Serbia’s increasing reliance on China is a health hazard, say MEPs
On the day that Serbia began a mass Covid-19 vaccination programme with the Chinese Sinovac jab, a cross-party group of MEPs has written to Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, to express concern over China’s increasing influence in the country, particularly in regards to the environmental impact of several heavy industry projects being implemented by Chinese-owned firms.
The letter, signed by 26 MEPs, was initiated by Miriam Lexmann, a Slovak MEP for the European People’s Party (EPP), and the German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, both co-chairs of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).
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It draws attention to a number of Chinese investments in Serbia, including the Železara steel mill in Smederevo, where last August hundreds of locals took to the streets demanding the government take action to reduce air pollution, which they say has worsened since China’s Hesteel, also known as HBIS, purchased the mill in 2016.
The situation is similar in the city of Bor, whose residents also took to the streets last year to protest against an increase in pollution since another Chinese company, Zijin Mining, bought a cooper mine there in 2018.
In September, levels of 1645 mg of sulphur dioxide (SO2) were recorded in the air, more than ten times the 125 mg permitted by law. While Serbian courts have fined Zijin three times for pollution, under Serbian law the fines can not exceed 26,000 euros.
MEPs now want Mr Várhelyi to remind the Serbian government that it needs to adhere to its national legislation as well as EU rules as part of the country’s accession process.
Pollution at ‘dangerous levels’
According to Bütikofer, who is also chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, Chinese heavy industry investment in Serbia has taken air pollution to “dramatic levels”.
He adds that the quality of drinking water in proximity to the heavy industry plants is under threat, “placing the well-being of many people in severe danger”.
“But this is not just a problem for communities on the spot,” says Bütikofer. “No foreign investor can be allowed to ignore or bypass the common European standards that have been agreed on, because pollution and environmental damage do not care about national borders.”
“These investments are emblematic of China’s growing influence in Serbia and elsewhere,” adds Laxmann. “Chinese investment projects lack transparency and sustainability and, as well as environmental damage, they also have a corrosive effect on governance. This is why it is important that the European Union calls on the Serbian government to address the impact of these investments.”
‘Our only ally’
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, has long viewed China a major source of foreign investment, and last year went so far as to say that “Serbia can count on just one ally, the People’s Republic of China”.
In all, Beijing has poured some four billion euros in investments – largely from state-run firms – into Serbia since 2011, while China has pledged another five billion euros in loans and regional infrastructure projects. The projects include major upgrades to highways, railroads, and industry.
Huawei meanwhile, increasingly being frozen out of much of the European Union, is currently deploying thousands of facial recognition cameras in Serbia’s capital Belgrade, with more on their way, as part of an initiative police officials have said will make the capital safer.
The European Investment Bank published a report in September 2018 warning that Chinese investment in the Western Balkans could come with major pitfalls, including unsustainable debt and increased dependency on Beijing.
The report also said there was a chance that Chinese activities in the region “will not help to reduce the already existing problem of corruption, unlike other financiers that put more emphasis on institutional, environmental and social standards.”
Serbia took delivery of its first batch of Sinovac vaccines on January 15, the first country in Europe to do so. President Vučić personally received the first shipment at Belgrade airport, accompanied by the Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo.
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