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View from the Street: As Balkans queue, China gets to work

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We wrote this View from the street some while ago and it’s as relevant today as it was back in 2019.

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Senior partner

A massive queue has formed in Europe as the countries of the Western Balkans continue their slow shuffle toward EU accession.

North Macedonia: 18 years. Serbia: 14 years. Montenegro: 15 years.
Bosnia: Lord only knows.

After formally applying in 2016, following years of constitutional reforms and engagements with the Dayton Peace Agreement, the land of blood and honey has got itself caught in a cycle of EU red tape. The latest glimmer of hope came late last year when European Union ministers endorsed giving Bosnia the status of being a candidate to join the bloc.

Regardless of the stage each Balkan nation is at, it’s clear that the bottleneck won’t be cleared any time soon.

But EU accession of the Balkans has gained new momentum following Russia’s aggression and the granting of EU membership candidate status to Ukraine.

The idea of accelerating the process in favour of the former Yugoslav countries, plus Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, has become part of the political discourse, all be it in hushed tones.

There may be need for haste however, not least because the Kremlin has demonstrated repeatedly that the Balkans are a conducive environment for punching back against the United States and the EU.

But, if the latter wishes to export stability, democracy, and economic development to their neighbours, as well as limiting Russia’s influence, they must also look over their shoulders as China marches towards them.

Chinese “chequebook diplomacy” means that Montenegro owes almost 40% of its debt to China, followed by North Macedonia (20%), Bosnia (14%), and Serbia (12%).

And the stranglehold could tighten yet as China builds up its influence in the Western Balkans through projects focused on everything from energy and infrastructure to culture, education, and media. If the EU is to achieve its geopolitical goals in the region, it will need to understand the nature of competition with Beijing in all these areas.

But back to the EU’s orderly accession queue. Shackled by its red tape, the EU is unable to meet the frustrated demands of the once patient – and previously rather desperate – Western Balkans. Unless it moves quickly the risk is that its accession routes will be undermined, and its queue will descend into chaos – with Russia and China waiting in the wings.


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