The recent COVID-19 pandemic outbreak marked a severe blow to the world system, no government excluded, revealing itself as one, if not the greatest crisis ever faced after World War II. And while some governments coped better than others with the emergency, no one was spared. Besides causing a considerable number of casualties, the virus coincidentally revealed already existing problems, emphasizing the weaknesses and limitations of some of the major governing institutions. More precisely, the virus had a profound impact on the European Union, shedding light on the old dichotomy National vs. European Identity. Alongside the health crisis and the ensuing economic one, Europe is now conjointly faced with an identity emergency.
By initially favoring national lines of conduct to solidarity, the behavior of some EU member states highlighted a lack of confidence in the community’s operate itself. Evidence includes the recent Eurobarometer survey, according to which EU support registered a drop, especially during April. In Italy, for instance, EU support fell by 16%, reaching one of the lowest levels ever registered. Furthermore, conforming to the data, the COVID-19 outbreak is stated to have weakened the Union, with Italy, France, and Germany being the main supporters asserting that Brussels would not have done enough to support their countries during the crisis. Rather than evidencing a novel phenomenon, however, it would be more appropriate to see this as the latest manifestation of a long-standing issue: namely the lack of “Europeanness”, a strong sense of identity binding the EU community together.
If the health emergency represented an unprecedented situation for the European community, the lack of trust in its institutions did not. The existential crisis, as the former president of the commission, Jean-Claude Junker described in 2017, has been going on for a long time. “Never before have I seen such little common ground between our Member States. […] Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems.” From the 2008 financial crash to the refugee crisis, to the rise of populism and extremism to eventually Brexit, Euroscepticism saw a continuous and consistent surge over the years.
What Defines European Identity?
In its broader sense, identity can be classified by its disruptive element, distinguishing those who are part of the group (“we-feeling”  from those who are not; in this case, EU vs. NON-EU. Conversely, with regard to European identity specifically, two intrinsic elements are identified: plurality and individuality.  Plurality refers to the sense of belonging to a community that shares a common culture, values, and history, “a nation comprising several” (Montesquieu). Conversely, individuality stems from the strong regional and individual national identities present on European soil. It is from these two intrinsic elements that Europe will generate its own identity, finding its way between the global and the local . The two aspects are not mutually incompatible. In an example given by Halbig, reference is made to the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine, both of which are very strong in terms of regional identity but also very active in terms of European sentiment.
Why is The Development of a Shared Identity so Fundamental?
According to Paul Collier, professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford University, at the root of any economic development lies a sense of identity . Every society presents a dual composition, a power structure, and an identity component. In the absence of the latter, power dissolves into a theatre, meaning directives are less likely to be respected (e.g., different member states’ response to the refugee crisis). When considering the EU, a mismatch between the power structure (supra-national) and the identity component (national) is observed. In order for the Union to work more efficiently, therefore, a move of the identity component, at present almost exclusively national, toward the structure of power is suggested. Such approach does not equate to the erasure of national identity, an essential element at the core of the European Union, as evidenced by its motto “United in Diversity.” Furthermore, as already stated, National and European identities are classified as not exclusive to one another, meaning the presence of one does not exclude that of the other, with the supra-national identity constituting a powerful addition to the national one . While, at the individual level, identity drives behavior, at the supra-national dimension, a sense of belonging to the same community will serve as a prerequisite for further growth, for it will foster future trust and simplify cooperation  .
As further proof of the lack of a sense of collective identity, Eurobarometer surveys will now be taken into account. When analyzing the data, particular interest is given to the “Moreno question ” section. If the fact that the values collected do not show any particular changes over the last twenty years could, at first glance, be interpreted as a positive variable, it is precisely the lack of growth itself that sets the alarm bell off. Moreover, whilst at the European level values have remained nearly unchanged, at the individual state levels, data shows to have undergone some changes. A significant disparity is registered among different countries, a variable that has changed over time. Among the EU founding members, France and Italy registered a drop in EU identification. Severe variation is also reported on the basis of different socio-economic and demographic factors at an individual level. Those variables include age, level of education, occupation, socio-economic condition, etc. Not very surprisingly, the group more likely to show a higher level of identification with the European Union is composed of young, relatively wealthy, well-educated, eager to travel, work and study abroad people. Namely, those who had had the opportunity to experience free mobility at first hand, along with its benefits.
What are the Processes Through Which Identity is Created?
