For the last few months the western Balkans are back in the newspaper headlines. This is typically not good news. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini paid a four-day visit to the region at the beginning of March, which was followed by a reaffirmation (renewed promise) on March 9th of the EU members that the western Balkans states will eventually join the union.
The swirling crises have stoked some fears that institutional and political crises in Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, but also Montenegro and Albania could descend into new ethnic and geopolitical confrontations.
A renewed EU engagement in the western Balkans is very timely. It is a reminder of the 2003 Thessaloniki promise of membership . This signals a clear effort to prevent further damage from the “reform fatigue” that is already manifested in the western Balkans, and respond to increased external influence from the East. The EU should remain the anchor power in the region, despite the “enlargement fatigue” in its own structure and the struggling internal challenges, but also the pervasive sense of pessimism that has captured the western Balkans. The prolonged transition process and the dire perspective for an eventual convergence with rich European countries have contributed to a plunge of public support for the EU, with only 39 percent of people in the region thinking that EU membership is a good thing, while a large majority (36 percent) have a neutral opinion . Albania and Kosovo are the only exceptions.
Internal structural weaknesses became glaringly evident in the aftermath of the 2009 global economic crisis that hit the western Balkans through the Eurozone finance and trade spillover effects. After battling a double-dip economic recession, the western Balkans are experiencing a sluggish recovery, weak economic performance, skyrocketing unemployment, and dangerous sovereign debts.
Things are getting more chaotic in the region, with political and ethnic divisions more entrenched than before, mainly as result of a spectrum of issues from economic underperformance and corruption to lack of opportunities and vision for the future. Democratic reforms are crumbling in the region. The vacuum of power created by instable and weak institutions and a lack of meaningful political action in the enlargement process since the 2014´s five-year moratorium, has left an ample space for new external players to exploit. The biggest challenge is the EU´s weakening appeal to deal with the unresolved issues in the region.
Russian influence in the western Balkans is increasing with the objective to project its power as a global player in the region. The geo-political rivalry with the West has grown larger. Beyond the abstract influence, Russia has strong economic interests in the region in the form of energy transportation routes, and arms control. While western attention is mainly focused on Ukraine, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its activity on eastern Ukraine, and the saber-rattling in the Baltic countries, Russia’s meddling in the western Balkans´s affairs has increased. With the exception of Serbia, all the other countries in the western Balkans have indicated their desire to be part of the NATO alliance (Albania and Croatia are NATO members). Each of them have EU integration as their main foreign policy goal. In an attempt to weaken the ties of the region with the West, complicating, or even excluding NATO and EU membership, Russia´s main objective is the creating of a “non- alignment zone” in the region.
The Russian presence is not confined to Serbia, as its natural strategic long-time partner, but stretches across the entire region. The western Balkans is the new block in the Russian area of interest, but the strategy to achieve foreign policy goals is no different than what was used in Eastern Partnership countries. Through a mix of hybrid tools, Russia is acting as an opportunistic spoiler to achieve its influence through corruption, coercion, businesses, and state propaganda, with the objective to destabilize the region and stall its Euro-Atlantic integration.
Moscow is actively politicizing and exacerbating existing ethnic and religious tensions in the region. Russia publicly opposed Montenegro´s membership to NATO, allegedly even supporting a failed coup attempt at the end of 2016 designed to stop the process.
Macedonia, an EU candidate country since 2005, in recent months is witnessing a flare-up of political clashes. In text book fashion, Russia is openly meddling into political affairs in opposition to western partners. By exploiting the constitutional crisis in Macedonia, Moscow backed Macedonia president’s decision to block a parliamentary majority to form a government, and even accused NATO and the EU for creating the crisis. Russia is inflaming internal political tensions in Macedonia but also relations between Serbia and Kosovo through traditional propaganda themes and dangerous rhetoric of clashes between “Greater Albania” and “Greater Serbia” . There are serious concerns that this summer’s upcoming and the political elections in Albania may be the target of a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks that could manipulate the results .
Russian interference will likely undermine efforts to consolidate democratic transition in the western Balkans by supporting illiberal tendencies and the surging populist elites through promoting alternative paradigms. Some of the leaders in the western Balkans are seeking to leverage “the Russian challenge” to extract concessions from the western partners while paying lip service to reform efforts. On the other side, EU enlargement fatigue is also used as a scapegoat for not pressing with internal reforms.
European Union is the only game in town. But the European idea cannot be promoted without changing the current political habitus in the western Balkans. Mature stages in the EU integration should bring along questions about transparency and accountability of the elites.
Only a more serious commitment and higher scrutiny of the EU in the western Balkans will foster fundamental political, economic and social transformation.
