Covid-19 and the global landscape
Undoubtedly, it is hard to make complete sense of the impact of such an unprecedented – at least in our modern times- global crisis and it would be premature to make any definite assessment. However, from a geopolitical perspective, it would be safe to assume that it has reinforced existing tendencies that were already underway over the last decade: On the one hand, a retreat to the nation-state. On the other hand, it has led to an acceleration of re-regionalisation, mainly due to the decoupling of global supply chains. These two apparently opposite trends are in fact two sides of the same coin, signalling a departure from hyper-globalisation.
Multilateralism has suffered a serious blow in the aftermath of the pandemic. President Trump’s decision for the withdrawal of the US from the WHO is indicative. The escalating US-Chinese trade war has now been coupled with a war of narratives, with each side blaming the other for ineffective response to the pandemic.
Caught between this new wave of competition, the image of EU has also suffered a blow, due to the late response of the majority of member states to the pandemic, and more significantly, due to the early lack of solidarity between its very own members.
Amid this current unpredictable landscape, with eroding post-WWII international institutions, Washington’s self-isolation, a rising China and an assertive and regionally present/emerging Russia, the need for greater strategic autonomy is evident. EU has the opportunity but also the responsibility to step up as a champion of multilateralism. Hence, on FP level, a more strategic EU could finally justify von der Leyen’s characterisation of her Commission as a ‘’geopolitical’’ one.
However, in order to do so, the EU should begin with its own backyard, the seriously-affected and volatile Western Balkans.
EU and the WB, the enlargement’s state of play
It was in October 2019, when a much-anticipated green light for the start of the negotiating process for Albania and North Macedonia was denied by France, followed by Denmark and the Netherlands, on the grounds that the entire framework of the membership process should first be revised.
Sympathisers perceived it as an honest questioning of the effectiveness of the existing framework. Critics attributed this decision either to president Macron’s need to bolster his leadership image at the European level or the need to satisfy the French public’s increasingly sceptical attitude towards EU enlargement. Regardless of the rationale of this decision, it was still another indication of intergovernmentalism’s privacy in its FP setting, threatening to impel the progress achieved over the last years in the Western Balkans and an additional blow to its credibility vis-a-vis its neighbours.
Even though this (myopic) veto was revoked in April 2020, following the promise of a revised enlargement methodology, accession negotiations are expected to last several years. The EU needs to step up in support in multiple ways in order to secure its credibility towards the WB states, while preventing further democratic backsliding in the region.
Impact of Covid-19 on WB
Covid-19 hit WB at a particularly peculiar period, with Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro having their elections in 2020, whereas Kosovo’s fragile governmental coalition under former PM Kurti was overthrown in late March.
Even though the average number of Covid-19 cases per capita stayed significantly lower than the majority of European states, the WB were particularly affected due to their weak health systems and vulnerable economies. The political effects of the pandemic are also significant, having resulted to rising populism and centralisation of power. Some leaders even attempted to politicise the pandemic, treating it as a political issue instead of a severe public health crisis. Susceptible to their long-tradition of playing their ‘’nationalist card’’ at times of crises, the leaders of the WB have also increased their anti-EU rhetoric during the pandemic. Moreover, the instrumentalisation of the pandemic as a legitimising tool for additional authoritarian measures has exacerbated phenomena of state capture, especially in Serbia.
Foreign actors – disinformation campaigns on WB
Apart from risking a prolonged democratic setback, the pandemic’s effect in the region has also a geopolitical dimension in an area characterised by geopolitical pluralism:
Since 2013, China has increased its (geo)economic presence through the ‘’Belt and Road’’ project and the ‘’16+1’’ format with questionable practices and no conditionality strings attached for the local political leaderships. The EU’s late response to the crisis paved the way for greater Chinese involvement in the area. Beijing, attempting to switch the narrative of its own early inertness in dealing with the virus in its territory, launched a ‘’mask diplomacy’’ campaign, providing with masks and essential medical equipment countries in need, including candidate states such as Serbia but even EU member states like Italy.The Serbian leadership seized this opportunity to blast criticism towards the EU, thanking China and ‘’brother Xi’’ (in his own words) personally
Russia is frequently engaging in covert operations and disinformation campaigns, especially in Serbia and in one of Bosnia’s entities, Republika Srpska. Kremlin also attempted to undermine the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia and is openly against the recognition of Kosovo. It also uses energy as a bargaining chip for political gains; In this case, sticking to its usual ‘’divide and rule’’ strategy Kremlin has supported disinformation campaigns ran by state-owned media. The majority of them emphasise on EU’s lack of solidarity and weaknesses, portraying Russia and other authoritarian models of governance like China as the ones that can guarantee efficiency/effectiveness and decisiveness in managing an imminent crisis.
Turkey, a candidate for membership itself, exercises its own influence through soft power (culture and religion), mainly in Muslim-populated Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, but also in Serbia and North Macedonia, through economic means, adding to the region’s complexity of overlapping and contrasting foreign interests.
These actors pose no threat to EU’s prominence in the region (indicatively enjoying 75% share of the total trade) but could significantly sabotage democratisation. The more distant the European perspective will look, the less constrained the leadership of states like Serbia will feel to conduct business with them. Albania is one of the two (together with Montenegro) candidate states with full alignment to the EU foreign and security policy. Yet its candidacy status has stalled.
