European Western Balkans

Let’s fight the coronavirus with facts about Europe’s commitment to the Balkans

Vladimir Bilčik; Photo: European Union

From the southwestern coasts of Portugal to the northern border regions of Finland, Europe is battling a war against an invisible enemy transcending national borders. Following the initial shock and individual reactions across different countries to the coronavirus outbreak, the European Union is pulling together its political force and economic strength to confront the spreading pandemic.

As this crisis continues, Europe and its institutions are already assuring our partners in the Balkans: you can count on our support. While the spread of coronavirus is questioning the very foundations of political cooperation and economic integration in Europe, I am convinced that we can only persevere and overcome today’s stalemate if we as Europeans unite further. This also means, however, that we continue to discuss our problems and actions with straight facts and sincere honesty.

So let me underline what Europe is doing. The bottom line is that the European Union stands firmly by our partners in the Western Balkans with concrete steps and commitments. And we shall be able to overcome this crisis with manageable losses only if we act with true solidarity, behave predictably and establish trustworthy foundations in our cross-border relations.

We continue to take important and relevant political decisions in Europe. Earlier in March the European Union opened accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, adding an important dynamic to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. On Monday this week North Macedonia joined the North Atlantic Alliance alongside its EU accession neighbours from Montenegro and Albania that joined NATO a few years ago.

Europe’s key political message is what we in the European Parliament have supported for years. Namely, a clear and credible European perspective for our partners in the Western Balkans. EU enlargement continues ever more seriously despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

And in practical terms, the European Union’s engagement in the Western Balkans goes beyond quick smiles and shiny pictures in the media. We are constantly keen to reinforce the accession states’ foundations so that they themselves are able to help the people in towns and villages of the Western Balkans withstand the onslaught of the deadly disease now.

Europe’s key approach is flexibility. Last month we in the European parliament approved more available resources to the countries in the Western Balkans through the EU Solidarity Fund. The big news in the coronavirus crisis is that the entire region will benefit from the EU’s support package of €410 million in bilateral financial assistance. This entails €38 million in immediate funding for medical and protection supplies and €374 million in further assistance to  people to help them recover socially and economically once the quarantine stops.

Let us break these numbers down a bit. In Serbia, the EU will immediately support the healthcare sector with €15 million and offers €78.4 million towards social and economic recovery across Serbia. The EU already helped to deliver 130 tons of medical supplies on two cargo planes and three more planes are expected to arrive this week. Serb nationals were repatriated with the EU’s help from Chinese Wuhan earlier this year. Over the past years, robust support to Serbia’s healthcare system included over EUR 200 million – an investment that is proving essential today when all hospitals in Serbia must be ready to treat COVID-19 patients.

In Montenegro, EU’s aid will provide €3 million for the healthcare sector and €50 million to boost the health, economy and business sectors over a longer period of time. The EU has distributed hundreds of care packages to vulnerable families, procured 12 ambulances and is supporting the construction of a new hospital wing in Podgorica and upgrading 12 microbiological laboratories in Montenegro.

What really matters is that the people in both Serbia and Montenegro can rely on the European Union. Decades of intensively cultivated communication channels between Brussels, Belgrade, Podgorica and other capitals in the region, remain wide open. Parliamentarians, diplomats, ministers, healthcare professionals can rely on years of cooperation. I admit our conversations with political partners on the ground have been sometimes difficult but always friendly and well intentioned.

Indeed, the European Union does not come to Belgrade for a photo opportunity. We have been here during better and worse times but always keen to foster the spirit of mutual help, trust and delivery. And you can count on us in the hard weeks ahead.”

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