(*) The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
Austerity, corruption, and neglect: How the Greek railway became Europe’s deadliest
“Aren’t trains supposed to be safe?” This was the question on the minds of most Greeks after the fatal collision between a passenger and a freight train that took place on February 28th in the Tempi area of Central Greece. The crash cost the lives of 57 people, mostly young students returning home after the Clean Monday holiday. As it turned out, the trains in Greece were not safe at all. In fact, according to a 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Railways, Greece had the deadliest railway among 29 European nations even before the Tempi catastrophe.
The official inquiry into the disaster concluded that the station master had committed a series of critical errors that night; however it also highlighted that there were no safety systems in place to prevent or correct human errors. In the days following the catastrophe, the phrase “a serious accident was waiting to happen” was used many times by those working at the Greek railway.
Thanasis, 22, a driver for Hellenic Train, had the same opinion. Despite its name, Hellenic Train is a subsidiary of Trenitalia and is responsible for the operation of passenger and freight trains on the Greek railway lines. The state-owned Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE) is responsible for running and maintaining the lines as well as the accompanying infrastructure and systems (signals, stations, etc.).
That fateful night, Thanasis drove the IC62 passenger train from Athens up to Larisa, one station before the disaster. There, he changed shifts with his colleagues, who had to drive the IC62 to Thessaloniki. Approximately one hour later, they died from the collision. Thanasis learned about the accident on his way back to Athens.
“Shortly before we reached Thiva, we learned that something had happened because they called us from the Rentis train depot to ask if we were OK. At first, we did not give it much thought because we were told it was a derailment and derailments happen a lot. Afterwards, we learned that it was a head-on collision and that there were deaths. Shortly before we arrived in Athens, we began to see the first photos and videos [from the place of the accident],”he said.
According to the inquiry report, the absence of the European Train Control System (ETCS) played a central role in the disaster. ETCS is being used by the majority of European countries and it would have automatically stopped both trains after they entered a collision course. ETCS was installed gradually on Greek train engines from 2007 to 2018, but in order for it to be operational, the railway signals on the lines need to work.
However, copper thieves have been stealing cables from the railway lines for years. The theft and selling of copper are predominately dominated by criminal gangs called the “copper mafia”, but in some instances OSE employees have also been implicated. In 2017, a high-ranking OSE director and seven other employees were arrested after they were found to have taken tens of thousands of euros in bribes from these gangs. Due to its limited budget, OSE does not replace the stolen and damaged cables; as a result, the signaling system that is essential for the operation of ETCS is constantly out of order. The lack of signaling has resulted in the Greek railway relying on an obsolete system of station masters. This leaves no margin for human error, especially when all the traffic takes place on a single line, as was the case on the night of the Tempi disaster.
Another railway driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals, described how vulnerable the Greek railway system really is to criminal organizations taking advantage of it.
“There are extensive copper wire thefts. Even a few days after the accident, wires for the signaling system were installed in Katerini; they were stolen the same night, a few hours after installation. There is a serious problem. The system started to gradually get out of order,” he said. The driver also spoke of human smuggling rings active on the railway.
During the last few years, the Greek railway system has become one of the main means of transport used by migrants and refugees attempting to reach Western Europe. This has attracted human smugglers, creating a dangerous environment for workers and migrants. In August 2022, three migrants were killed in their sleep near Drama after they got hit by a train.
“There is a trafficking problem within the organization (OSE), migrants have inside information such as the train and route numbers, they know each train’s destination and they are prepared. People have come into the cab and offered me 2.000 euros to hide them inside. Obviously I refused because I would be arrested.” stated the driver.
“Migrants sometimes hide even beneath the trains, when we find out, we immediately stop the train and call OSE, but they often tell us “What do you want us to do?”. Even the police do not come. If it arrives, it is usually just one run-down police cruiser with one police officer inside. Sometimes a train may have 90–100 people (migrants) on it,” he added.
Although copper theft and human smuggling are significant issues, the primary factor responsible for the decline of Greek railway is the severe budget cuts that have been implemented on OSE since 2010 as part of wider austerity policies. As a result, OSE gradually became underfunded and understaffed. It is telling that OSE went from employing around 6.000 people in 2010 to less than 1.000 people in 2021. This has led to many stations being left unmanned, while OSE employees sometimes have to work long hours, which makes them more prone to mistakes. Furthermore, the lack of funds means that damaged equipment and infrastructure cannot be easily repaired or replaced.
To make matters worse, the political clientelism that has plagued the Greek public sector for decades has also been present in OSE, with inexperienced individuals being given important positions within the organization simply because of their political ties. According to several reports in the Greek press, the station master charged with causing the Tempi tragedy was a political appointee of the ruling New Democracy party. He had been given the job in 2022 after a few months of training, despite being 60 years old and lacking prior experience.