EU’s economic presence in the region is disanalogous to its visibility and soft power, especially compared to the aforementioned foreign actors, partially due to their disinformation campaigns. Thus, in the dawn of the outbreak pandemic a similar pattern was repeated: EU was originally criticised for placing export restrictions on protective equipment during the virus’ outbreak in Europe. Even though the restrictions were lifted quickly, as the European Commission first pledged €38 million for the immediate healthcare needs of the WB states in March, followed by a lucrative support package of €3,3 billion that was announced on 29 April, the reputational damage was already done.
Instead, rather than affecting EU’s position vis-a-vis its Balkan partners, the current crisis should pave the way for a ‘’positive instrumentalisation’’ of the crisis in order to avoid risking its geopolitical (ir)relevance.
Thus, the current crisis could be the start for greater, deeper and wider EU engagement in the region for the following reasons:
Increasing need for supply diversification in Europe and WB
As Mark Leonard recently noted ‘’the current pandemic could mark a paradigm shift in EU-China relationship. Thus, the pandemic’s spill-over effect on supply chains will lead to a re-regionalisation process in an attempt to a partial decoupling of economic ties with China. This could give EU an advantage, consolidating its geographic proximity and economic primacy in the region and halting Chinese geo-economic overextension. China’s ‘’Health silk road’’ can generate asymmetries and the debt-trap phenomena in several states across its silk road map (Sri Lanka etc.) should be a point of concern among WB states.
US decline as a global hegemon and the eroding trust of its allies
The current US leadership is too inward-oriented, strongly committed to its ‘’America first’’ doctrine. The President’s counterproductive obsession in insisting on the Chinese origin of the virus and his decision to leave the WHO were just two recent examples that added to Washington’s unwillingness to continue its post-WWII role as the provider of global public goods. Domestically, the political landscape is deeply polarised and divided before the upcoming elections. This overall decline is also reflected on the eroding trust of EU citizens and citizens of other traditional allies towards Washington.
Indeed, Beijing has managed to boost its leadership credentials globally, amid an increasingly introvert and isolationist US leadership. Nevertheless, the lack of transparency and credibility, two essential elements of hegemonic/stability theory/global leadership, coupled with the authoritarian character of its regime render China ill-suited for leading an increasingly ‘’headless’’, also known as’’G-Zero’’ world.
To capitalise of the current situation while staying in line with its own set of values, the EU will have to:
Apply greater scrutiny using updated screening mechanisms on foreign investments, including Chinese ones, pushing sustainability and ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) criteria. EU can lead the path towards greater sustainability in trade and investments, boosting its geo-economic credentials as a global regulatory power. EU should explore ways to include the WB in the European Green Deal and its ambitious economic goals for climate neutrality by 2050 for the avoidance of price disparities in energy. The EU could assist by sharing best practices and by outlining a clear ‘’green agenda’’ for the Western Balkans, unlocking their significant potential in renewable energy, especially in hydro-energy. Overall, this crisis has been a reminder that supply chains in critical sectors should be reviewed.
Regardless the outcome of the global efforts for an effective vaccine and a return to normality, the economic recovery in the region will not be easy, according to World Bank report. Therefore, the full inclusion of the WB is a dire need for any post-reconstruction plan on behalf of the EU, regardless of the accession status stage/level. In other words, new carrots will have to be invented, complementary to the one of accession, as the accession carrot is losing ground in the near future due to low prospects and/or slow progress. Of course, economic support should go hand in hand with strings attached. The EIB as primary funding instruments, should outline clear conditionality criteria related to green economic goals, justifying its recent self-branding as the ‘’European Climate Bank’’.
On a diplomatic level, other possible moves on behalf of the EU with constructive orientation could be finally granting visa liberalisation for the citizens of Kosovo. Finally, EU will have to keep demonstrating active support for the continuation of dialogue and the negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, bypassing US involvement. Finally, upon approval of the negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia by the European Council, the EU should not let go of the momentum and carry on with the first intergovernmental conferences that will mark the formal start of the accession negotiations. This will be another strong sign of support to the progressive, pro-EU forces in the two countries.
In order to counter false narratives and improve EU’s visibility in the region, an increase in the efforts to pushback disinformation campaigns of Russia and China both in the Western Balkans but also in its own territory and members, securing its own coherence and its external positive outlook. The new initiative in fighting disinformation is a step towards the right direction and the Western Balkans should be prioritised as a focal point. It has been proven that economic assistance per se is not enough to win hearts and minds.
Of course, internal coherence is a precondition. It was tested once again, bringing into the surface the traditional division between North and South, however, the capping stone of the negotiations led to a compromise, indicative of the Union’s resilience. Greater internal coherence will result to greater credibility abroad, especially in the candidate Balkan states. For example, the EU member states have yet to reach an agreement on the migration pact. Also, it is hard to capitalise on its strong record of human right and RoL when still showing an ambiguous attitude vis-a-vis serious violation by the governments of Hungary and Poland. Emphasising on its strengths (social state, transparency) and capitalising on its recent economic agreement will send the right message to the WB states.
Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, in an early Covid-19 essay warned that international institutions are becoming arenas of competition. The EU, with its 27 member states and diversity of voices, has been an arena of conflicting interests in its own. Paradoxically, it could be argued that its own tedious, yet successful – experience with multilateralism and fair compromises puts the EU in a better position to contribute to efforts of repairing multilateralism. However, it should start being taken more seriously by its very own people and why not, by the people that aspire to join it one day. This goal cannot be reached unless its first achieved in its very own backyard, the WB, through an increase of its credibility-visibility and active/practical role on multiple levels.