Coronavirus used to promote anti-EU narrative in Balkans, report finds

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and Chinese ambassador at Belgrade airport, welcoming aid from People's Republic of China. on 21 March, 2020. [SkyStudioRS/Shutterstock]

The ongoing coronavirus crisis is feeding into the narrative that the EU is “turning its back” on the Western Balkans, the European External Action Service (EEAS) said in an updated report on ongoing disinformation campaigns surrounding the pandemic, published on Wednesday (1 April).

“Claims that the EU is disintegrating in the face of COVID-19 are trending on social media in all analysed regions,” the report added.

The EU announced a €38 million aid package for the Western Balkans on Monday (30 March) after facing criticism for restricting exports of protective gear to countries outside the bloc.

EU announces COVID-19 help for Balkans, Eastern neighbours after criticism

The EU on Monday (30 March) announced nearly €40 million to help Western Balkan countries deal with the coronavirus, after Brussels came under fire for not doing enough for its neighbours.

The biggest tranche — €15 million — will go to Serbia, the worst affected country in the region, which had ‘the worst day in terms of infections since the outbreak of the pandemic,’ director of the Clinic for Infectious Diseases, Goran Stevanovic, said on Tuesday (31 March)

“Chinese coverage [of the pandemic] highlights displays of gratitude by some European leaders in response to Chinese aid,” said the EEAS report, while adding that “Chinese state-controlled media and social media channels strongly promoted the idea that the Chinese model is superior in tackling COVID-19.”

Images of billboards expressing gratitude for Chinese aid have been widely circulating across social media platforms. In Serbia, advertisements appeared with the words “thank you, brother Xi.”

Complaints about an absent European response were echoed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on 15 March when Serbia proclaiming the state of emergency.

“European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China…”

Serbia turns to China due to 'lack of EU solidarity' on coronavirus

Chinese Ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, informed Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Tuesday (17 March) that Beijing had approved a donation and decided to send experts to help Serbia fight the coronavirus pandemic. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

“Pro-Kremlin sources also depicted the Chinese ‘global project’ as superior to the EU,” the EU’s diplomatic service said in its analysis.

“The goal of the Kremlin is to show, that the EU is weak and unable to demonstrate solidarity, and that only Russia is able to cope with pandemic internally and assist others,” MEP Andrius Kubilius (EPP), the former prime minister of Lithuania, told EURACTIV.

“Hundreds of millions of euros of EU assistance are much more than Russia is able to provide,” Kubilius added.

“Unfortunately, the EU is much weaker in its strategic communication. The European Commission should step up its communication efforts, communicate not only numbers of the amounts of assistance, but also understand the power of timely visual story.”

On Monday, (30 March) the European Commission launched a webpage dedicated to fighting  COVID-19 disinformation.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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