EU leaders gathered in Slovenia on Wednesday for the first EU-Western Balkans summit held in person since 2018. The EU has started paying close attention to the influence of Beijing in the Western Balkans. Brussels is concerned that the rollout of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the region might negatively affect EU integration by impacting necessary progress on environment standards, corruption and financial stability. European leaders share the sense that the EU may be losing geopolitical ground to China.
China featured large in an informal dinner held on the eve of the summit to “discuss the EU’s role in the world.” In his conclusions following the meeting, EU President Charles Michel stated that the EU must pursue its own interests on the global stage “in particular vis-à-vis China.”
The perception that the EU is losing out in the Western Balkans was reinforced by the leader of the largest country in the region, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic. Speaking during the height of the pandemic in Europe as medical equipment arrived from China, Vucic declared European solidarity a “fairytale” and claimed that only the Chinese could help. Of course, Vucic’s words are partly political theatre – he is adept at flaunting ties with China in order to leverage concessions from the EU. In October last year, Vucic asked the EU to fund a railway line linking Belgrade to the Southern city of Nis, adding that he would turn to China if Brussels declined the grant. As of April this year, Brussels committed to provide at least EUR 600 million for the project.
Anxiety about China’s growing influence in the Western Balkans is implicit in parts of the summit declaration. For instance, the passage on “disinformation” from “third-state actors” mirrors an EU External Action Service report on Russian and Chinese propaganda in the region around Covid-19 vaccines.
The declaration’s third paragraph opens with a statement that the EU is “by far the region’s closest partner, main investor and principal donor, and continues to insist that “the unprecedented scale and range of this support must be fully recognized and conveyed” by Western Balkan countries in public communications. The EU, however, has noticed that while it provides much more assistance than China to the region, Vucic is more public in his gratitude towards Beijing; it’s the Chinese, not the EU flag that Vucic has been filmed kissing.
The EU has deepened its financial commitment to the region, including on the hard infrastructure that China is famous for funding. EU leaders at the summit were keen to emphasize the EUR 30 billion investment plan outlined last October, which includes EUR 9 billion of grants over a seven-year period.
As the EU recognizes, however, China is not popular because it provides more money. In Serbia, for example, China is popular partly because it suits the domestic and international political maneuvering of Vucic and partly because anti-Western narratives and dissatisfaction with the European integration process provide fertile ground for pro-Chinese sentiment.
In the summit declaration EU leaders stressed their “commitment to the enlargement process.” This is a step beyond the usual formulation of “support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” but there was no adoption of Slovenia’s recommendation to set a date for accession.
The EU’s new financial commitments are significant, but as Brussels recognizes – it has always contributed more than China in reality. In failing to set a date for accession, the EU has missed an opportunity to challenge Beijing’s appeal by tackling Western Balkans dissatisfaction with the integration process.