Moreover, OSE seems to be afflicted by a culture of silence. Every OSE employee we tried to contact refused to talk, with some of them implying their upper-ups had forbidden them to speak publicly. A couple of weeks after the accident, this culture became evident during the visit of the ex-deputy minister of transportation, Michalis Papadopoulos, to the Larisa station. Papadopoulos, while addressing the press, made some inaccurate remarks regarding the station’s control board. When a station master stepped in and corrected the deputy minister, making him visibly uncomfortable, a high-ranking OSE director intervened, tapped the station master on the shoulder and coldly told him, “End it.” The station master complied and stopped talking at once.
A few days after the disaster, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis referred to it as a “sacrifice” that would help the state to prevent similar disasters in the future. However, if someone roamed the streets during the almost daily large demonstrations in the weeks following the Tempi catastrophe, the word that he would see mostly written on placards and banners was “murder.” This shows that a sizable part of society did not attribute the accident to the convenient explanation of human error but considered the Greek state responsible for the dreadful condition of the country’s infrastructure, including its railway system.
Following the catastrophe, the Mitsotakis government, which managed to secure reelection in June with an impressive 41% of the vote, increased the OSE’s annual funding from 45 million euros to 75 million euros and accelerated construction work, with the goal of having ETCS and signaling installed on the majority of the Athens-Thessaloniki line by November 2023.
Nevertheless, the disintegration of the Greek state’s capacity after 13 years of austerity makes it impossible to close one gap without opening another. In early September, catastrophic floods in Central Greece washed away the new constructions and destroyed a large part of the old railway infrastructure, once again highlighting the authorities’ lack of preparedness.
As a result, the work now has to start from scratch. “It will probably take us many months to return the railway to the point it was 15 days ago [before the floods],” admitted the newly appointed Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Christos Staikouras, in a recent interview. “The work [on the railway] will have been completed by 2026,” he concluded, attempting to reassure the citizens. However, a lot of them will probably be skeptical of the minister’s reassurances
Nurturing Sino-EU Ties through Multilateralism
Considering the fact that relations between China and the EU are shifting, they will continue since China’s position as a crucial economic powerhouse for the EU cannot be understated, especially as the EU confronts a real and technical economic downturn. In the Eurozone, countries such as the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Germany are experiencing a deceleration in economic growth, which requires immediate consideration. The primary reason for this is the industry-related crisis caused by the collapse of export operations on both domestic and global markets due to a lack of purchasing power.
If this mild downturn becomes a full-blown crisis, the economies of both the European Union and the United States could stagnate. Because of these challenges, the European Union (EU) must strike a fine balance between resolving the current crisis and accommodating U.S. demands. The recent summit of European Union leaders holds great importance as the EU determined its policy towards China. The EU’s economic prospects are highly dependent on developing strong ties with China.
When combined with China’s growing consumer market and massive expenditures in infrastructure, the European Union’s economy has a once-in-a-generation chance to rebound and thrive. The European Union (EU) stands to gain from closer economic connections with China due to the opportunities it presents for increased collaboration, broader trade, and the infusion of much-needed Chinese investment into the EU’s flagging industrial sectors.
Recognizing this undeniable potential, the EU must priorities capitalizing on the benefits of its partnership with China, whilst likewise making sure that the relationship remains mutually beneficial and sustainable. The path towards achieving such equilibrium, however, is fraught with obstacles, mainly due to external pressures from the United States. Notably, the United States has imposed tariffs and trade restrictions on a number of European products, creating financial challenges for European companies. These actions are frequently used as pressure to influence Europe’s approach to China.
The EU is in a precarious position, compelled to navigate an environment where financial goals, geopolitical issues, and common values intersect. Maintaining a delicate equilibrium is essential. The pressure exerted by the United States highlights the necessity for Europe to assert its own interests and independence in international affairs. It is essential that the EU devise an independent and principled strategy that protects its own interests while approaching China with a productive discussion.
European Council President Charles Michel’s recent statement that it is in the EU’s best interest to maintain “stable and constructive” ties with China has, in a sense, confirmed the continuation of EU-China relations. In a latest commentary, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, pointed to how the EU could modify its policy towards China. However, he advocated for “vigorous engagement” between the EU and Beijing.
Under the weight of US pressure, maintaining a delicate balance in EU-China relations requires careful handling. European leaders will have the opportunity to define the EU’s position on China at the upcoming EU summit, ushering in a future of balanced, constructive, and mutually beneficial engagement. It is essential that European leaders seize this opportunity and set a course that protects their economic interests and fundamental values. In this manner, the EU can promote stability, resilience, and sustainable growth in the face of changing global dynamics.
