A senior European Union official has said the bloc will “up our game” with China in the Western Balkans, after it earmarked a €9 billion (US$10.5 billion) fund for the region increasingly seen as a battleground in the EU’s systemic rivalry with Beijing.
The latest financial boost by Brussels is aimed in part at countering growing Chinese infrastructure investments in the region, which Brussels said are less than transparent and counterproductive to the goal of these countries to meet good governance standards before they can join the EU in future.
“We need to up our game in terms of the offer,” said Jonathan Hatwell, head of the China division at the EU’s diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, at a webinar hosted by Dutch think tank Clingendael Institute on Wednesday.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
“Lately, China has come to dominate the narrative and perception on infrastructure investments,” he said.
Under the new plan for the region announced on Tuesday, the EU can also provide guarantees of up to €20 billion in the next decade to help reduce the cost of financing for both public and private investments and to reduce the risk for investors, as China has boasted its bank loans available with the Western Balkan countries.
“What gives rise to the potential concerns in the region is the interplay between the substantial and not always transparent Chinese investments and the currently relatively weak institutional framework [in the Western Balkans],” Hatwell said.
The EU’s concerns, he said, centred on socio-economic and financial sustainability, environmental standards, and the question of indebtedness and potential transfer of strategic assets.
If Beijing would change the way it deals with Western Balkans, then there would be a possibility for the EU to work with Beijing for joint developments, he suggested.
“[There is] a common interest in promoting economic development in the Western Balkans,” he said. “If we can achieve the centrality of that goal in China’s engagement and it’s done in a way that doesn’t undermine the standards that we’re trying to promote … then there’s plenty of scope for converging interests.”
Located at the EU’s doorsteps, the six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – are constantly on the bloc’s radar given their potential to be future candidates to enter the 27-strong bloc.
China’s interaction with certain countries has raised the eyebrow of the EU, especially the two countries that are most likely to start EU accession talks: North Macedonia and Serbia.
After North Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev thanked his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang for helping his country’s modernisation in 2018, including China’s investment in highway constructions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned Beijing’s motive.
“I have no objections to the fact that China wants to trade … and to invest,” she said in a joint press conference with Zaev in 2018. “The question is … are the economic relations being linked with political questions?”
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic went even further, having recently attempted to build personal ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Chinese experts are the first to have defeated the virus. From now on, we will do everything they say,” Vucic said in April as state television broadcast the arrival of a plane carrying doctors and equipment from China.
The Chinese leader, he said, was not only a “friend of Serbian people” but also a “brother of this country”.
EU official Hatwell stressed that the bloc would need to sharpen its communication with the Western Balkan region.
“We need to up our game in terms of communication because there is this mistaken and slightly bizarre and frustrating perception in the region, and we saw that again recently in relation to the support of the pandemic that the EU is doing very little in these countries and China is doing a lot. If you actually drill down into the figures, the reverse, if anything, is true,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Angela Merkel warns China to do more to open up or risk more restrictions on EU market access
- Slow pace of Chinese economic reform could push EU into taking tougher stance
- EU leader at UN calls out China for its human rights record and its business practices
- EU backs China carbon neutral pledge but ‘more climate work to be done’
This article ‘We need to up our game’ against China in Western Balkans, says EU official first appeared on South China Morning Post