‘By now you all understood that European solidarity does not exist’, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, told the nation during a press conference to declare a state of emergency on Sunday evening. It was ‘a fairy tale on paper’, he added, and the ‘only country that can help us is China’. It was a moment of grand political theatre, delivered with Vučić’s trademark pauses and profundity, in front of a TV audience eager to learn whether their sons and daughters would be going to school or kindergarten the very next day. Yet it was a moment that captured a sentiment that even Serbia’s most progressive voices have come to harbour – deepening and increasingly fundamental disillusionment with the EU and the European perspective. It is, moreover, a disillusionment that is felt across the Western Balkans.
The timeline for membership of the Union – a dream shared by the so-called Western Balkans Six – has been stretched to such an extent that it has begun to fray. The start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania were vetoed by France last autumn, despite the former having changed its name after an historic compromise with Greece. Kosovo still awaits visa liberalisation, even though the Commission determined that it had fulfilled all the stipulated conditions (of which there were plenty). Bosnia and Herzegovina’s internal upheavals threaten its own functionality, let alone its prospects of membership. Only Montenegro and Serbia have made some small but tangible progress; often to the chagrin of the others, especially the progress of the latter.
Without either absolving governments for their failures to implement EU conditioned reforms (and their subsequent attempts to distract attention), or romanticising their stated commitments to do so amidst almost constant electioneering, the recalcitrance of certain member states towards admitting new members has hindered progress on numerous fronts.
It is not just the waning of the European perspective, though well-documented, that is driving disillusionment. The region’s healthcare systems – including those of EU members such as Croatia and Bulgaria – have been decimated (especially outside the main urban centres) by the outflow of highly-trained medical personal (doctors, nurses, surgeons, anaesthetists), enticed by opportunities and renumeration in western Europe. Though one cannot begrudge these individuals the professional and life chances they so deserve, nor can the chronic mismanagement and underfunding of these systems be overlooked, it is nonetheless a loss of labour that is both hard to stem and exacting to replace (especially in the absence of sizeable immigration). Demand for such human capital from Europe’s ageing population is inexhaustible, and many feel these countries should be entitled to direct compensation for their investments. During public health traumas like the Coronavirus, such deficiencies become even more pronounced. There are already too few doctors and nurses, let alone when those on the front-line inevitably fall ill. They will face unimaginable stresses and strains, the result of which will be preventable deaths.
Demand for such human capital from Europe’s ageing population is inexhaustible, and many feel these countries should be entitled to direct compensation for their investments.
Such negative sentiments have been further compounded by the EU’s announcement of measures restricting the export of medical equipment outside the Union. Though member state governments are unlikely to refuse supplies to the Western Balkans Six, the nature and timing of the message prompted a sense that they were at the back of the queue. Vučić criticised the decision as being made by ‘people who gave us lectures here, that we should not buy Chinese goods’, whilst China sent medical supplies and personnel to Belgrade in a high-profile move. The restriction has served to overshadow the arrival of vital resources and dedications of financial assistance, plus the fact that the Union moved to include those ‘negotiating their accession to the Union’ (Serbia and Montenegro) in its financial assistance package for those ‘affected by a major public health emergency’ (though the exclusion of the other four Western Balkan states is likely to provoke further disgruntlement).
EU support to the region has been and remains sizeable, especially in moments of need like the catastrophic floods of 2014 and the 2015 migrant crisis. Indeed, the EU and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have financed some twenty hospitals in Serbia alone. Full acknowledgement of the extent of Europe’s contribution (mostly grants as opposed to loans), however, has rarely been forthcoming.
For all the discourse about European values, the relationship has increasingly been perceived as purely transactional, especially following the migrant crisis. Additional resources were ploughed into the region precisely because of concerns that migrants would continue to find their way into 'Europe proper'. Each country did sterling work (indeed many still do today), albeit to differing degrees, but it gave rise to a sense that European interests came first. It was not a partnership of equals, deriving from a shared orientation and concern, but a pragmatic compromise born out of crisis. This region – peripheral to most European capitals – was now vital for safeguarding the Union from those migrants seeking sanctuary in polities where populists had mobilised hatred and spite against asylum seekers. A narrative emerged that the region was merely a buffer, processing migrants on behalf of countries refusing to fulfil their own obligations; countries for whom the notion of burden sharing was intolerable. As the Union eschewed its own values, at least where refugees and asylum cases were concerned, so the Western Balkans was expected to act as part of its external border, treating these would be claimants better than the very countries that they long to reach.
This region – peripheral to most European capitals – was now vital for safeguarding the Union from those migrants seeking sanctuary in polities where populists had mobilised hatred and spite against asylum seekers.
Many of the region’s politicians are now beginning to wonder out loud – and often opportunistically – just what the benefits of a European future really are. Amidst the most acute public health crisis for many decades, politicians of all shades – both within the Union and amongst those aspiring to join – feel that Europe is letting them down. Current and future generations will recall the COVID-19 and just who came to their aid. Negative sentiments formed during such crises tend to crystallise into bitter memories as time passes. The EU must, therefore, move decisively to ensure tangible resources are dedicated to the Coronavirus challenge; to demonstrate to the people of the Western Balkans that there is sincere and meaningful solidarity in their time of need. Failure to do so will only further strangle the voices of those convinced that the region has no other future but Europe; voices that are already straining to be heard. It is in historic moments such as these that lasting bonds are forged.