neither the Bulgarian nor Romanian preferences went nowhere. There was no emperor, a la Constantine, to make the decision by decree. Getting the bridge built was an exercise in the art of compromise. Eventually, the Bulgarian location won out.
None of this would have mattered if not for the work of outsiders. Just as the Soviet Union had played a decisive role in the Friendship Bridge, so too did the efforts of the larger European community bring the New Europe Bridge to fruition. A stability pact led to investment in an historically neglected region. The European Investment Bank, run by the European Union, helped engineer a loan. Projects such as the New Europe Bridge were win-win situations for everyone involved. The bridge facilitated trade, while bringing Bulgaria and Romania closer to Europe. It also brought a degree of normalcy and stability, which had been the exception rather than the rule for both countries in the modern era.
Beyond Expectations – A Stunning Success
The New Europe Bridge turned out to be a stunning success of historic proportions. In its first year alone, over half a million vehicles passed over it. This was five times the initial yearly estimate for vehicular traffic. The bridge closed a gap in trade links between east-central Europe and the Balkans. Most importantly, the bridge helped connect Bulgaria and Romania in a joint economic enterprise. It is amazing how a single bridge can bring people closer together. It is just as amazing that it took so long to bridge what will forever be a historic divide.