Before embarking on the policies employed to meet the European challenge, it is necessary to define the processes through which identity is created. In determining the mechanism through which identity is created, two distinct paths are distinguished: information-based and experience-based components . Information-based mechanism rests on the effectiveness of convincing messages as a source of group identification, as well as on the level of accessibility and exposure citizens get from those messages. Messages’ supply will rely on the political elite as well as the media outlets. At the same time, exposure to Europe-related information will be more dependent on the level of attentiveness and interest dedicated by citizens to such type of message. Conversely, experience-based mechanisms lie on the idea of personal contact and direct experiences as a source of identification. Increased contacts and personal connections (e.g., Erasmus exchange program) are said to have an impact on group members’ perceptions.
What are the Problems at the Root of the European Identity Crisis?
To adequately respond to the current crisis due to the European Union’s lack of identification, it is necessary to become more familiar with the underlying problems of this trend. Of particular interest in this respect appears the European Research Project PERCEIVE. The project’s scope lay in the investigation of Cohesion Policy in creating a shared sense of European identity and a broader adherence to Europe’s values among citizens. The policy (2007-2013, 2014-2020) aimed at eradicating inequalities among member states, as well as at the development of a sense of belonging to a shared community. Although the research was explicitly tailored to the European Plan’s success, the identified issues appear to carry a much more general nature. In particular, three major problems were identified.
The first issue to be identified lies in communication. According to findings, one of the reasons why the European Plan proved to be unsuccessful in gaining support for Brussels derived from the way it has, or better, has not, been presented by local governments and media outlets, namely how much coverage was dedicated to EU-related information. When working toward the implementation of a sense of belonging, Europe must thus learn to communicate its policies better. In this regard, communication channels, social media platforms included, appear crucial.
Secondly, it was noted that the allocation of structural funds does not necessarily equate with a rise in EU support, nor with a surge in identification with the community. In this regard, reference is made to Calabria (Italy). Although a large amount of funds was allocated to the region, 34% of the respondents still viewed their country’s EU membership negatively. According to the researches in order for funds to create support, they do not only need to be allocated, but also, they need to be spent well, as well as promoted in relation to the results obtained.
Lastly, the third problem to be identified related to awareness. When asked about the EU Cohesion Plan, less than 50% of EU citizens surveyed were familiar with the EU Cohesion Policy. The finding suggests that being unfamiliar with EU Policies and Initiatives at a broader level, citizens will likely not be aware of the benefits they provide, hence the importance of raising awareness.
What Kind of Initiatives Have Been Employed to Promote a Sense of Identification in the European Community?
In outlining the strategies implemented by Brussels aimed at developing further cohesion between member states, two different identity components need to be further distinguished: civic and cultural . The distinction appears useful as it allows us to distinguish two different lines of action to implement the policies of identification with the European Union.
A European “Civic Identity” would, therefore, refer to the perception to be part of a European political system, defining rules, laws, and rights concerning the individual citizen’s life. When targeting the civic component, European initiatives should thus aim at generating a sense of communal participation in the Union’s decision-making processes, stressing the involvement of one common political system. The primary purpose, more generally, should, therefore, consist in making institutions more efficient and transparent, as well as more accessible to European citizens. The result would lead not only to greater participation in European political life but would also increase citizens’ awareness of the European institutions as well as of the benefits to which they have access. Among the European initiatives that have been undertaken in accordance to these lines are the following: European Parliament’s elections, citizen’s project initiatives and dialogues, a common passport, uniformed license plates, free mobility, free-roaming, MEP (Model European Parliament) and the EU-wide job agency (EURES).
In contrast, “Cultural Identity” is defined as the component, independent from the above-mentioned political perceptions, stemming from the idea that Europeans are closer than non-Europeans due to a rich set of shared values, as well as a shared culture and history. By emphasizing the commonality derived from a shared past between EU members, initiatives will be implemented in order to raise a sense of alignment between citizens of the same group. Examples include Erasmus+, free interrail tickets, town twinning programs, European Capital of Culture, a pan-European TV Channel (Euronews), as well as shared symbols, such as the European Flag, European Anthem, a common motto (“United in Diversity”), and a shared festivity, Europe’s day (9 May).
Reshaping the EU, What Can be Done in Order to Develop a Sense of Identification?
