The EU has “overestimated Russia and underestimated China” in responding to rival foreign influence in the Balkans, a senior Brussels official has suggested, in a sign of the bloc’s unease at Beijing’s overtures to the region – said Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner responsible for negotiating with countries wanting to join the bloc, in his interview for the Financial Times.
He also voiced his concerned that some countries were borrowing heavily from China to pay for infrastructure and raising the risk of long-term damage to their fragile economies.
Hahn said the EU would instead be a “fairer” partner. “China never cares how and if a country is able to pay its loans.
“Europeans might not be the fastest ones, might seem to demand more than the others, but probably at the end of the day we are by far the fairest partners,” he added. The Balkan region has seen jostling for influence between the EU — which has held out the prospect of joining the bloc for several more countries after Croatia became a member in 2013 — and Russia, which has cultural and religious ties in the region. The EU has “overestimated Russia and underestimated China” in responding to rival foreign influence in the Balkans, a senior Brussels official has suggested, in a sign of the bloc’s unease at Beijing’s overtures to the region”, Hahn added.
China has been investing heavily in the Balkans, which are part of its so-called “16 + 1” format, comprising 11 EU countries and five non-EU members: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
More than half of the $9.4bn invested in all 16 countries in 2016 and 2017 went to the five non-EU members, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr Hahn said China was benefiting from aspects of the EU’s transparent and rules-based economy but “not providing and guaranteeing the same in China for European or even foreign companies,” he said, adding: “This is something which is no longer acceptable.”
Central European countries including the Czech Republic and Poland have become wary of Chinese investment after the US levelled spying allegations against Chinese telecoms company Huawei, but Balkan countries had been drawn to loans and infrastructure investments that come with less oversight, said Mr Hahn, who did not comment on Huawei.
He said the European Commission would pay much more attention to issues of public procurement, competition, and environmental standards in assessing aspirant member states’ readiness to join the bloc. Bosnian leaders are poised to sign a loan guarantee covering 100 per cent of a €614m loan from China’s Exim Bank to finance a coal power plant.
Hahn opposed the bridge in his previous post as commissioner for regional policy. Collectively, the six western Balkan countries outside the EU bloc — Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia — have lost one-tenth of their populations in the past three decades to emigration. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimated last year that at current growth rates, it could take 200 years for the region to catch up to the EU’s average GDP per capita.
“Without a positive result of this dialogue the whole region will not make any kind of final progress.” Mr Hahn said he hoped the recent breakthrough name deal between Greece and North Macedonia, which paves the way for the latter to join NATO and the EU, could have a “domino effect” in the region.
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