ALL CHAOTIC ON THE EASTERN FRONT

by Albena Shkodrova, Anthony Georgieff

Theoretically, EU nationals can now stay and work in Bulgaria. In practice, they can't

No one has expected Bulgaria to become an exemplary EU member from the very beginning of its membership, but then no one has anticipated no change whatsoever in its immigration and labour regulations concerning EU citizens.

The Foreign Ministry told VAGABOND at the end of January that Bulgaria would open up its labour market regardless of the "transition period" protective measures imposed on Bulgarians' right to work and live in the EU by a number of EU countries, including the UK and Ireland.

But by the time this issue went to press the Bulgarian Government hadn't taken any legal steps to remove immigration, residence and labour restrictions notoriously known to all expats here.

In what in effect was a sharp discrepancy between what the government said and did, we found out that EU nationals still needed to register with the police even for stays of up to three months. Significantly, the employment of foreigners situation remained unchanged. According to the latest version of the immigration, labour and nationality laws quoted to us by a legal counsel, Bulgarian legislation did not differentiate between EU and non-EU nationals. Every employer in Bulgaria, it emerged, was still required to go through the lengthy and costly procedure of obtaining work permits for any non-Bulgarian employee.

Our counsel added that the Bulgarian parliament had scheduled no debates over possible - and EU-stipulated - changes to the legislation.

Theoretically, from 1 January 2007 on, Britons in Bulgaria were supposed to enjoy all the benefits they would receive in any other EU country, in any field: from free, unregistered stay of up to three months, to access to the local healthcare system. All EU nationals could in theory come to Bulgaria and stay up to three months, then apply for long-term residence permits. After that they would need to apply to the police for permission to extend their stay. To be granted this, candidates would be required to prove that they could support themselves and would, therefore, not sponge on Bulgaria's social security system.

Obviously, Bulgaria did implement EU-related changes in other areas. There is no longer customs control on Bulgaria\'s borders with the EU. This means that expats can bring as many personal belongings as they wish, without bothering with any kind of formalities.

Duty free shops at entry points to Bulgaria have been demolished, meaning it is only possible to make duty free purchases when exiting the country to a non-EU destination. There are no longer duty free shops on the Romanian and Greek borders. The limits imposed on the quantities of alcohol and cigarettes purchased at duty free shops on the borders concern duty free purchases only and should not be confused with general import limitations. You can bring up to 90 litres of wine and up to 200 pieces of cigarettes into Bulgaria, as long as you can prove they are not for trade and were purchased (and their VAT and excise taxes paid) in an EU country.

A limitation, which will be dropped only in 2014, is the ban on possession of agricultural land by non-Bulgarian EU citizens. This restriction is currently in effect, but in fact does not prevent thousands of Britons from buying properties in the country. Local law allows them to buy land on behalf of their locally registered companies: a solution which many have found easy enough to use. Another way around it is to acquire permanent residence in Bulgaria. From 1 January 2007 those who possess this can freely buy any property on the same basis as a Bulgarian citizen.

Your Essential Bowl of Tripe

One of the freedoms many UK citizens may regard as important is the right to eat or not to eat tripe soup. On the other hand, any freedom must have its limits, and in this case the one thing UK citizens may not do is openly despise this essential staple of Bulgarian cuisine.

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