Following the Italian unification in 1861, Massimo d’Azeglio, Italian politician and writer, said, “once Italy was made, now we must make Italians.” And the same logic applies to Europe. Being a relatively young system, not even 70 years old, and undergoing continuous development, in order for Europe to act more efficiently, proper attention must be paid to policies aimed at implementing a shared identity, rather than focusing solely on its economic aspect. In this regard, as already mentioned, the discrepancies recorded in the various Eurobarometer surveys appear of particular interest.
More specifically, as suggested in a recent report published by ECONPOL, “What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity“, experts identified in adults, pensioners, and more generally less socio-economically advantaged people the main targets of a new identity plan. According to surveys, these categories have proved to be the least likely to develop a sense of EU cohesion, hence the need to focus on them. While young, well-educated, and generally wealthy people tend to present higher trust rates, mainly due to the free movement policies allowing students and young professionals to create valuable transnational contacts, staying at home and being exposed to European tourists does not seem to have the same effect. According to experts, in order to create a more inclusive identity, more focus should be put on those people less likely to experience the benefits of their country’s EU membership.
In addition to providing a list of possible targets to be included in a potential new plan for the development of a European identity, several suggestions were presented in the report. These suggestions will be listed below, distinguishing between their civic and cultural dimension.
Among the suggested civic initiatives, we find the creation of supranational party lists. The idea is not entirely new, as several politicians have already proposed such a plan, including the French President Emmanuel Macron. According to scholars, the creation of supranational lists would guarantee a more pronounced loyalty to the party’s key idea, resulting in a greater party accountability. Simultaneously, the existence of transnational parties could generate more public interest and contribute to greater participation in parliamentary elections. Secondly, among the various propositions, the establishment of European embassies is presented. Such offices would provide consular services for all EU citizens, while foreign policy would remain of national competence. Working at a supranational level would hence contribute to the message of a more present and helping Europe. At the same time, their creation would ensure consistent money-saving as well a higher level of efficiency, resulting from the standardization of the procedure. Finally, city assemblies, where citizens could meet to discuss European issues, the content of these meetings then being brought before the EP, are also proposed. This practice, already in use in Ireland, would thus increase the sense of citizen involvement.
Simultaneously, from a cultural point of view, several initiatives are also suggested. Among the most significant ones, we mention the creation of different exchange programs targeting adults (European Waltz), to create an on-the-job experience exchange, as well as pensioners (Pensioners’ Erasmus), to support those eager to learn and get to know more about European countries and their cultures. Concurrently, the creation of an EU Public Service Broadcaster, active in several EU languages, and thus facilitating access, is proposed. The platform would air daily, covering EU-related news as well as all public meeting and hearings of European Institutions. In order to meet its purpose, the broadcast should present a high degree of independence from politics, providing its viewers with objective information.
Rather than being regarded as a threat to one’s identity, fostering European unity should instead be perceived as a benefit. A “community of communities” working together for a common good. If, in accordance with the theory of social constructivism, social processes are at the core of the construction of ideas, then the legitimacy of the European Union itself will also be partly defined by the existence of a strong European identity. As opposed to being merely regarded as a challenge, COVID-19 pandemic provides all the necessary elements to be the turning point Europe needed to reshape its position. Besides addressing health and socio-economic issues, institutions should also focus on fostering a shared EU identity.
On 13 December 1973, the then Nine Member States signed the European Declaration of Identity in Copenhagen. Although the document was drafted almost 50 years ago, some of the directives remain relevant today. When assessing the extent to which the Nine were committed to working together, European unity was praised as the basic necessity to ensure the survival of the civilization they had in common. At the same time, legal, political, and moral national orders were stated to be preserved. (ART 1). Furthermore, to ensure the respect of national identities, diversity was praised as the fundamental element giving the community its peculiarity and dynamism (ART 3). When addressing the current geopolitical issues, the Nine reaffirmed their willingness to act together as a large community. A community that, in order to fulfill its aims, cannot only be economic. (ART 7).
“Although in the past the European countries were individually able to play a major role on the international scene, present international problems are too difficult for any of the Nine to solve alone. International development and the growing concentration of power and responsibility in the hands of a very small number of great powers mean that Europe must unite and speak increasingly with one voice if it wants to make itself heard and play its proper role in the world.” (ART 6)
“Unite and speak increasingly with one voice,” suggesting that in order for a system to function correctly, it needs to be accompanied by a great sense of cohesion and belonging.
