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Tapping the full potential of Equality Bodies for a fairer Europe

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Equality Body covering England, Scotland and Wales, recently launched an inquiry into statistical evidence showing that COVID-19 had a disproportionate effect on people of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority background, and whether this could have been mitigated. To me, this initiative, which also responded to calls by political leaders and public figures for such an inquiry, is a good illustration of the situation we find ourselves in Europe. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed mercilessly the inequalities that persist in our societies, amplifying the existing vulnerability of marginalised groups, including ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, older people and LGBTI people. On the other hand, most Council of Europe member states have the tools, including equal treatment legislation and national Equality Bodies — such as the EHRC– that can help address these inequalities and combat discrimination.

As we negotiate our way out of the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial to strengthen the potential of these Equality Bodies, to harness their expertise and heed their recommendations in order to build equal and resilient societies.

Equality Bodies: defending equality at the national level

The principle of non-discrimination is enshrined in international law and in the national constitutions and legislation of Council of Europe member states. It is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its Protocol 12, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) and in the EU equal treatment law. Twenty years ago exactly this month, the EU took a decisive step to strengthen the enforcement of this principle. The Race Equality Directive (2000/43/EC), adopted on 29 June 2000, created for the first time an obligation for EU member states to establish a specialised institution at national level to help monitor and tackle discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin. [1]

Some such institutions had pre-existed in several countries, but the Race Equality Directive gave a strong impetus for the development and expansion of Equality Bodies across wider Europe. Nowadays, most of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe have one or several Equality Bodies, many of which are mandated to deal not only with racism and gender – as required by EU law — but also with other grounds of discrimination, including age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and belief, disability, and socio economic status. A Network of Equality Bodies, EQUINET, was created in 2007 to facilitate exchanges and peer learning between them; it gathers 49 members from 36 European countries and Kosovo.

There is great diversity among Equality Bodies as regards their mandate, functions, size and type of institution (stand alone, or part of a National Human Rights Institution or Ombudsman institution). Equality Bodies are low-threshold complaint mechanisms for victims of discrimination who cannot or do not want to turn to courts. They have the expertise to analyse discrimination and to provide solid advice on laws and policies. Many of them may be able to identify and address intersectional discrimination (whereby a combination of multiple identities results in specific disadvantages, for example for Black women). Several Equality Bodies have the power to issue decisions, in some cases legally binding, and fines, in specific discrimination cases. This diversity among Equality Bodies can be a strength as it brings a variety of approaches to tackling inequalities. What is at the heart of impactful Equality Bodies is strong independence and effective internal operations, including strategic planning, as underscored in an Opinion on National Structures for the Promotion of Equality published by my office in 2011.

As Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, I have the mandate to co-operate closely with national human rights structures, including Equality Bodies. Given their solid national expertise, I strive to keep a steady channel of communication open with them, including in many cases before and during my country visits. We reinforce each other in following-up on recommendations to national authorities. I am convinced that Equality Bodies, when they are effective and independent, hold a strong potential to make a difference. When dealing with individual situations, they can have a life-changing impact for victims of discrimination. They can help address discriminatory practices at a structural level in organisations in both the public and the private sector, including through advice and training. Crucially, Equality Bodies have demonstrated the ambition and potential to achieve societal change, by creating a culture where equality among societies’ diverse members is truly valued.

Tackling equality challenges in Europe, old and new

The adoption of anti-discrimination legislation and the establishment of Equality Bodies across Europe is a very significant achievement. It means that there is an infrastructure in place to recognise and propose solutions to inequalities and discrimination – which continue to affect our continent pervasively.

Intensifying intolerance and hate speech across Europe

There has been a worrying down-turn on human rights in recent years, marked by a rise of far-right populist politicians who manipulate hate to gain votes, increasingly polarised societies, attempts to undermine women’s rights, and a proliferation of hate speech, the most frequent targets of which continue to be minority groups that have long suffered from discrimination. Several Equality Bodies have taken courageous action to counter these negative developments. The National Council for Combating Discrimination in Romania, for example, has on several occasions fined high-level politicians for their stigmatising statements concerning ethnic minorities; the Equality Ombudsman in Sweden sued several private firms for discrimination against Muslim women and published a study on stereotypes and the representation of Muslims in the media. The Ombudsman in Poland challenged in court proceedings the legality of anti-LGBTI declarations adopted by several municipalities in the country.

Poverty and economic inequalities

Social and economic inequalities are deepening in Europe. Discrimination based on social status and origin plays an important role in perpetuating poverty, in an unending circle. In addition to anti-poverty policies, equal treatment legislation and Equality Bodies are thus important tools to address economic inequalities. The Ombudsman in Latvia, for example, has brought constitutional challenges regarding the levels of social security, minimum wage and disability pensions; UNIA in Belgium conducted research on access to employment, housing and education for various groups, including people from poor backgrounds. Unfortunately, still too few Equality Bodies in Europe have the mandate to deal with socio economic status as grounds of discrimination.

