The coronavirus crisis has not only highlighted the north-south faultline in the EU—it also put relations with western-Balkan aspirants under strain.
It’s not often in international relations that one head of state calls another ‘the brother of my country … who alone can help us’. Yet just this recently occurred in Serbia, with the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, adopting the solicitous role and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, allocated the fraternal one.
Vučić’s bizarre press conference in March was a reaction to the decision by the European Commission to restrict the sale of medical equipment to western-Balkan countries. And even though he is constantly looking for a reason to criticise the European Union, and the west in general, this time the EU made his job easier.
By including the western-Balkan countries in the rest of the world when it comes to exporting medical equipment, the EU sent a bad signal. One cannot claim that Europe is not complete without the western Balkans and then, in such a critical moment, act in accordance with the maxim chacun pour soi.
Yet, judging by the reactions of Italian officials who, at the end of February, lamented that no member state was responding to Italy’s initial calls for help with the severe onset there of the coronavirus crisis—and the subsequent divisions in the union between northern and southern members over the economic response to it—solidarity within the union itself, as with medical equipment, has been in short supply.
Indeed, the early reactions of EU member states on the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic recall the famous words of the German pastor Martin Niemöller: ‘First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew; then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’ This is all the more surprising, because it is evident that nationalist reflexes and distancing between states—as opposed to distancing between individuals—are absurd: the virus knows no boundaries.
Lack of solidarity
Given that, it was, perhaps, illusory to expect the EU to take care of its geopolitical interests regarding the western Balkans. This does not however change the fact that the initial lack of solidarity towards the region strengthened Eurosceptic forces there, provided an excuse for some leaders to delegitimise the whole process of Europeanisation and left the field open for other actors, who do know how to take advantage of it.
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It seems that Russia and, in particular, China have understood this well: they realised that this was a situation from which they could profit greatly. Therefore, they are intensively sending aid, in the form of medical equipment, to many countries of the western Balkans.
The following narrative was thus reinforced in the region: on the one hand, instead of assisting and distributing medical goods to the most vulnerable, the EU introduced export restrictions and is accumulating medical goods for itself; on the other hand, China and Russia are selflessly assisting. Although one cannot talk about the massive Chinese and Russian aid, in terms of image Europe has been losing the ‘battle of the photos’.
The most recent developments suggest nonetheless that European leaders are changing course. There is an increase not only in mutual assistance but also in readiness to help the western Balkans. The EU plans to provide €373 million to the western-Balkan countries to support their social and economic recovery from the pandemic and is allocating €38 million to immediate support for their health sectors.
Moreover, another mistake was corrected when the EU decided after all to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. This change of attitude was crowned with the repeal of the decision that sparked the dissatisfaction in the first place: as of April 26th, the western Balkans are exempted from the restrictions on exports of medical devices from the EU.
Eventually, the western-Balkans countries may even benefit from this ‘competition’ between the great powers. Yet, despite all, paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s words about democracy, there is no doubt that EU membership remains the worst option for the region … except for all the others.
Filip Milačić is a national advisor on political affairs at the mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Montenegro. He has a PhD from the Humboldt University of Berlin and is author of Nationalstaatsbildung, Krieg und Konsolidierung der Demokratie. Kroatien, Serbien und Montenegro (Springer, 2017). The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the OSCE.