Can Europe Make It?

EU solidarity with the Western Balkans during the times of COVID

Solidarity is not just about the sharing of resources, but about galvanizing a genuine sense of unity of purpose centered around common issues and values.

Ian Bancroft
1 April 2021, 8.27am
Serbian flag plus self quarantine message.
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Quatrox Production / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved.

An EU promotional video released almost a decade ago, compares individual EU countries to aspiring members. France is linked to Serbia, with scenes from Belgrade that supposedly resemble Paris. Italy is linked to Bosnia and Herzegovina, doubtless because of a fondness for grandma’s home cooking, while Sweden is for some reason linked to Montenegro. The UK is paired with the then former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (today’s North Macedonia), seemingly bound by their respective fondness for statues. The remaining associations are somewhat more predictable for largely historical reasons – Spain and Kosovo (the former refusing to recognise the independence of the latter), Germany and Turkey, Austria and Croatia, and Greece and Albania.

The video ends with the tagline “so similar, so different, so European”; though the video itself only portrays – or contrives – the similarities. The differences are presumably so self-evident that they do not require further elucidation. Nor does it really matter, since all are “so European”.

Whether intended to strengthen the morale of those aspiring to join the EU, or to persuade those within the Union that they have nothing to fear from further enlargement (or indeed both), the advert constitutes one of the flashier examples of attempts to construct a notion of solidarity between those inside and outside the EU.

Ten years on, the question of solidarity between the Western Balkans and the EU is undergoing a fundamental reassessment; driven initially by the EU's response to the migrant crisis and further compounded by its insufficient support to the region during the pandemic, especially where vaccines are concerned. Any top-down talk of solidarity on the part of the EU will these days be met with considerable cynicism. It is now left to transnational networks working from the bottom-up to salvage any notion of solidarity between the EU and the Western Balkans.

The meaning of solidarity

Reflecting upon the notion of solidarity between the EU and the Western Balkans during the COVID-19 pandemic requires assessing the way that solidarity has been discussed over several decades. It is often stressed that Europe is not complete without the Western Balkans, and the financial, technical, diplomatic, and human investments in EU enlargement have without doubt been substantial.

Credit for such commitments, however, tends to fall well short of what one might expect. In Serbia, for instance, public surveys regularly find that a majority believe Russia to be the country’s largest donor. Whether because of its own timidity or lack of strategic communications – arguably even a reluctance to trumpet its generous assistance – the EU is not making its investments sufficiently visible.

This is before we consider the fact that the much-vaunted enlargement project is a fading light throughout the region; especially after the membership bids of Albania and North Macedonia were blocked, despite the latter’s historic compromise over the name issue with neighbouring Greece. Politicians today would laugh if you mentioned 2025 as a prospective membership date; even Jean-Claude Juncker is probably chuckling to himself whilst swirling a glass of šljivovica.

Then there are the failed promises, notably the refusal to grant Kosovo visa liberalisation even though the European Commission deemed it had fulfilled all the criteria. Though there is great sympathy for Kosovo’s independence across Europe, one would be hard pressed to imagine protests on the streets of Paris or The Hague in solidarity with the young Kosovans eager to enjoy just a slither of the very freedom of movement that many Europeans take for granted. The scope for solidarity is extremely stretched when one of Europe’s youngest populations feels that it is being ghettoised; and worse, that this ghettoisation is a manifestation of European Islamophobia.

Solidarity in times of crisis

In times of crisis, acts of solidarity have a particularly profound impact. It is in such instances where either lasting bonds of friendship are forged, or negative sentiments crystallise. Some will recall the extent to which Europe came to the aid of the Western Balkans during the catastrophic floods of 2014, which devastated houses and infrastructure in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and elsewhere.

However, the refugee crisis that peaked in 2015-16 provides the most pertinent example. The so-called Balkan Route saw hundreds of thousands of people pass from Turkey into Greece and onwards towards western Europe. EU assistance helped countries – Serbia and North Macedonia, in particular – manage the unprecedented flows. Nearly all who passed through the region were treated with dignity and respect. The Western Balkans was commended, and rightly so.

After this initial solidarity, however, the closing of European borders sparked the emergence of a narrative that the region was merely a buffer zone, forced to tackle a problem that EU member states were unwilling to confront. It is one that has persisted. Recent pushbacks from Croatia into Bosnia-Herzegovina and the associated acts of police brutality have been widely condemned by the likes of Amnesty International. For all the rhetoric about European values, the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans has increasingly been perceived as purely transactional, thanks to the former’s conduct during this crisis. European interests in this instance appear to easily trump European values.

