Post Covid-19: Can EU - Western Balkans Cooperation Prevail Over Chinese Competition?

1 June, 2020

The pandemic we are currently experiencing has had a strong impact on numerous countries around the world. The twenty-seven EU Member States are no exception. The European Union is currently trying to respond to the internal crisis as a result of COVID-19, mainly by providing instruments to combat the economic recession that has followed in wake of the pandemic. Despite this extreme uncertainty, since March 2020, the EU has begun to re-express the importance it attaches to neighborhood policies, paying special attention to the area of the Western Balkans.

A significant signal was given when, in the midst of the outbreak in the Member States, EU leaders gave their positive input to the Commission in order to start the negotiations for the membership of North Macedonia and Albania. Some commentators believe this proactive approach was a way to restore the trust between the EU and the Western Balkans, after the French stoppage to the negotiation talks in October 2019. A further confirmation of the EU’s commitment towards the Western Balkans came in April, when the EU established a plan to help this area face the negative economic and social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The EU’s support package establishes over €410 million in reallocated bilateral financial assistance for the emergency phase. Furthermore, the EU has allocated €38 million for medical equipment, ensured the supply of essential goods and committed to providing the area with €374 million for short- and medium- term assistance.

The economic plan to help the Western Balkans during and after the pandemic was formally confirmed on May 6th, 2020, during the Zagreb Summit. The summit, originally planned to happen in Zagreb, was conducted via videoconference because of the ongoing pandemic. The meeting gathered the Heads of States and Governments of the EU Member States, and the Heads of States of the six Western Balkans partners, namely Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo.

Other key figures attended the meeting, such as the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Parliament, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and various representatives for the World Bank, European Investment Bank, Regional Cooperation Council and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The meeting outcome was a joint declaration adopted by the EU and Western Balkans leaders. The declaration reached multiple results, both within the economic and the diplomatic sphere. Twenty years after the first Zagreb Summit, the EU reaffirmed its commitment towards the region and asserted its support in tackling the economic reconstruction phase that will follow the pandemic.

In doing so, the EU highlighted, once again, that the economic and financial support it offers to the Western Balkans will be conditioned on the enactment of some core reforms. More specifically, the post-pandemic economic plan forecasted by the European Commission and based on the aforementioned investment plan aims to not only boost local economies and improve their competitiveness, but in the process further draw the Western Balkans to the single market and promote the EU’s Green agenda. For their part, the six Balkan countries should strengthen the Rule of Law and implement core bilateral agreements—such as the Prespa Agreement with Greece and the Treaty on Good Neighborly Relations with Bulgaria—so as to prove their intention to build a solid and cooperative partnership with the closely located Union. Another aspect all parties committed to during the Zagreb meeting was the management of disinformation generated by third countries, which has tried to divide the European Union from its partners and exploit the negative narratives generated during the pandemic. Finally, the Member States together with their six Western Balkan partners agreed on the necessity to address migration issues and to adopt a common foreign policy on the topic. Overall, the summit was considered a success by the EU, which underlined the importance of the economic tool in order to move forward with the social and political changes that will allow the Western Balkans to get closer to the Union.

The plan established by the European Union emphasizes the significance of the economic factor to the EU-Western Balkans relationship, which constitutes an area of great interest for the first. But the EU is not the only party interested in the region. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU already had to deal with several competitors in the area, all of whom were trying to gain some influence over Balkan leaders. However, there is a new power operating in the area—China—which lacking any cultural or religious connections to the region, has been using economic leverage instead. Even before the pandemic, China’s strategy in the Balkans was based on investments, especially in the field of infrastructure. For instance, Chinese enterprises have funded a bridge linking Croatia to its southern enclave close to Dubrovnik, financed a high-speed rail connection between Serbia and Hungary and built highways in several Balkan countries. The direct consequences of these investments are not insignificant. In fact, since the Chinese enterprises investing in infrastructure initiatives in the Western Balkans are public, if the borrowing countries fail to pay back their debts, the Chinese government would become the owner of these projects.

With the coronavirus pandemic, China has further enhanced its economic tactic. Utilizing so-called “mask diplomacy,” China has acted as a major donor of medical equipment in an attempt to promote itself abroad after its reputation was severely damaged by the fact that COVID-19 originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Balkans have not been exempted from these efforts. On March 12th, 2020, the President of Serbia when welcoming medical supplies coming from China kissed the Chinese flag at the airport of Belgrade, sending a strong message to the EU. Masks and other medical supplies were also provided to Montenegro, and the Chinese embassy in North Macedonia donated €30,000 to the country’s Health Ministry. But is this “mask diplomacy” working in the Balkans? In general, it appears not. Even the apparent success with Serbia is not so much due to the potential of Chinese diplomacy itself, but to the choice of Serbian leaders. In fact, the country is one of the most critical towards the European Union in the area. After the sensation of being abandoned by its European partners following the financial crisis of 2008, Serbia has gradually changed its approach towards its Western allies, becoming more and more critical. China and other competitors have stepped up to occupy this vacuum left by the EU in the last ten years. The attraction of China and its massive investments also stems from the basis that the Asian country, unlike the EU, does not require any structural, economic or social reforms in exchange for its economic investments.

What are, then, the challenges the EU must tackle in the Western Balkans after the pandemic, to regain some influence in the area? First, it is necessary to ensure that the six Western Balkan countries do not feel abandoned once again like they did after the 2008 financial crisis. Second, in an attempt to regain a leading role in the area, the EU must refrain from only considering the economic aspect (as some competitors have) and neglecting necessary reforms in the field of democracy and the fight against corruption. In the last several years, for instance, some local leaders have allowed a decline in democratic standards, as they could count on Chinese finances. Of course, this will need to be tackled by both the EU and the Balkan countries, the latter of whom should try to uphold the commitment agreed upon during the Zagreb Summit and avoid being fascinated by the availability of ready money from other partners—which would further endanger their process towards complete democratization.

To conclude, it is possible to state that the economic package allocated by the EU to tackle the post-COVID reconstruction in the Western Balkans is not an end in itself. On the contrary, if correctly invested, these funds could be the foundation on which the worn relationship between the EU and the Western Balkan partners could be strengthened, with the purpose of restarting that once close cooperation that was forsaken after the 2008 financial crisis.

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