Against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration, we publish a series on the EU’s future. Our Young Professionals Advisors reflect on the current state of the EU and propose a way forward to overcome the crisis. Read their view on how the EU should manoeuvre through the upcoming economic crisis.
The current COVID-19 pandemic crisis has impeded the EU’s integration process with evident effects and existing tensions within the Union have come to the fore. That said, the Union has not neglected these countries and the crisis offers an opportunity to expand the EU’s competences and reinforce the integration process with its aspiring country candidates.
Slowed-down Integration Plans, The Western Balkans Litmus Test
The EU’s record in integration is strong; yet, COVID-19 has again highlighted crucial challenges regarding democracy, economics and security within its member states. For European countries that are not yet EU members (e.g. the Western Balkans) the current situation has become decisive. These countries’ fragile democracies and economies watch the main ‘lighthouse of democracy’ turning its focus inwards since the outbreak of the pandemic, as member states grapple with rising unemployment, overstretched healthcare systems and fragile financial reserves, leading to debates between EU members on how they should conduct their internal EU relations once the pandemic subsides. Given the current situation, we are doubtful about certain countries’ (notably Italy, Greece, and Spain) ability to restart their economies and finance their debt without coordinated support. This partly explains why the corona bonds proposal was so contentious. With this in mind, the question of EU enlargement is crucial: Will the EU continue to push for enlargement and key reforms in countries aspiring to membership, despite the immense challenges reinforced by COVID-19?
Whilst the EU’s attention shifts away from enlargement, Western Balkan leaders are faltering in their progress towards democratization (e.g. the slowdown in Albania’s judicial and electoral reforms). Alternative allies are rather unconcerned with democratic reforms and ready to fill the void. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic recently declared that “European solidarity does not exist”, adding “Serbia now turns its eyes to China” (1). While Vucic criticized the lack of European solidarity, he did not comment on the European Commission’s decision to allocate 38€ million in immediate support for the region to tackle the health emergency, and 374€ million for its socio-economic recovery. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy noted that “it is funny how only China receives billboards of gratitude in Serbia”.
The initial exclusion of the Western Balkans from the Export Authorization Scheme for Personal Protective Equipment, at a time when a strong signal from the EU was needed most, these countries perceived it as an abandonment, leaving them to tackle the pandemic alone with only limited resources. Some countries in the region reacted to their exclusion from the scheme by coordinating amongst themselves with regard to key medical certifications, indicating a willingness to engage in future integration projects not led by the EU.
We must emphasize that the current policy of temporary solutions such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph is insufficient, and serious engagement with the Western Balkans must resume as soon as possible. A stronger EU presence in the region will balance foreign actors’ manoeuvres and secure past achievements. These include the loosened EU travel restrictions on the region’s citizens, greater economic integration, and clear pathways for legal employment within the EU for Western Balkan citizens. Despite France vetoing further progress in the accession process for Albania and North Macedonia last year, the European Council endorsed a new enlargement methodology (the reason for France’s veto in November), allowing the Commission to proceed with a plan for further integration of the region. The EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans should not be just a fair-weather diplomatic exercise; solidarity with the region in an emergency situation must be integral to any Union action plan, not an afterthought brought about by geopolitical considerations.
During a recent video conference with the Young Professional Advisors, United Europe president Günther Oettinger pointed out that the Western Balkan countries have a combined population of approximately 20 million people, not much more than East Germany at the time of German reunification, and less even than Romania when it joined the EU in 2007 alongside Bulgaria. All the Western Balkan states have large diasporas in EU member states, therefore support networks and exchanges of information and best practices are certainly feasible. If the Western Balkan states reaffirm their commitment to reforms that accelerate the accession process, and if the EU institutions reinforce their engagement with the region, both through greater financial support, but also greater monitoring and assessment of the situation, the end result can be positive for all.
We advocate for more direct engagement efforts, closer monitoring of EU programs implemented in the Western Balkans, and engaging these countries in important EU-level decisions with a pan-European impact.
EU aid to the Eastern Partnership countries in the current crisis
In the present context, the EU provided financial and other assistance to six Eastern Partnership countries. Firstly, the EU Commission allocated 140€ million to meet immediate needs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine (3). In addition, the Commission will redirect the use of existing instruments worth up to 700€ million to mitigate the crisis’ socio-economic impacts. This concrete aid in emergency situations needs to be clearly highlighted, to demonstrate where the real support for the region comes from. Guaranteeing the Eastern Partnership’s economic stability not only serves as an act of solidarity, but allows the process of engagement and integration with the EU to continue, increasing the possibility that the EU and its neighbouring states constitute an economically cohesive area that can set the stage for increased cooperation in other fields in future.
