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The Corona crisis will have clear consequences in EU foreign policy

An interview with Florent Marciacq, a senior fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne. Interviewer: Zoé Kappes.

April 21, 2020 - Florent Marciacq Zoé Kappes - Interviews

ZOÉ KAPPES: What implications do you think the coronavirus crisis might have in terms of priority-setting in the EU? Could the EU member states reconsider certain priorities, such as the present accession negotiation process in the Western Balkans?

FLORENT MARCIACQ: In the European Union, the COVID-19 crisis will certainly have clear short-term consequences. The EU’s short-term agenda is now overly dominated by the management of the pandemic. There is no time to think about the future of the European Union, and about the Western Balkans. For example, the process of the Conference on the Future of Europe has disappeared from the agenda for now. It is a little disappointing because bringing back the Western Balkans on the agenda of the European Union took a lot of hard work. But the COVID-19 crisis will not only have short-term consequences on the position of the Western Balkans on the European agenda. Some people say that the COVID-19 crisis will put an end to globalisation and will result in a fairer, greener, more digital world. I personally think the crisis will mostly amplify fragilities that had already existed prior.

First of all, we see a strong resurgence of national interests within the European Union. The community reflex has not come to the forefront and we see very little solidarity between member states. There have been a few transfers of COVID-19 victims and material between countries, but there is no global solution at the EU level at the moment. The question therefore lies in how much cohesion will be demonstrated after the crisis. Coming back to the Balkans, we need strong cohesion to go further with the enlargement, which the EU is particularly lacking at the moment.

The second point has to do with digitalisation. We tend to welcome digitalisation with little critical thinking, when the acceleration of time enabled by digitalisation makes people and countries more narcissistic and less empathetic. If we communicate more through social networks and screens, we have difficulties to feel the togetherness enabling and boosting the European project. I think the crisis will only increase this tendency, and our relation to the European construction might therefore change a lot. The third issue is a less democratic European Union and the example the EU will set for the Western Balkans after the crisis. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, we now see a lot of initiatives to strengthen executive power, limit the freedom of assembly or even the freedom of expression. This is, for instance, the case of Hungary, but also of France and many other EU countries. Rule by decrees has also replaced rule of parliament in some occasions. Many say that these changes are temporary, but our readiness to give up on key democratic standards for the sake of fighting the crisis questions the solidity of our democratic system, which does not prove to be very solid after all. We can hope that we will come back to the point where we were before, but we will not because we will have given up some freedom in the meantime.

Maybe the EU could have a specific role to play as a leader regarding the post-crisis period, in order for member states to recover the same democratic standards that were implemented before the crisis?

Because of the pandemic, there is a belief that there is no time to talk about legal nuances when we have to save lives, and I am not denying that. My concern is that we don’t have much reflection and contestation of the consequences those changes might have. We are so easily giving up on these contestations, and I don’t see that as a very good sign for the future. Why should the democratic situation come back to what it was so easily after the crisis? After all, countries such as China or Russia have been effective in dealing with the crisis so far, and it’s rationally understandable, it is to some extent more difficult for democratic states to implement harsh measures to limit freedoms. Authoritarian countries can handle the crisis in a more effective way I would say. I’m not supporting this argument, but it is the tendency. In a democratic state, we cannot just rule by decree, decide without any consultation. That raises the question of the effectiveness of democracies regarding public safety. The present crisis highlights a tendency of accepting the fact that this is not the time to think about our democratic standards or about privacy: we are ready to give up on them. Some of our democratic norms and standards may be eroded through the crisis and may not recover, and the example given during and after the crisis will not be very good.

Could the COVID-19 pandemic deepen the political struggles in the Western Balkans, and jeopardise democratic improvements?

Yes. Not only will it be hard for the EU after the crisis to keep a focus on the Western Balkans, but the type of political regimes which will emerge after the COVID-19 crisis in the Western Balkans will also make it more difficult for the EU to get closer. Politically, democracy clearly had not strongly consolidated in the region and is even less consolidated now, for example in Serbia, or other countries in the region. The authorities in the region are now using the COVID-19 crisis to strengthen their rule, to get more power, to increase the surveillance of the press and mute journalists regarding political criticism. These illiberal regimes are getting strengthened by COVID-19.