1. Easton D. A system analysis of Political Life (1965).
2. Halbig, T.E., (2019) Creating an European Identity, Volume 4 pages 75-79.
3. Chopin T. (2018) Europe and the identity challenge: who are “we”?, Robert Shuman Policy papers.
4. From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development, Paul Collier, Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
5. Troitino, D.R. (2009) Creation of European Identity in the European Union, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330712624_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union_Creation_of_European_Identity_in_European_Union.
6. Ciaglia, S., Fuest, C., Heinemann, F. (2019) What a feeling?! How to promote European Identity, ECONPOL.
7. In the near future, do you see yourself as: (1) [nationality] only, (2) [nationality] and European, (3) European and [nationality, (4) European only.
8. Bergabauer, S. (2018) Explaining European Identity Formation.
9.Bruter, M. (2003): Winning Hearts and Minds for Europe. The impact of News and Symbols on Civic and Cultural European Identity.
10. Damaso, M., Davies, L.J., Jablonowski, K., Montgomery S. (2019) Acting European, Identity belonging and the EU of tomorrow.
From our partner RIAC
Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?
On April 6, a protocol collapse occurred during a meeting between President of Turkey R. Erdogan, President of the European Council S. Michel and head of the European Commission, Ur. von der Leyen. Let us remind you that during their meeting in the conference room she did not have enough chair, and she was forced to sit on the sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Çavuşoğlu, who, according to the diplomatic protocol, occupies a lower rank. This incident (a video showing the confusion of Ur. von der Leyen and her mmm sound, which was cleverly picked up by the media) quickly spread across the media and social networks. This incident provoked not only a number of high-profile comments, but also political and economic consequences for a number of countries.
This story is a double bottom box. On the one hand, there is a protocol error in the organization of the meeting between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand, there is a sharp statement by the Italian head of state about the Turkish president.
We propose to consider this case from two points of view: violation of the protocol and bilateral interaction between Italy and Turkey.
Let’s start with the protocol. Based on the general rules of the protocol, let’s honestly answer the following questions.
1) is it right for the head of state to give up a seat opposite the national flag (respect for the symbols of the state);
2) what is more important – position, diplomatic rank or gender;
3) Who should take the “EU chair” based on the political hierarchy of the Union – the head of the European Council or the European Commission?
Note that both sides – the EU and Turkey – blame each other’s protocol service. EU protocol chief Dominique Marro responded in a statement on Thursday that diplomats were not given access to the conference room in advance because, as they were told, “it was too close to Erdogan’s office.” Turkish officials have agreed to a separate request to add seating for von der Leyen during the reception, he said.
Turkey was accused of “protocol machism.” However, the officials of the protocol services of Turkey and the EU “met before the official visit of the heads, and their wishes were taken into account,” says Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.
But the shifting of responsibility continues. Brussels insisted that staff were denied a final check of the press conference room. It was soon revealed that another sensational accident was threatened during the official dinner: the table was laid for 5 people on each side, and in front there were two honorary chairs, one for Michel and the other for Erdogan, while a smaller one was reserved for von der Leyen, to the right of Michel. Two diplomatic advisers accompanied Michel to the table, and von der Leyen was left alone.
Michel was also criticized for not standing up for her. He first wrote an explanation on his Facebook page, in which he did not apologize, but presented his vision of the situation. But as things continued to escalate on Thursday, he went on to say on Belgian TV LN24: “I deeply regret the image created and the impression of a kind of disdain for the President of the European Commission and women in general.” “At that moment I was convinced that any reaction could seem paternalistic. Perhaps it was my mistake, ”he said. “In addition, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting, and I was convinced that the response would lead to a much more serious incident that would affect relations with Turkey.” An interesting commentary by J.K. Juncker, who wrote that he also often found himself on the couch (thereby making it clear that the situation was not critical). This situation could be resolved through diplomatic channels. But, unfortunately, it has received an unusual development.
Now let’s move on to a political analysis.