Medical action and future response mechanisms
The European Commission in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) is deploying €30 million to ensure medical supplies are jointly purchased and effectively distributed to the Western Balkan countries’ health systems in the coming weeks. In addition, the funds will support national health administrations’ training of medical and laboratory staff and information campaigns for the wider population. This demonstrates that far from acting in isolation and imposing policies (what the EU is often accused of), the Commission is not only willing to cooperate with other major institutions to respond to crisis situations, but absolutely benefits from increased interaction with these institutions. Looking to the future, it proves that the EU institutions work well in the international arena in which agreements between supranational organisations are the key drivers of international cooperation, rather than agreements between states.
The Commission has also made over €11.3 millions in small grants available to civil society organisations. These funds address immediate needs, through the ongoing regional “Rapid Response Mechanism”, such as supporting schools with distance learning. By summer, as part of this package, the Commission will launch the “Eastern Partnership Solidarity Programme”, targeting the most affected populations through civil society support and sub-grants to smaller, local organisations.
For future action, we advocate for the rescEU common medical stockpile (2), set up to counter the pandemic, to be made permanent, with member states regularly contributing funding, equipment, and permanent staff. The EU was slow to react to COVID-19 because healthcare is an exclusive competence of the Member States. A “European response” was materially not possible, and depended on individual Member States’ initiatives. Maintaining this centralised stockpile and pool of emergency staff as a permanent fixture would be hugely beneficial. In case of future health disasters with a transnational character, or particularly severe health crises in a member state, it can allow for a rapid reaction, and avoid scrambling for spare resources in future.
The socio-economic impact: Mitigation now, prevention for the future
The Commission is working closely with International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and relevant financing institutions from EU Member States, providing a coordinated European response for the real economy. This includes the launch of a new support programme of €100 million to help SMEs, including self-employed and others to easily access credit and boost their businesses after the crisis. It also goes towards facilitating, simplifying, accelerating, and reinforcing €200 million worth of existing credit lines and grants to SMEs in local currency including through its EU4Business Initiative. In addition, the EU has mobilised its major de-risking instrument, the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD), worth a total of €1.55 billion, with €500 million available for the EU’s neighbourhood. This will rapidly provide liquidity in the neighbourhood, including through working capital, trade finance, or moratoria on debt service. This support is in addition to ongoing macro financial assistance support to partners, including Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. While this is very welcome, it should only be the beginning of a greater push to integrate these countries into the European economic and political space. If these countries seriously begin to look elsewhere (e.g. China) for economic ties and other forms of cooperation, it is partially because the EU has failed to show considerable commitment to these countries’ integration process; whether in terms of encouraging investment, offering avenues for movement of people and goods to some degree, or contributing resources for the purpose of monitoring political reforms, transfer of expertise, and institutional capacity. The EU must live up to the promise and show that its Eastern Partnership is of great importance and not just a peripheral regional bloc that is only acknowledged when a crisis in these regions risks serious spillovers in EU member states.
To summarise: despite the sometimes strained relations between people, leaders, states and institutions, the pandemic has offered a moment of reflection. Although it may have interrupted the integration processes taking place, it also forced us to ask the question: “were the existing integration processes adequate and sufficient?”From the Western Balkans to the Eastern Partnership, to the existing cooperation mechanisms between member states, the answer is becoming clearer: the EU still needs to do more.
The sometimes-hostile attitudes to the wider European neighbourhood, lack of centralised emergency mechanisms and sustainable financing agreements for vulnerable states are all issues EU leadership had been avoiding. Then the pandemic forced them to address all these issues at once.
This pandemic has offered an opportunity to renew the vigour with which EU objectives should be pursued and elaborate better arrangements to work towards these goals.
Here at United Europe, our position is clear: the EU’s leaders must learn from previous mistakes, look ahead and consider these objectives to be a priority. The price of time committed, financial resources and effort may be high, but the consequences of inaction will be higher.
 Coronavirus: The European Union stands by its Eastern partners
Authors: Albert Guasch, Kalina Trendafilova, Dyria Alloussi, Raiko Puustusma, Dinand Drankier, Justinas Lingevicius, Mihkel Kaevats, Felix Klein, Karl Luis Neumann, Silja Raunio, Anna Penninger, Armando Guçe, Mihály Szabó, Andranik Hovhannisyan, Luca Contrino, Raphael Kohler, Jens-Daniel Florian, Elif Dilmen, Eshgin Tanriverdi, Robert Grecu, Visar Xhambazi.
About the YPAs: We are a group of 36 United Europe Alumni from 20 countries. We consider ourselves a task force for United Europe e.V.,promoting young leadership from various regions in Europe. We represent diverse and young European voices on the EU’s most pressing issues. We aim to restore trust in the European project among the youth and citizens of Europe. We are a network that promotes professional exchanges between young Europeans and give impulses for a more European way of thinking. We promote plurality and want to generate new ideas for smart analysis of EU policies.
DISCLAIMER: This article is the work of multiple contributors working under the umbrella of United Europe’s Young Professional Advisors. It is a fact-based production that represents the personal views of its contributors. This article in no way represents the views of the European Commission, the European institutions, or any national or sub-national government.