West Balkans countries hedge bets on EU accession by deepening ties with China

There is widespread scepticism in the West Balkans as to whether EU accession is really attainable. As a result, their governments may be inclined to deepen involvement in the Belt & Road initiative

WEST Balkan states are likely to deepen ties with China as their governments hedge their bets on potential EU accession. The six potential accession countries – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo – are keen to seek support from both the EU and China for infrastructure projects. And while the accession candidates may be wary of jeopardizing EU accession by working too closely with China and provoking Brussels, there is also a long list of hurdles to successful accession. In this context, fostering closer bilateral ties with China under the Belt Road initiative makes sense.

Lilyana Pavlova, the Bulgarian government minister heading up the EU Presidency, has EU expansion firmly on the agenda for the May 17 Summit in Sofia. And already on February 6 the European Commission unveiled its strategy in a document titled: “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans.” The strategy holds out the prospect that both Serbia and Montenegro could “potentially” be ready to join the EU by 2025. It also offers increased support for the four other candidates.

“It is a clear path for all our six partners in the Western Balkans, to finally join the European Union,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the strategy launch in Strasbourg in early February, adding that this could be a turning point in the history of the bloc.

Mogherini was duty bound to outline a bold vision at the launch event. However, beyond the soaring rhetoric the document lists a number of hurdles that will need to be overcome. The EU has highlighted weak legal systems, criminal enterprises and political corruption, and says that sustained efforts and irreversible reforms will be required for a credible enlargement perspective, in addition to economic reforms.

All countries must unequivocally commit to reconciliation and solving open issues well before accession to the European Union. For example, a comprehensive, legally-binding normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo will be essential for progress on their respective European paths.

Moreover, at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Sofia on February 16, Johannes Hahn, the Austrian European commissioner who holds the European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations portfolio, acknowledged that the desire from within the EU for further enlargement is not particularly strong. It is also notable that EU officials point to the need for the EU to be prepared to welcome new members once they have met the criteria.

Hahn has described the target of 2025 admission for both Serbia and Montenegro as realistic but ambitious. However, some analysts doubt whether this next expansion wave will actually happen. As a result, strong bilateral relationships with China, which could help them with their infrastructure needs and as a trading partner, is likely to continue to be high on the agenda in the potential accession countries.

Five of the six accession countries are members of the so-called 16 plus 1, which given its mixture of both EU and non-EU countries is viewed with suspicion in Brussels as a vehicle for China to project its influence. The exception is Kosovo, which is not recognised as an independent state by Serbia, but viewed as a breakaway province. Kosovo has received diplomatic recognition from 118 countries, but China is not among them.

Up to now the talk from China on the scope of the Belt & Road in Europe has not been matched by the size of projects on the ground. Nonetheless, there are just enough projects in these countries for them to view China as a credible partner.

In Montenegro, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) unit China Road and Bridge Corporation is working on the motorway between the port of Bar and the town of Boljare on the Serbian border. The first section should be open in May 2019. The entire 165-kilometre motorway across Montenegro is costing US$900 million, most of which is being provided as a loan from China Eximbank.

It will eventually connect with a length of new Serbian motorway to the capital Belgrade, in which CCCC is also heavily involved. Meanwhile, China is building and part-financing the new high-speed rail link between Belgrade and Budapest. Some of these road and rail projects will eventually link up with the Greek port of Piraeus, which is owned by China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, also known as Cosco.

Given concerns in Brussels about China projecting its influence via high profile infrastructure projects, it is no surprise that the EU West Balkans strategy document sets out ambitious spending plans for infrastructure in the region.

The document states that enhancing connectivity within the Western Balkans represents a strategic interest for both sides. “The Western Balkans are surrounded geographically by EU Member States and it is a political priority to connect infrastructure also between the EU and the Western Balkans and to accelerate the development of interconnected trans-European networks in the fields of transport, energy and digital services,” it says.

In addition to increased funding of these networks and the creation of a new guarantee scheme for private investment, the Commission will work to ensure more effective use of existing provisions of the Connecting Europe Facility for the Western Balkans countries.

It also sketches out a plan for a transport union with the Western Balkans. Implementation of the Transport Community Treaty which entered into force in 2017 will be the key step leading to progressive integration of the region into the EU transport market. Agreements on priority transport corridors between the EU and the Western Balkans as part of the trans-European transport network are already in place. These now need to be made a reality to ensure their contribution to increasing the competitiveness of the continent as a whole. In addition to investments, the priority is to align with EU operational standards. A new rail strategy is needed to bring the Western Balkans into the main EU network and market and to promote opening of the regional rail market.

Photo: European Commission