As virtually every aspect of European life is currently held hostage by the coronavirus, uncertainty looms large. One of the few axioms, however, seems to be that China is getting ahead of the crisis and that Europe could fail the test. In this emerging storyline, the European Union will yet again fall short of the expectations of its citizens, becoming a splintered mess that could easily slide into irrelevance. Many commentators have noted that the coronavirus crisis has opened up space for a “battle of narratives” between China and Western democracies – that we are witnessing a skilful rewrite of the geopolitical playbook. But this assessment may prove premature.
Serbia is one place in which Europe’s purported failings are on display. The Western Balkans country, together with Montenegro, is a front runner for accession to the EU. On 15 March, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic grabbed the headlines by throwing insults at the EU and praising China for its medical assistance, calling the Chinese President Xi Jinping a true friend and a brother of the Serbian people. In a highly cynical performance, Vucic called European solidarity a fairy tale and accused the bloc of hypocrisy. The EU, according to Vucic, was not willing to sell or provide the goods necessary to cope with the medical emergency: “these are the same people who have asked us to fix our tender procedures to exclude the Chinese, so that EU companies would get Serbian money. Now our Serbian money is no longer good enough for them.”
Chinese state media outlets quickly jumped on the opportunity and subtitled the video, setting it to a dramatic musical score and replaying it on China’s news channels. They sought to prove Beijing’s point: Europe is not up to the job – the Chinese Communist Party is; democracy is weak – authoritarianism is effective. And Vucic is playing along, attending a lavish ceremony and photo-op with the Chinese ambassador, as boxes of medical supplies and six doctors arrived at Belgrade airport.
Many commentators have used the Serbian case to illustrate China’s success in winning the hearts and minds of Europeans in a time of need. And, granted, the imagery of Chinese-Serbian affection and incoming medical assistance had its appeal in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia. But it is not that simple. To understand the underlying dynamics of the EU-Serbia-China triangle, one needs to go beyond the optics and place Vucic’s statements in a broader context: Serbia is an EU candidate country that, in recent years, has witnessed increasing democratic backsliding, state capture, and repression of the media and free speech. And China has been happily along for the ride.
Serbia has attracted the highest amount of Chinese loans and investment among the six countries of the Western Balkans – and it is Europe’s fourth-biggest recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment. Chinese projects in Serbia include loans for highways and railroads (mainly built by Chinese contractors); loans for a thermal power plant; a purchase of a copper mining complex in Bor; a bailout of a bankrupt steel factory; investment into the Zrenjanin car tire factory; and contracts with Huawei for the rollout of a 5G network and the supply of surveillance equipment.
Serbia has already opened 18 chapters in its accession negotiations with Brussels, whose aim is to align domestic legislation with EU regulation. Engagement with China has not been helpful in this regard: Chinese infrastructure projects have largely failed to adhere to procurement standards, including those on competitive tenders. Since factories in Smederevo and Bor acquired by Chinese owners ratcheted up production, pollution in Serbia has increased. As a result, compliance with EU environmental standards has moved further out of reach. Huawei’s contract for the rollout of the 5G network and the installation of facial recognition cameras could be problematic in relation to EU privacy and data protection law, as well as from a national security perspective
The EU has taken note of these developments but has not held Serbia to account. Spurred by France, member states and the European Commission are now seeking stricter implementation of EU conditionality and monitoring procedures in the Western Balkans. But, instead of facing substantive consequences for his transgressions, the Serbian president has exploited the EU’s internal divisions over enlargement to throw insults at the bloc and legitimise his policies, as well as his courtship of authoritarian partners such as China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The crisis has provided him with the perfect opportunity to escalate his verbal attacks on the EU, whose member states are absorbed in managing their own national health emergencies – while covid-19 seems to be becoming less prevalent in China. The case of Serbia is, therefore, not a story of virtuous Chinese policy and gratitude from a European democracy in dire need of medical assistance. It is a story of mutually beneficial diplomacy and pompous rhetoric centred on an increasingly illiberal Serbian government, which has used the crisis and China’s support to bolster its political legitimacy, justify democratic backsliding, intimidate civil society groups, and further constrain the media. Serbia is playing the China card. It remains to be seen whether that is a smart move.
Yes, the EU needs to display greater solidarity among its member states and with its closest neighbours. But it is already doing so – just with much less fanfare. The EU has included Serbia in its newly designed stockpile of medical equipment, which entered into force on 20 March. Serbia will enjoy the same rights as EU member states in this context. The European Commission has also announced another €93 million aid package, with €15 million designated for medical equipment and €78 million for economic recovery. Importantly, the EU has been key in building up the capacity of the Serbian health sector in the past 20 years. It has donated €200 million and loaned €250 million to the sector, equipped hospitals in Serbia, and provided more than 250 emergency medical vehicles (122 of which included respiratory ventilators) to the country. Without the EU, Serbia’s health system would be much less capable of handling the coronavirus outbreak in the first place. European assistance may be a bit slower than China’s, as it has to jump through more bureaucratic hoops, but it is sustainable.
These are early days in a crisis that will almost certainly continue for a long time. Managing the economic fallout of the pandemic will be about more than telling a good story.
Chinese and Serbian attempts to dominate the narrative on the crisis – with the aim of undermining the EU’s unity and appeal – could backfire. EU assistance may come with less pomp but will last. The current burst of publicity will likely produce few lasting benefits for Serbia, which may emerge poorer once China’s loans come due.
Without the EU, Serbia’s health system would be much less capable of handling the coronavirus outbreak in the first place
Serbia is happily sitting on two chairs because no one is making it choose. It must be held accountable. As for China, it has a huge opportunity to expand its influence, as it appears to be emerging from the crisis earlier than other countries and could support Europe’s economic recovery with responsible policies. In the best-case scenario, these policies could include China providing greater market access to European companies and finally putting an end to its market-distorting practices (such as its provision of massive subsidies to favoured companies) – but, at the moment, this seems unlikely. And if Beijing is widely perceived to take advantage of Europe at a time of economic despair, any positive momentum it acquired in an early charm offensive could very quickly turn against it. The aftermath of the healthcare emergency will be all about economic survival.
Serbia’s most important relationship will be that with Europe – and no amount of propaganda will change that.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.