Could COVID-19 poison the EU’s relations with the Western Balkans?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Vanja Mladineo
Vanja Mladineo

Executive Director of Center for Democracy and Law Miko Tripalo

The European External Action Service (EEAS) Special Report Update from 1 April 2020 identified many of the narratives and disinformation swirling around about COVID-19. Some of the recurring themes emphasised in this report include that the EU has completely failed to deal with the pandemic and is on the brink of collapse. The report also exposed narratives portraying the EU as ineffective, divided and cynical in its crisis response. These disinformation campaigns also paint the EU as a selfish actor abandoning its own values – such as those of solidarity and freedom of movement – and claim that this has revealed the inability of democracies to cope with such health crises.

These allegations are dangerous as they undermine the very values and ideas that the EU is founded upon and unfortunately, in many parts of the world, for various reasons, they fall on fertile ground. The EU should be concerned about the spread of malevolent narratives around the world and in the Western Balkans in particular.

In this region, the narrative of an ineffective, weak and self-centred EU is reinforced by the perception that EU has turned its back on the Western Balkans. To find evidence supporting such claims, countries in the region need look no further than March 2020 when the EU restricted the export of personal protective equipment outside the EU, shutting out the Western Balkans. Another example, still fresh in the minds of many people in the region, is French President Emmanuel Macron’s blocking of the opening of negotiations on EU membership for North Macedonia and Albania in October 2019. This was reversed in March 2020 by the Council’s decision.

This request for public recognition of the EU’s good deeds comes at a politically sensitive moment for some countries in the region

These are only two examples but they speak to the general impression in the region that the Western Balkans and enlargement are on the EU agenda’s back burner. In its defence, the EU has taken steps to repair the damage done by reversing the decision on the protective equipment export ban in April and by passing an aid package of immediate funding in the amount of €38mn for the Western Balkan countries to address their medical equipment and protection needs. Furthermore, the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU has made continuing a credible and e­ffective enlargement policy a priority, envisioning the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb as the flagship event for these efforts.

The expectations in the region were cautious but ultimately hopeful. The Zagreb Summit, derailed by the global pandemic, as well as the inability of the member states to take a unified stance on enlargement, delivered but a consolation prize. The Zagreb Declaration proclaimed the EU’s “…unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans” but failed to mention enlargement. It highlighted the ample financial package of support provided by the EU to the region – over € 3.3 bn – which was interpreted by many in the Western Balkans as the EU throwing money at a problem at the expense of to its values and promises.

In the Zagreb Declaration “the EU welcomes the strong commitment by the Western Balkans partners to the primacy of democracy and the rule of law, especially the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights, gender equality and for rights of persons belonging to minorities.”  The Declaration also demanded public acknowledgement of the EU’s support for the region in the crisis.

This request for public recognition of the EU’s good deeds, as well as a clear reminder of the conditionality of this relationship, comes at a politically sensitive moment for some countries in the region. Parliamentary elections in Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are fast approaching.

Quite a few political actors in Western Balkan countries are interested only in maintaining ‘stabilitocracy’

More generally, in the political landscapes of many Western Balkans countries, a natural affinity for the EU and the desire to reach concrete milestones in the accession process are mixed with disappointment and disillusionment. Many in the region see the EU as disingenuous in its intentions towards the Western Balkans, while some feel misjudged and unfairly pressured in the accession process, the result of which is tenuous.

On the other hand, according to some democracy indices, such as the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, most countries in the region have continuously lost ground in terms of the quality of their democracies since 2008. The current crisis provides additional opportunities to concentrate executive power and undermine the rule of law and civil liberties. Quite a few political actors in Western Balkan countries are interested only in maintaining ‘stabilitocracy’. Their ineffectiveness in solving problems, combined with weak institutions and widespread clientelism, as well as pandemic-inspired restrictions, threaten democracy in the region. In this context, the rhetoric of a disintegrating EU betraying one of its fundamental values – solidarity – aptly distracts from the local political machinations and resonates with disappointed and hoodwinked electorates.

The impact and the full extent of the damage of this crisis on the EU remains to be seen, but one of the questions that must be addressed has to do with the soundness and endurance of the fundamental European value of solidarity. Is solidarity key for the EU’s successful navigation of future crises? Can a more coordinated and effective crisis management response based on solidarity rather than self-interest and panic restore confidence in the European idea, both in the EU and in the Western Balkans? Moreover, the EU should recognise the impact that long drawn-out processes, ever-shifting goalposts and reluctant commitments in the accession process has in the region, especially with respect to the perception of the EU as a beacon of hope and defender of values.

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