Three key takeaways from the EU-Western Balkans Summit

The EU-Western Balkans Summit proceeded as scheduled on May 6, despite the coronavirus pandemic. A sign of the social distancing times, EU representatives and country officials spoke via video link for about two hours.

While Covid-19 and the EU’s 3.3 billion euros aid package for the Western Balkans were the main subjects of discussion, the summit also touched on Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Left out were talks on enlarging the European Union.

The Covid-19 pandemic dominated the summit

Most of the discussion was dedicated to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and the socio-economic impact of the measures to fight it.

Around 140,000 people have died in Europe from Covid-19 and lockdown measures are expected to have a profound impact on the economies of all European nations. Growth is expected to be negative everywhere in Europe, including the Western Balkan.

While many analysts believe that a rapid recovery can be expected next year, countries will still have to weather the storm of the expected recession.

While some Balkan countries are now starting to come out of lockdown and return to a semblance of normality, the economic consequences of shutting down the regional economy has yet to fully take hold.

To help the region recover, the European Union has created an emergency aid package worth 3.3 billion euros.

In addition, an investment plan was also announced. According to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, this investment plan will focus on transport and energy infrastructure.

But it will come with strings attached.

“Increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as on adherence to EU values, rules, and standards,” reads the declaration released at the end of the summit.

The Western Balkans still have a European future, but enlargement is currently not on the table

“There is no question, the Western Balkans belong in the EU. I call on their governments to continue delivering on reforms, particularly on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and guaranteeing media freedom,” said von der Leyen at the summit’s close, although no mention was made of enlargement at the meeting itself.

According to one EU official, this is due to the need to prioritise Covid-19.

However, many in the region are now questioning the wisdom of leaving enlargement off the summit agenda, and whether an aid package alone is enough to cement the EU as the preferred partner for the countries of the Western Balkan.

“The 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,” said Dušan Reljić, head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

In April, North Macedonia and Albania were both, after a long wait, given the green light to begin EU accession talks. But no date has yet been set the accession talks to begin.

The European Union is weary of Russian and Chinese influence in the region

One function of the aid package is to show that the European Union is still a valuable and essential partner for Western Balkan countries.

“The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement,” reads the summit declaration: a clear reference to the very public aid (much of it sub-standard) given by China and Russia to the Western Balkan countries.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić shocked many people back in March when he declared European solidarity “a fairy tale”.

Vučić said then that Serbia was turning to China for help. And China responded with aid and by sending its experts to help Serbia with the coronavirus pandemic. A Covid-19 laboratory was also built with the close cooperation of China.

Pro-European commentators, however, are highly suspicious of China’s true aims.

“We must be aware that there is a geopolitical component, including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’. Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors,” said EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell in a statement in April.

Russian influence has been a mainstay of Western Balkans politics for years, especially in Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity. This is something the EU has fought at every turn, with varying degrees of success.

The increase in Chinese and Russian influence in the region is most likely why the final summit declaration to emerge from the summit emphasised that Western Balkans countries need to “progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, and to act accordingly.”

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