Nathalie Tocci: Pandemic has revealed the fragility of Western Balkans’ state system

Nathalie Tocci; Photo: Flickr / Belgrade Security Forum

ROME – A more accurate reading of developments in the Western Balkans points to a post-coronavirus future in which the region grows ever closer to the European Union and that future will only become reality if the EU moves decisively to make it happen — starting today as leaders gather virtually for an EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb, wrote Nathalie Tocci, Director of Istituto Affari Internazionali in an article for Politico.

Nathalie Tocci stressed that on top of the devastating socio-economic costs generated by close borders, societal lockdowns and the indirect effects of the global depression to come, the pandemic has revealed the fragility of Western Balkans’ state system — and the region’s need for outside partners if it is to survive, an opportunity the EU cannot miss.

In that sense, some actors in Western Balkans instrumentalized the epidemic to blast the EU and cosy up to China, as Serbia President Aleksandar Vučić, says Tocci.

“The Western Balkans have been sliding toward authoritarianism for almost a decade now. Far from being a show of strength, these power grabs are more likely driven by necessity. In other words, they are displays of weakness. The citizens of the Western Balkans (and other autocratic countries, including Hungary) may not be as easy to control as would-be despots thought”, wrote a special adviser to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell, Nathalie Tocci.

According to Tocci, the risk is not that the Western Balkans will sail off to a “Chinese El Dorado”, it’s that the region will sink – socially, economically, democratically – under the weight of the epidemic and the realities it has exposed.

Tocci underlined that in a more regionalized world, the Western Balkans can only side with and eventually belong to the EU.

In her point of view, the European Union has woken up once again to the region’s strategic importance. After an embarrassing blunder last fall when EU leaders put the bloc’s enlargement policy briefly in doubt, things are back on track.

“The EU has agreed to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. And ahead of the virtual summit in Zagreb, the Commission has allocated €3.3 billion to the region to address the immediate COVID-19 health and humanitarian needs, as well as its longer-term socio-economic repercussions. It has also provided the region with privileged access to EU programs,” she said adding that it is signalling both concretely and symbolically that the Western Balkans is a part of the European family.

She emphasized that the EU’s commitment to the Western Balkans must not be propelled by the fear that the region will otherwise fall into China’s lap.

In her point of view, if the EU doubles down on its commitment to the region, it will also have to double down on its insistence for reforms.

“This should begin with close monitoring of the recent centralization in executive power and be quickly followed up with recommendations for their rapid removal. Restrictions on civil rights and abuses in the handling of personal data should receive similar treatment”, Tocci wrote.

Tocci concluded that the trick now will be to make sure that the EU’s renewed commitment to the region does not come at the expense of supporting democracy.