COVID-19 pandemic

The outbreak of COVID-19 has amplified existing inequalities and revealed gaps in the enjoyment of human rights. Equality Bodies, as well as Ombudsman institutions and National Human Rights Institutions, have quickly adapted their work and taken an impressive number of initiatives related to the pandemic. The Public Defender in Georgia, for example, urged the authorities to make information about COVID-19 accessible for people with disabilities and in the languages of national minorities; the Ombudsman for Persons with Disabilities in Croatia issued recommendations about the situation in social care homes for children and persons with disabilities; the Equality Body in Finland examined reported refusals of intensive care for older persons and persons with disabilities; the Defender of Rights in France underscored the imperative need for access to internet and telecommunications during lockdown and made concrete suggestions to make this possible for people and families with limited financial means. Many Equality Bodies handled individual complaints of hate speech and discriminatory treatment targeting persons of specific nationalities or those infected with COVID-19. [2]

Algorithmic discrimination

The potential impact of Artificial Intelligence on human rights is one of my priorities. In September 2019, I organised a workshop with close to 35 European Equality Bodies to discuss algorithmic discrimination. Such discrimination already exists in fields as varied as recruitment, housing, public service delivery, and financial loans assessments, to name just a few. At the same time, Artificial Intelligence also has great potential to help fight discrimination. The Human Rights and Equality Commission in Ireland, for example, used an algorithm to track and analyse hate speech and racist discourse online in order to improve policy responses. In a Recommendation entitled “Unboxing Artificial Intelligence: 10 steps to protect human rights”, I highlighted several measures that can help mitigate the negative impact of artificial intelligence. National Human Rights structures, including Equality Bodies, have an important role to play in this field to help prevent violations, deal with complaints and strategic litigation, and ensure oversight of algorithms. I am pleased that work is already underway. In France, for example, the Defender of Rights handled several cases, including one concerning alleged discrimination by an algorithm allocating pupils to universities. In Finland, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman won a legal case in which a credit institution was found responsible for multiple discrimination after a fully automated system refused a loan to a client based on statistical data relating to grounds of discrimination such as gender, age, language, place of residence and their combined effect.

Promoting a culture of Equality

The battle for Equality will only be won if everyone in society understands what is at stake and values diversity and equal treatment for all. Outreach, awareness-raising campaigns, and human rights education in schools should therefore be an important aspect of the work of Equality Bodies. The Human Rights and Equality Commission in Ireland, for example, led a campaign “All human all Equal” featuring short video portraits of disabled Irish people from diverse backgrounds. The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner in Estonia created a TV series tackling gender stereotypes.

Sharpening the tools

Regardless of the many invaluable contributions by Equality Bodies, there are challenges that continue to prevent them from achieving their full potential. Some have a weak legal basis, or incomplete mandates and functions. In this regard, the time has come for EU member states to show leadership again by adopting the languishing Horizontal Equal Treatment Directive to cover all grounds of discrimination in all areas of life, and give a corresponding mandate to Equality Bodies. One important function that Equality Bodies sometimes lack is the power to bring cases to courts, and therefore to carry out strategic litigation, even if they can provide legal advice to victims. Furthermore, a great number of Equality Bodies report insufficient resources. In some countries, Equality Bodies are confronted with political indifference, where the authorities fail to consult and listen to them in policy making and ignore and downplay their recommendations. Ensuring that Equality Bodies are known by and accessible to the concerned populations is a challenge of crucial importance. In its MIDIS II survey on discrimination in 2017, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency found that an average of 71% of respondents were not aware of any organisations that offered support or advice to discrimination victims in their country (with variations between groups and countries). This highlights the need for Equality Bodies to have an effective outreach strategy and the means to implement it.

In some instances, particularly when they work on sensitive issues, Equality Bodies have experienced attacks and threats by politicians and others, or other types of interference that threaten their independence. I will continue to work to ensure that independent and effective Equality Bodies are in place across Europe. This means continuing to speak up to defend Equality Bodies against attempts to undermine them, but also issuing recommendations to strengthen Equality Bodies in specific countries, as I have done for example in Estonia, Bulgaria and Moldova.

I welcome recent efforts to strengthen standards on the status and work of Equality Bodies, including the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) revised General Policy Recommendation nr 2 and the European Commission Recommendation on Equality Bodies, dating both from 2018, as well as EQUINET’s project to encourage the implementation of these standards. Member states bear the main responsibility for ensuring that Equality Bodies conform to these standards, as a way to respond to the challenges above and to secure a stronger impact for them.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent resonance in Europe of racial justice protests following the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in the United States are just the latest demonstrations that equality is not something we can dispense with. When some are excluded, it is society as a whole that is weakened. Equality is the cement that will help us be stronger together. Equality Bodies are tools at our disposal to create more equality. Let us make sure they are robust, independent and equipped so that we can tap their full potential.

Council of Europe

[1] The EU later adopted two further Directives that contain an obligation for EU member states to have an Equality Body, namely EU Directive 2004/113/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the supply of goods and services and EU Directive 2006/54/EC on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities between men and women in matters of employment and occupation.

[2] Many more COVID-19 actions by Equality Bodies are collected in a comprehensive database on the EQUINET website.

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Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?

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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.

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The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change

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A billboard at Piccadilly Circus pays tribute to the late Prince Philip. Garry Knight/Flickr

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.

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Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia

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xi jinping 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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