At this critical juncture, leaders must engage in exhaustive dialogues that incorporate the many facets of the EU’s relationship with China. The promotion of human rights should be coupled with economic considerations. Considerations such as trade disparities, rights to intellectual property protection, and the development of equitable market practices must be addressed in an open discussion. This strategy will ensure an equitable playing field for EU and Chinese businesses, fostering an environment conducive to healthy competition and long-term economic growth.
The foundation of Sino-EU relations should base on mutual interest and respect, multilateralism, and economic exchanges, and they should be exempt from illicit US interference and pressures. By navigating these complexities and forging a path that safeguards economic interests and fundamental values, the EU can promote stability, resilience, and sustainable growth in the face of changing global dynamics.
China-Germany Win-Win Cooperation
The China-Germany cooperation exemplifies the transformative potential of collaboration based on mutual regard, shared objectives, and complementary strengths. This exceptional partnership has spawned a domino effect that extends beyond bilateral relations, inspiring other nations to pursue similarly mutually beneficial partnerships.
As the world becomes more interconnected, countries can learn from the China-Germany model of cooperation, which fosters economic development, technological advancement, environmental stewardship, and cultural exchange. By adhering to the principles of win-win cooperation, nations can construct a more prosperous, sustainable, and harmonious global community.
China and Germany’s dynamic and mutually beneficial cooperation is a shining example of win-win collaboration on the global stage. Both nations have nurtured strong economic and diplomatic ties over the years, resulting in enormous advances and benefits for their respective societies.
Strong and coordinated global action is needed immediately to combat climate change and advance sustainable development. There is still a lot to be done, but China and Germany have already shown their dedication to environmentally friendly and low-carbon development. By aligning their strategies and exchanging best practices, they can expedite the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.
China’s pledge to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 shows its commitment to a deep low-carbon transformation of its economy and society. Through the International Climate Initiative (IKI) administered by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the German Federal Government supports Sino-German climate change cooperation.
Collaboration in areas such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, the circular economy, and sustainable transportation can lead the way for a greener future, mitigating the effects of climate change and nurturing ecological equilibrium.
China and Germany have established a strong economic partnership that has benefited both countries significantly. Germany’s main commercial partner is China, and vice versa, and this strong bilateral commerce has led to significant economic growth and employment creation. This collaboration has given German businesses access to the sizable Chinese market.
Notably, the exchange of products, services, and knowledge between the two nations has fostered innovation, productivity, and economic resiliency, thereby laying the groundwork for long-term cooperation. This commitment to cooperation has yielded an array of beneficial effects, strengthening the conviction that win-win partnerships can drive progress and prosperity in an interdependent world.
The dynamic economic partnership that has grown between the two nations is one of the pillars of China-Germany cooperation. Germany, known for its scientific prowess, inventiveness, and precision engineering, found a favourable market in China, with its enormous customer base and rapidly expanding economy.
On the other hand, China’s manufacturing expertise and devotion to infrastructure development have presented German businesses with incredible possibilities to expand their operations and enter new markets. Entrepreneurs from both nations could keep pursuing openness, inclusiveness, and win-win cooperation, as well as keep the stability of industrial and supply chains with high-level practical cooperation. This symbiotic relationship has allowed both nations to capitalize on their respective strengths, resulting in economic expansion and job creation for both countries.
China and Germany have also established cooperation in the fields of innovation and research, recognizing that advancements in these fields are crucial agents of economic and societal progress. Through joint research initiatives, academic exchanges, and institution-to-institution collaboration, both nations have been able to pool their intellectual resources, foster innovation, and address global challenges. This cooperation has not only led to revolutionary scientific discoveries, but it has also set the groundwork for future innovations in technology that will benefit all of humanity.
China and Germany have fostered cultural exchange and people-to-people diplomacy in addition to their economic and technological cooperation. By encouraging education exchanges, cultural events, and intercultural dialogue, both countries have built bridges of appreciation, understanding, and friendship. Not only do these interactions enrich the lives of individuals, but they also strengthen the bilateral relationship as a whole. They facilitate dialogue, eliminate preconceived notions, and set the groundwork for mutually beneficial relationships and respect.
By expanding on these accomplishments and upholding a spirit of mutual respect and shared objectives, the China-Germany partnership can continue to advance progress and inspire global collaboration.
The China-Germany model of win-win cooperation provides valuable lessons for nations seeking to forge prosperous partnerships. It emphasizes the significance of mutual respect, trust, and open communication as the foundations for productive collaboration. It also emphasizes the importance of recognizing and capitalizing on balance in strengths and resources, which allows nations to maximize the positive effects of cooperation.
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