SOFIA, BULGARIA - The future of Bulgaria's vast number of low-wage truck drivers has become a top campaign issue in the country heading into European Parliament elections, with debates raging on how new EU rules could threaten the workers and deepen divisions between rich and poor nations in the bloc.
The European Commission wants to put restrictions on cargo transport to ensure adequate rest for truck drivers and limit driving distances. Bulgaria, where the transport sector accounts for 15 percent of GDP and employs some 200,000 people, fears it will erode its workforce's low-cost advantage. It says it could cost jobs and force Bulgarian truckers to move to Western Europe, worsening a wealth gap within the EU.
"This package would directly deprive more than 150,000 Bulgarian families of bread and livelihood," says Angel Dzhambazki, a former member of the European Parliament who is running in this month's election.
The new rules concern truck drivers' postings, driving and rest times, and access to the market. Especially worrying for Bulgarian truckers is the requirement that they spend their rest time in a hotel rather than in bunks in their trucks. The rules would also force drivers to return home every three or four weeks with an empty truck.
Dzhambazki said that the European proposal, called the Mobility Package, would cause thousands of Bulgarians to emigrate to wealthier European countries to be closer to the markets they work with. He sees the proposal as an effort by countries like France and Germany to protect their own businesses from the competition of lower-wage countries like Bulgaria.
The proposal has passed a first reading in the European Parliament, with a second approval needed for it to come into force. It has the strong backing of EU heavyweights France and Germany.
Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, will elect 17 members of the European Parliament's 751 seats on May 26. Germany, by contrast, will provide 96. Bulgaria could seek strength in numbers, as several other countries in Eastern Europe also oppose the new EU transportation rules, but it remains an uphill battle.
"In the year of Brexit and the European elections, decisions like the Mobility Package only deepen divisions and fuel nationalist feelings in the EU member countries," warned Madlen Kavrakova, legal advisor of Bulgaria's union of international hauliers.
Kavrakova told the AP that denying truck drivers full access to the single European market would set a dangerous precedent and could lead to restrictions in other sectors.
"Does it mean that Europe is driving at different speeds?" she asked rhetorically.
Under the new restrictions, many Bulgarian haulage companies could be forced to relocate to countries closer to their key markets in Western Europe. That could mean the emigration of thousands of truck drivers, depriving countries like Bulgaria of an established industry.
Dimitar Rashkov, the owner of transport company Eurospeed, has managed trucks driving across the continent since 1994 and says the new rules will "separate us as people from Eastern and Western Europe, like it was once many years ago."
Truck driver Ivan Gospodinov is convinced that Europe must be equal for all.
"Like the Germans or Italians who come to Bulgaria and feel comfortable here, we also need to feel comfortable when we go there because we are a big family," he says. "That is what the European Union stands for."