bne IntelliNews – CONFERENCE CALL: Losing the Western Balkans
On May 3, EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi arrived in Belgrade on the first leg of his Western Balkans alert tour, carrying vaccines against the coronavirus (COVID-19). During the visit, Varhelyi distributed vaccines donated by the EU and discussed the prospects for enlargement – two subjects of crucial importance in the region aspiring to the EU.
However, Varhelyi’s visit comes as a number of countries in the region are already looking east, particularly to China, as the EU – despite 3.3 billion euros of support provided to the region during the pandemic – has lost the public relations battle against other world powers over the past year.
As EU members struggled to get vaccines for their own populations, politicians in candidate countries, including Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, complained that Brussels abandoned the region once the EU faced his own crisis. Varhelyi’s delivery comes after Serbia has already slipped into the void and established itself as a vaccine supplier to the region, and member states have signed on for Chinese vaccine Sinopharm and Russian Sputnik V.
The ground lost by the EU in the Western Balkans and the geopolitical struggle for influence in the region in the era of the pandemic have been the subject of two online roundtables organized by European think tanks in recent days.
The panelists stressed that the dwindling prospects for EU membership allowed other actors to move forward. “Unfortunately, the vision of EU membership for the Western Balkans has become more blurred, more distant and therefore also less motivated. When we created a vacuum in the region, others came up with other ideas, ”EU Special Representative for Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak told the online conference. Geopolitical bets in the Balkans organized by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
The EU had already faced competition initially from Russia and more recently from China in the region and, commenting on the geopolitical situation, Tena Prelec, researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, declared: “the pandemic has really revealed and amplified dynamics already present upstream rather than opening up new themes.
She highlighted the region’s vulnerabilities, such as weak health systems and the large elderly population, which made EU aid crucial. “If the EU wanted to be a real geopolitical actor, it had to step in and really help the Balkans. EU help has arrived, finally – it was the largest donor, with a value including socio-economic and economic support exceeding 3.3 billion euros – but as often happens, EU aid has been slow, sent conflicting messages and has not been coordinated, ”said Prelec.
“It’s good that Oliver Varhelyi is now here to show solidarity, but it’s been 14 months since the pandemic started. The consensus is that the first few months were wasted in terms of communicating EU aid to the Western Balkans. In parallel – as we often see – actors such as China and Russia have the capacity to send much faster and more united messages than the EU. ”
This message was reinforced both by some media in the region and by politicians, most notably Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who chose to take the Sinopharm vaccine and was pictured kissing the Chinese flag when China took over. delivered masks and other medical equipment last spring.
The pandemic followed several years in which the enlargement process slowed down and the discontent felt by aspiring members of the Western Balkans increased. Even the government in Skopje’s radical step of changing the country’s name from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia” to resolve its long-standing dispute with Greece has failed to unblock the progress of the country’s membership. country, the Bulgarian government having vetoed the start of accession negotiations on a range of linguistic and historical issues.
In a separate online roundtable COVID-19 and the geopolitics of the Balkans Organized by the economics-focused think-tank Bruegal, Catherine Wendt, head of the European Commission’s DG NEAR unit, admitted that the process had ‘stalled’ but argues that the current enlargement police is “credible with clearly defined parameters for moving forward” and also takes note of the revised methodology which aims to reinvigorate the process.
While candidate countries feel they are not moving fast enough, Wendt argued that the need for credibility should apply to both sides, and for their part, EU member states believe reforms are needed. blocked in some cases. “Dynamism is very important given the two regions[s] and the European Commission. We want to go faster, but only if the countries meet the criteria. “
Aleksandra Tomanic, executive director of the European Balkans Fund, said the EU still enjoys the trust of the people of the Western Balkans, but criticized the failure of the accession process. “When you look at what North Macedonia has done and see that it is still stuck, I think the EU made a big mistake there,” Tomanic said.
China’s interests in the Western Balkans
On China’s motivation to seek to increase its role in the Western Balkans, Richard Turcsanyi, program director at the Central European Institute for Asian Studies, joked that China is “ not a Santa Claus who goes around the world giving free gifts and building factories and bridges. free. China is in the Western Balkans for its own interests, which are both economic and political. ”
The pursuit of these interests has also had negative side effects in the region. Turcsanyi argued that China is not deliberately blocking Europeanization or eroding democracy in the Western Balkans – its main ally, Serbia, would be more useful in Beijing within the EU than outside – but that China “has a certain gravity and that because of this gravity, China allows corrupt regional elites to continue their activities without feeling the need to reform.” It highlights the non-compliance with environmental standards for some infrastructure projects in the region.
A similar point was made by Tomanic, who said that outside the EU, “there are other players who are giving away cheap money without conditions and we are seeing the result: the capture of the State. The EU has been too tolerant of state capture trends. “
Justyna Szczudlik, deputy director of research and coordinator of the Asia-Pacific program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), plotted the rise of China in the region (and the world) from 2012, when Beijing said it is seeking new partners and export markets in response to overcapacity and slowing growth in the country. Because of their proximity to the large Western European market and relatively underdeveloped infrastructure, the Western Balkans and the Central and Eastern European region as a whole were of interest to China. However, Szczudlik argued that China has been relatively inefficient, especially among the EU’s CEE members, where “the only success is trade”. While the countries of the Western Balkans have been more receptive to offers of loans and investments, Montenegro has encountered repayment difficulties and there are many more pledges than finished products.
And while China has failed to replace the EU in the region, Dimitar Bechev, director of the European Policy Institute in Bulgaria, told the ISPI conference that China has “stolen the show from Russia” , once the main rival of the Western powers. for influence in the region. Meanwhile, Russia’s declining influence saw its influence wane over Serbia and the Bosnian Republika Srpska following the NATO membership of Montenegro and North Macedonia. Even in Serbia, the last general elections of 2020 saw a loss of influence for the Serbian Socialist Party led by Ivica Dacic, one of the strongest pro-Russian voices in Belgrade.
“Russia is realistic about the capabilities it has. He sees himself as a spoiler and not as a replacement for the EU, ”commented Bechev, noting that Russia is still making progress with specific projects that matter to Moscow, especially in the energy sector.
So while the EU is losing ground, neither Russia nor even a rising China is exceptionally strong in the Balkans either, as Carl Bildt, former UN Special Envoy for the Balkans, told the panel. of ISPI. Bildt commented: “It is not that Russia, Turkey and others are powerful players in the Balkans, but if the EU becomes weaker, others can by definition become stronger without being particularly strong. . ”