According to the head of the group of socialists in the European Parliament Garcia Perez Irace, the incident is related to discrimination against women in Turkey. A few weeks ago, on March 20, the president passed a decree authorizing Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women, which obliges the governments that have joined it to pass legislation aimed at combating domestic violence. That is, the protocol error received a political color and took on a new light from the perspective of gender politics. However, one should not forget about the cultural and religious differences between the parties to the conflict. It is curious that if Michel gave up the chair to Ursula, he could be criticized from the point of view of gender equality and even, if hypertrophied, accused of sexism. It is also worth paying attention to the absence of harsh statements from the EU, which is interested in Turkey, which restrains the flow of migrants. . Yet the crisis in terms of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus and the agreement between Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed gas pipeline have become such important concerns for Turkish interests that in February 2020 Ankara has re-proposed the usual blackmail and once again opening the borders with Greece for Syrian migrants, provoking an immediate European reaction. Since last December, the European Commission has tried relentlessly to mend the tear, unlocking the last tranche of aid to Ankara, equal to 780 million euros of the 6 billion promised, and opening the dialogue for future billion-dollar agreements with Erdoğan in migration theme.
The behavior of M. Draghi seems even more inexplicable. The statement by the head of the Italian government M. Draghi, where he allowed himself to call Erdogan a dictator, cost the country 70 million euros of suspended contracts (the purchase of 10 helicopters from an Italian company Leonardo). In turn, Erdogan is waiting for an official apology from M. Draghi. Whatever the situation, from the point of view of etiquette and protocol, such statements by officials are perceived as inappropriate. There are now 48 large Italian private equity companies in Turkey, such as Unicredit, Generali, Mps, Fiat, Ansaldo Energia and others.On the other hand, according to representatives of Mediobanca Securities, it is unlikely that this diplomatic incident will lead to the cancellation of the contract with Turkey. Moreover, the investment bank added: “This is a relatively small contract for Leonardo: it represents 0.5% of the group’s planned ordering for 2021”, which amounts to approximately 14 billion euros.
This is not the first crisis in Italian-Turkish relations. In ’98 the Ocalan crisis, during the D’Alema government produced violent reactions and a boycott of Italian products in Turkey, however quickly overcome by the subsequent Amato government and even more so by the Berlusconi government starting from 2001. Those were the years of the great contracts for Salini Impregilo’s new bridges over the Bosphorus, for supplies by the Finmeccanica group and the purchase of local banks by Unicredit. But, between ups and downs, the history of economic relations between Rome and Ankara came from afar, from the 1960s when large Italian groups such as Fiat, Pirelli, Cementir had focused heavily on Turkey as the ideal platform to conquer new markets in the eastern Mediterranean.
In fact, the dispute between Turkey and Italy stems from tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean over gas fields. And the European Union could play a key role in supporting Rome, but at the moment none of the EU representatives supported M. Draghi’s words, only Italian populist parties supported the head of state (which had also previously expressed the idea of leaving the EU).
Against the background of all the facts sounded, the behavior of the head of Italy remains the most interesting case. Non-fatal, in its essence, the protocol incident provoked a verbal dive by Draghi and Erdogan, which could cost Rome tens of millions of euros in direct economic losses. But it is not this separate fact that is interesting, but the fact that Italian politicians have recently taken a number of drastic steps and statements that have no reliable explanation. It is appropriate here to recall the spy scandal with Russian diplomats, which could be interpreted as a decrease in the level of interaction between Italy and its longtime trusted partner. Then many assumed that this was a manifestation of the “Atlanticist course” and the rapprochement with the United States of the new cabinet of ministers. But in the situation with the chair, we are talking about a conflict with one of the active members of NATO and a key ally of Washington in the region. And here Draghi’s position evokes the very remark of W. von der Leyen – “ummm” – bewilderment that runs like a red thread through the entire incident and its consequences. What is it? An attempt to show Draghi’s political subjectivity and consistency? A demonstrative rupture of the achievements and economic ties of predecessors in order to prove their independence? Agreements with Washington pending new contracts and cooperation programs and acting in line with these hopes? Or maybe just a misunderstanding of what the Italian people expect from the next prime minister and this is an attempt to find something that will cause an increase in the level of confidence on the part of the Italian political forces? In any case, there is concern that if Draghi continues in this vein, his reign may prove even more inglorious than that of many of his predecessors.
The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change
Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion. Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.
The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born. His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France. After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.
Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new with new ideas when he attended. An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools. A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it. Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.
He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy. Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through: the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him. He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.
Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day. He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on. And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.
A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved. His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition. Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.
The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries. Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.
Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War. His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War. They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth. He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.
Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned. A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident. Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?” to their embarrassment.
Yet, all in all, a very full life.
Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia
Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?
Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective
The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.
Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.
Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess
Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.
With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.
Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.
The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.
The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country
Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.
On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.
However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.
One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.
Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.
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