The "Politics of Generosity"

Countering China's influence in South Eastern Europe, EU demands "public acknowledgement" of its assistance in combating the pandemic.

BERLIN/BELGRADE (Own report) - The Western Balkan states, including Serbia, should publicly acknowledge the EU's support in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU demands in the final declaration at its Zagreb Western Balkan Summit last Wednesday. The summit had been preceded by harsh criticism of Chinese aid deliveries to Serbia, which have aroused strong resentment in Berlin and Brussels. EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell accused Beijing of waging "a struggle for influence" with its "politics of generosity." The EU's Foreign affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell had accused Beijing of its "struggle for influence" with "politics of generosity." For years, Germany and the EU have been trying to counter the growing influence of other powers in the Southeastern European non-EU countries. This pertains to the Turkish, Russian and Chinese cultural and military policies and their economic activities. The EU dominance over the Western Balkan countries' economy has only drained these countries of billions of euros and rendered their recovery impossible. This is why they are turning also to China.

Dependent and Drained

The current struggle for influence over the six non-EU countries in Southeastern Europe, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo - which had seceded from Serbia in violation of international law - is based on the fact that they have been unable to benefit from their long and rather one-sided orientation towards the European Union. On the contrary: "The 'transition model' propagated by the EU and international financial institutions such as the World Bank" did not "bring them the desired rapid alignment with Western Europe," according to Dušan Reljić, expert on Southeastern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.[1] They have even become largely economically dependent. For example, the Western Balkans transacts "nearly 75 percent of their foreign trade with the EU, even more than some EU members." The pan-EU average for foreign trade with other EU member countries is at 63.8 percent - roughly on a par with that of Germany. The Western Balkan states' trade policy focus on the EU is accompanied by highly unequal relations. Between 2008 and 2018, the countries concerned accumulated a trade deficit with the EU of around €100 billion. Therefore, they cannot achieve a growth of 6 to 8 percent that would be necessary to match the EU by mid-century, Dušan Reljić notes. In addition, "foreign investments, bank capital, remittances from labor migrants" are mainly coming from the EU - but "no substantial free financial aid to economically catch up and remedy the structural deficits with the EU."

"New Silk Road", "Slavic Shield"

For years, the obvious lack of opportunities to significantly enhance living conditions in their countries, by exclusively tying themselves to the EU, has been motivating the Western Balkan states to improve their relations with powers beyond the EU. Bosnian Muslims, for example, are closely cooperating with Turkey, which is seeking more influence in Kosovo and Albania. Serbia, on the other hand, is strengthening its cooperation with Russia in the economic field - including the purchase of Russian gas - and militarily. Only last fall, Russia and Serbia held their joint "Slavic Shield" maneuvers.[2] At the same time, Serbia and other countries in the region are expanding their cooperation with China, primarily within the framework of the "New Silk Road" ("Belt and Road Initiative", BRI). The People's Republic of China is also pressing ahead with a transportation corridor linking the Greek port of Piraeus through North Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary - therefore into the EU. Just recently, following the EU's March 19, ban on exports of medical protective gear to the Western Balkan countries, as well, Belgrade expanded its cooperation with Beijing even further. Serbia's President, Aleksandar Vucic, welcomed the arrival of protective gear from the People's Republic of China with flamboyant gestures. Reljić noted that "in the region, with hopes of larger investments, the gaze is turning more in the direction of Asia - particularly China.[3]

Encircled by NATO Countries

For years, the EU has been attempting to weaken Russian and Chinese influence in Southeast Europe. So called Western Balkan Conferences with representatives of interested EU countries and those of the six western Balkan nations, have been held since 2014.[4] The EU holds also Western Balkan Summits.[5] NATO plays an important role in insuring influence. In the meantime, three of the six Western Balkan countries have been integrated into NATO - Albania in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and most recently North Macedonia on March 27 of this year. Their admission was not so much motivated by their military contributions to the alliance - which can be seen as negligible - but rather due to geostrategic considerations. Serbia is still cooperating closely with Russia - even militarily - and NATO's war on that country in 1999 remains unforgotten, which is why joining the war alliance is out of the question. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian Serbs are strictly opposed to an eventual NATO membership. Kosovo, on the other hand, cannot be admitted because even some NATO member countries, such as Spain, do not recognize its secession from Serbia. The admission of the three other Western Balkan countries has now led to a situation described by one correspondent as "the non-alliance trio ... is now surrounded in all directions by NATO countries." "Moscow's attempts to prevent this have failed."[6]

Foreign Policy Adjustment

Because not only the conferences and summits, but NATO activities as well, prove insufficient to roll back particularly China's growing economic influence in Southeast Europe, the EU finds itself forced to regularly dangle an offer of EU-membership to the countries of the Western Balkans. The EU has been in negotiations with Montenegro since 2012 and with Serbia since 2014. Last March - following acrimonious internal disputes [7] - North Macedonia and Albania were promised membership negotiations. These membership negotiations serve primarily to adjust the candidates' economic and legal systems' standards to those of the EU. Of course the negotiations do not necessarily lead to Union membership, which not all EU members find desirable. As Union members, they would qualify for transfer payment claims and participation in decision making processes. Accordingly, last week, the EU prevented the term "enlargement" from being used in the Zagreb summit final declaration. The main ones preventing its use, according to a report in the Croat journal Jutarnji List, were Germany, the Netherlands and France.[8] On the other hand, the Union calls on the Western Balkan states to have full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, and to act accordingly.[9]

"That Deserves Public Acknowledgement"

In the summit's final declaration, the EU also reacted to the fact that Serbia has accepted assistance in its battle against the Covid-19 pandemic from China. The aid deliveries had aroused strong resentment particularly in Germany. EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell accused the People's Republic of China of waging "a struggle for influence" with its "politics of generosity."[10] Shortly before the Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb, the EU felt compelled to relax its ban on exports of medical protective gear, thereby also providing assistance to the Western Balkan countries. At the summit, it also agreed to €3.3 billion in financial aid. However, €900 million of those funds had been reoriented from funds already promised. The rest largely consists of refundable credits destined to aid private companies. Because the Western Balkan countries' reactions were not all that enthusiastic, the summit's final declaration was intended to do a bit of prompting. In the declaration, the EU insists that ostentatious gratitude be shown: The fact that this "support and cooperation" by the EU, "goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region" the document states, "deserves public acknowledgement."[11]


[1] "Alle zwei Minuten emigriert ein Mensch aus dem Westbalkan in die EU". 02.02.2020.

[2] Russland schickt Raketensysteme nach Serbien. 24.10.2019.

[3] Dušan Reljić: Geopolitik und Kredite: Die EU möchte den Westbalkan nicht verlieren. 05.05.2020.

[4] See also The Hegemony over Southeast Europe.

[5] See also Ein Schwarzes Loch in Südosteuropa.

[6] Michael Martens: Endlich in der Nato. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 27.03.2020.

[7] See also Kollateralschäden im Führungskampf.

[8] Thomas Gutschker, Michael Martens: Ewiges EU-Vorzimmer? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 07.05.2020.

[9] Zagreb Declaration, 6 May 2020.

[10] The Coronavirus pandemic and the new world it is creating. 23.03.2020. See also The New Global Health Powers.

[11] Zagreb Declaration, 6 May 2020.