The Brief, powered by Goldman Sachs – Which vaccine for the Western Balkans?

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The first COVID-19 vaccine will be authorised within a week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced this week, and EU member states have been pressing ahead with plans for mass vaccination programmes while also keeping measures tight to keep a lid on infection rates over the Christmas period.

The question, however, is whether the EU has been able to use its market power to help countries in the near neighbourhood, most notably in the Western Balkans, to speed up their receipt of the vaccines.

Without EU help, the candidate countries – among the poorest nations in Europe – will struggle to purchase enough doses to cover their populations.

Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi held talks with leaders of the region, many of whom requested to receive COVID-19 vaccines at the same time as EU member states.

However, it seems that the distribution of vaccines through the COVAX facility, a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual COVID-19 vaccines, might not start before May.

When von der Leyen spoke of vaccines for the bloc, she also mentioned that third countries like the Western Balkans might get the EU’s surplus, after member states have had their due share.

In itself, the very idea that we should donate leftover vaccines to the Western Balkans is downright insulting and makes them look like third-class partners, instead of future members of the family.

Such treatment throws the door wide open for Russia and China to pull another great PR stunt, just like they did earlier this year with their ‘mask diplomacy‘, and fill the vacuum left by the EU.

In Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the health ministry said its representatives in Russia were considering the possibility of procuring vaccines from a Russian manufacturer. Serbia itself has participated in the third phase of testing of a Chinese vaccine.

Unlike China, the EU countries at the beginning of the health crisis were unable to provide medical supplies crucial to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. Only at a later stage did the EU adopt a pro-active strategy.

At the same time, a recent regional survey by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) found that more than half of those questioned in Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia did not plan to get vaccinated.

According to the findings, the region has become prone to misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and its geopolitics.

The visibility of conspiracy theories on COVID-19 and its origins are “strikingly high in the Western Balkans,” the authors found, and “between a quarter and half of the population subscribe to at least one” of the conspiracy theories the researchers looked at.

This mix is a ‘perfect’ setting for the EU to lose (once again) the geopolitical battle for the hearts and minds in the region.

Though the EU is the Western Balkans’ biggest donor and trade partner, efforts to bring the region closer have been set back by the bloc’s demands for reforms, and the countries’ reluctance to implement them.

And until the reforms materialise, Moscow and Beijing have plenty of time to buy the countries’ elites.

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The Roundup

Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain have issued a joint letter calling on the European Union to clearly prioritise renewable energies under an EU-led project aiming to accelerate hydrogen deployment, research and infrastructure.

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič has tested positive for COVID-19, after the French presidency said that Emmanuel Macron had been diagnosed with coronavirus, which he might have contracted at an EU summit both leaders attended the previous week.

The turn of the year marks the end of the German presidency of the EU Council. When Angela Merkel’s government took over in July, it was clear that all previous plans had gone up in smoke and there was only one priority left: dealing with the pandemic.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has started to interfere openly in Bulgarian domestic politics, pundits said after he made an unprecedented video address to Bulgaria’s mostly ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

Following the Russia-negotiated peace in Nagorno-Karabakh in November, Azerbaijan signals it seeks EU-style reconciliation in the region based on economic projects, while a leading MEP replied democratic reforms should come first.

Negotiations between the European Parliament and EU member states on the bloc’s coronavirus recovery fund concluded early on Friday, unlocking €265 billion of the total €672.5 available for the green transition in EU countries.

Look out for…

This is the last edition of the Brief for 2020. EURACTIV wishes you a Merry Christmas and a good start into the New Year. We will be back for you on 11 January.

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