EU’s COVID-19 aid to reassure Western Balkan hopefuls as virus set to hijack summit

A pilot wearing a protective face mask carries a box of medical supplies in front of an airplane set to take medical supplies at the Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, Serbia, 25 April 2020. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

As EU leaders e-meet with their Western Balkans counterparts on Wednesday (6 May), the focus will be on a €3.3 billion EU aid package to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. What is seen as an attempt to counter foreign influence in the region, could, however, come too late.

A major part of the draft declaration, seen by EURACTIV, focuses on EU support during the COVID-19 pandemic. The word “enlargement” is nowhere to be found in the text.

Instead, the declaration points towards the EU’s COVID-19 assistance to the Western Balkans, including the mobilisation of €3.3 billion, €750 million of macro-financial assistance, long-term support to be presented later this year as an Economic and Investment plan for the EU’s neighbourhood region, as well as the latest joint procurement and the unrestricted trade-flow of protective personal equipment.

“The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement”, the draft declaration reads, acknowledging the support Western Balkan states have provided to its immediate neighbours and EU member states.

“Once we exit the immediate measures to contain (the) COVID-19 pandemic, a new phase of close cooperation to tackle the significant socio-economic impact of the crisis will follow”, the draft declaration adds.

“We are not discussing enlargement today, one of the main reasons being COVID-19,” an EU official told a press briefing ahead of the summit on Tuesday (5 May).

Asked if not mentioning enlargement is damaging, the official said “for the region and each partner, the EU remains number one,” pointing out that China and Russia do not offer a real alternative.

However, critics believe the political efforts could prove too little too late as the EU has taken the Western Balkans’ drive toward the bloc for granted for too long.

The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell warned in mid-April in a statement that China’s “politics of generosity” concealed “a geo-political component including a struggle for influence.”

China has increased its aid to many places in Europe such as worst-hit Italy and Spain, with the Western Balkans having received significant attention from Beijing, which in recent years has massively increased its investment and loans in the region, increasing its chances of a long-term economic relationship.

Earlier this year, Washington also tried to position the US to eclipse the EU in the Western Balkans, particularly through its efforts to mediate in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, with some Washington diplomats viewing those negotiations between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo as a way to help secure the region for increased American business.

Serbia, in particular, has been a willing to accept China’s COVID-19 “mask diplomacy” and pandemic aid, as the two countries have solidified their ties over the last decade.

Though the EU is the region’s biggest donor and trade partner, efforts to bring the region closer have been set back by the bloc’s demands regarding rule of law and accession criteria.

“The announced EU aid package will be able to do little to change the fundamental problems of the region if the EU does not treat the Western Balkans as an integral part of the EU – for the “geopolitical” reasons,” said Dušan Reljić, head of the SWP Brussels office.

“In point of fact, the perception has spread in the Western Balkans that the aspired EU membership cannot be the panacea for the region’s persistent problems,” Reljić said, with one of the reasons being that a solution would need to make sure the planned aid is “not a one-off effort based mainly on loans rather than grants”.

According to him, even in the best economic situation in the EU, the Western Balkans will not be able to raise enough investment to achieve annual growth of over 6% GDP, the level necessary to catch up with the EU average in 30 years.

“Even if the EU takes a fundamentally different stance with this approach, it is unclear whether it is not 12 years too late: a similar push should have taken place after 2008/2009, when the international debt and financial crisis spilled over to the Western Balkans and hit the region even harder than the EU itself,” he said.

“For this reason, the region is increasingly looking to Asia, especially China, in the hope of attracting larger investments.”

“Within a month, the circumstances created during the COVID-19 pandemic have further contributed to the overall trend of democratic erosion reversing two decades of reforms in the Western Balkans”, a recent paper by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) stated.

After the pandemic is over, Serbia, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are set to hold parliamentary and regional elections.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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