Enter COVID

The EU’s response to the pandemic in the Western Balkans must be understood in this context. Its reaction during the first wave of COVID-19 led Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, to remark that, “by now you all understood that European solidarity does not exist” and that it was “a fairy tale on paper”; adding that “the only country that can help us is China”.

When those surveyed as part of the GLOBSEC Trends analysis for 2020 were asked, 'Who handled the COVID-19 crisis the best so far?', 58% in Serbia answered China versus only 11% for the EU

With respect to vaccine distribution, the EU is today nowhere to be seen. Many countries have little to no access to vaccines, particularly Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbia, which has secured a smorgasbord of vaccines, has embarked upon a round of so-called “vaccine diplomacy”; donating supplies to Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia, and vaccinating health workers from the Republika Srpska.

When those surveyed as part of the GLOBSEC Trends analysis for 2020 were asked, 'Who handled the COVID-19 crisis the best so far?', 58% in Serbia answered China, versus only 11% for the EU. The desperation is such that Bosnia-Herzegovina has finally moved to plug the vaccine gap by procuring hundreds of thousands of doses of Sputnik V.

Furthermore, healthcare systems in the Western Balkans have been decimated by the outflow of highly-trained medical personnel to western Europe. More will follow, with Europe’s ageing population creating seemingly insatiable demands for such human capital. Many increasingly feel that these countries should be directly compensated for their investments in education and training. Indeed, the same argument is applied to the broader Western Balkans brain drain, which clearly requires a Europe-wide solution.

The transnational promise

Failures in the response to the pandemic have compounded a sense of scepticism and fatigue about the notion of European solidarity. One potential source for renewed solidarity between the EU and the Western Balkans, however, lies in transnational networks of activism. Solidarity is not just about the sharing of resources, but about galvanising a genuine unity of purpose centered around common issues and values. Upholding the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, for instance, rather than reverting to a dogma that restricts the scope of marriage and abortion rights, has the potential to unite causes within and beyond the Union.

Many of the problems facing citizens of the Western Balkans are almost identical to those facing citizens of the EU. For instance, take the coordinated campaigns with the tagline “Our kids want to breathe”, lobbying the European Parliament to raise air quality standards. Anyone who has had the misfortune to inhale the air in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Pristina, or Skopje will know that this is an issue of profound concern for all parents across the region.

Those originally from the Western Balkans can also be a driving force for strengthening ties of solidarity in the countries that they now call home. To mark the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, architect Arna Mačkić and three other young women commissioned 25 portrait photos of Bosnian Dutch women and men of 25 years old, which were erected in the centre of The Hague. All those photographed have roots in Bosnia-Herzegovina but were born or raised in the Netherlands. In the words of the Bosnian Girl collective, “their double identity symbolises the interconnectedness of Dutch and Bosnian history”. This temporary memorial sparked inclusive dialogues between Dutch society and those with ties to Bosnia-Herzegovina about issues such as dealing with the past.

It is these transnational networks of active citizenship that can build genuine solidarity, based upon common issues and values. The very notion of solidarity within Europe and beyond needs to be reconceived; not as sympathy to a particular cause of the afflicted or vulnerable – essentially the idea of solidarity as a form of ‘charity’ – but as a process of mutual empowerment through the building of coalitions and the realisation of shared objectives.

While the starting point may appear to be “so similar, so different”, as some might say, at its very core lie common values and pursuits; of dignity and self-respect; protection of the environment in which we live and breathe; and the ways and means of mobilising against various forms of oppression. Such forms of solidarity can and will endure even if the region’s European perspective wanes; though they are sadly unlikely to be sufficient to unlock the obstacles to enlargement.

It is these transnational networks of active citizenship that can build genuine solidarity, based upon common issues and values.

In one sense there is no European solidarity as such, only a solidarity guided by values that we deem to be European, but which citizens within and beyond the borders of the Union must continue fighting to uphold. Though we are unlikely to see any more states in the Western Balkans join the EU any time soon, the very issues and values around which genuine solidarity can be constructed are present in the hearts, minds and – unfortunately – the lungs of many of its citizens.

This article is based upon remarks delivered at a discussion entitled, ‘EU Solidarity with whom? Sharing resources in times of pandemic’, organised by the Institute of Advanced Study of Social Change at the University of Milano-Bicocca. It is part of a series of meetings entitled, “What Welfare after the Pandemic? Welfare Reorganisation and Citizenship in Times of Covid-19”

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