The EU & The Western Balkans: Love lost in the time of coronavirus

The European Union’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was met with disappointment in the Balkans– with many seeing the measures as another blow to the Union’s standing in the region. Yet while the leaders of the bloc have failed to see the bigger picture, the reactions to the announcement in the region have exposed those leaders who see their relationship with the EU as merely transactional.

In a video message posted on Twitter, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out a set of measures aiming at mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and reassuring member states. Part of those measures was the decision to drastically restrict medical equipment exports to non-EU countries and to make such exports subject to the approval of all member states.

Many of the steps declared by the European Commission president were expected, but the unprecedented export ban raised eyebrows across the Western Balkans. The EU-wide ban on exports of medical equipment severely affects Western Balkans countries, which are highly interconnected with and dependent on the EU. As has happened in other recent cases, the EU has failed to see the countries of the region as an integral of Europe and to consider the long-term implications of its decision.

The EU’s reluctance to acknowledge the Balkans as an integral part of Europe – and its inability to deal firmly with incumbent challenges like migration – risk turning into a deep wound should the EU definitively close its door to the Balkans in a humanitarian and health crisis. The EU needs to scale up its game and encompass the entire Balkans in its efforts to address the pandemic and its impact. After all, the messages sent and actions carried out during this time will be remembered by millions of people for more than a generation.

While EU’s announcement deserves a fair share of criticism, some reactions that followed it – particularly that of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić – were astounding. The Serbian leader was quick to condemn EU’s decision, declaring – in a way that surprised many in Brussels – that “European solidarity does not exist – that was a fairytale on paper.”

At the same time, he chose to hail China and his “friend and brother” Chinese President Xi Jinping as saviours during this crisis and pleaded for China’s support.

The stand of Serbia’s president is, of course, unprincipled. As emphasised by the EU ambassador to Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, the European Union is Serbia’s “main donor, investor, and trade partner” and it “always supported Serbia in difficult times.”

This is true for all the countries of the Western Balkans.

Balkan observers know well President Vučić’s proverbial ability to change direction swiftly based on shrewd calculations, but some European leaders were clearly surprised, with German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth describing President Vučić’s statement as a “strange choice.”

Yet there is nothing strange about it. For far too long now President Vučić has courted Chinese investments and aimed to present Serbia as China’s gateway to the region, despite repeated reminders from the EU of the risks associated with these investments. Having milked the EU quite effectively until now and sensing the vulnerability of the EU in the current crisis, President Vučić’s focus has drifted towards the winds blowing to the Far East.

Of course, as the leader of Serbia, President Vučić should make the decision that he believes is best for his citizens. But, it is time for EU leaders to finally see with clear eyes some of the failures of their Balkan policy. It is time for the EU to stop patting President Vučić’s back and to finally start acknowledging Serbia’s destabilising role in the region.

Covid-19’s impact will surely reverberate beyond the immediate public health crisis. The countries in the Western Balkans, the most fragile economies on the old continent, will need the support of international partners, most importantly the EU, to move beyond the crisis and stabilise their economies. A tone-deaf response in the long-run would risk leaving a mark even on those people in the Balkans that cherish the bloc idealistically and are truly devoted to its principles.

When the critical situation is over, EU leaders would do well to remember what was said and done during this time and not forget who remained steadfast in values of friendship, openness, and democracy in the face of a catastrophe, and who quickly pivoted towards the highest bidder. And this lesson should be learned also by those on the other side of the Atlantic that have embraced fabricated narratives on other Balkan-related issues.