In Kosovo for example, the pandemic was used to get rid of the ruling coalition led by Albin Kurti, which was jeopardising the financial and power interests of the people of the parties involved in state capture. Kurti, whatever we think about him, was elected with the view to fight corruption in Kosovo. The ruling coalition has now been sacked by various political “manipulations”, and the parties which have rule over the country for the past 15 years might use this opportunity to be “back to business”. These parties have proven to be a very good power basis with blurry financial grounds, and have used the COVID-19 crisis to get rid of the Kurti government. It is a good example of how changes, big or small, are inflected through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the Western Balkans. Either ruling parties consolidate their authoritarian basis, or they ensure that the ones who are jeopardising their power basis are being kept away from the political scene.

What about the economic consequences of the crisis? What could the financial implications of the COVID-19 outbreak be for the process of negotiation with Albania and North Macedonia?

The biggest and most undermined consequence of the COVID-19 crisis will be the economic implications. It is clear that the economic and social repercussions of the crisis will be huge – we already hear that it will be bigger than the 2008 financial crisis. Each week of economical stand-still costs one per cent of GDP. We expect a recession. We see a boom of unemployment in Europe. In Austria for example, before the crisis, there were 400 000 people registered as unemployed. Within the first two weeks of shut down, 200 000 people registered as unemployed and unemployment has increased by 50 per cent. The enlargement process will be extremely complicated because of these implications. Enlargement policy is about cohesion, and to some level about transfers of money, from a richer Europe to a poorer Europe. If the rich Europe is in trouble or is perceived as being in trouble, the transfers will not be easy and therefore the convergence will not be easy. The domestic pressure not to allow poorer citizens to get in the European Union and thus “profit” from funds from the EU will increase. If you add that in the equation of the new methodology set last March, which involves a strong political steer, it means that the veto players will multiply.

You mentioned national reflexes and divisions within the EU during the COVID-19 crisis. Could that lead to a clear set-back regarding the enlargement policy? The member states have agreed to open negotiations, could they come back on their decision because of the consequences of the crisis, could they now say “no”?

They don’t need to. The decision announced in March is to open accession negotiations, but it does not set a date for the accession negotiations because member states disagree. The member states can make that stand still as long as they want or need to. The announcement is mainly a symbolic sign that things are moving forward, but nothing has actually started and I don’t think it will soon, given the present crisis. If anything, the crisis might have made it easier for the member states to decide on the opening of negotiations without many implications and because of the pandemic, the decision received little attention in the media for example. I would say it was a cheap decision with little implications for the EU countries. In the Western Balkans, it has not been welcomed with the symbolic value that could be expected after 10 years of waiting.

About the date of the announcement to the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia: do you think it was a political move from the EU’s side, maybe wanting to show a positive sign to the region in such a difficult crisis?

I cannot speculate on the reasons which prevail in these calculations. But it surely is not the first time the EU has decided to open accession negotiations without giving a date. It has done it before with Balkan countries. Regarding the date though, one aspect is that, at some level, the pressure was very high on France, because not opening the accession negotiations would weaken the new government in North Macedonia when that country needs stability. The second point is that in these times of trouble with the COVID-19 crisis, it would have added a layer of tension and contention with Germany. In the past two years France and Germany have been disagreeing on a lot of topics, for example with the Spitzenkandidat procedure, but also with the reform on defence or the Europe of transfers (reform on the economic and monetary union). Relations between Germany and France are evidently not easy, and enlargement has been a bone of contention in the past two years. If France had kept on resisting the opening of accession negotiations that could have added a layer of contention in a context which clearly requires some kind of cooperation now. That could also have been a reason, knowing again that it doesn’t cost anything to open accession negotiations with no date.

You have mentioned the fragmentation of the European Union during the crisis, and you noted exterior actors such as China. Some countries in the Balkans especially are showing concerns on the EU’s efficiency to solve the crisis. The president of Serbia, for example, has claimed that the EU provides no help and is now looking towards China. How could the crisis shift geopolitical interests and challenges in the Western Balkans? Could the Serbian example show a general tendency?

Factually, the EU response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Western Balkans has been to reallocate unused hyper-funds in the amount of 410,000 million euros for the whole region. If you look in the details, 38 million euros will be given to deliver medical equipment, such as ventilators. The price of one of one ventilator is 50,000 euros. The EU’s financial help would be enough to buy 800 ventilators. That’s it. In reality, the region doesn’t only have a problem with lack of equipment at the moment, but with medical staff. The Balkans’ medical staff has largely emigrated from the region, which is especially the case for Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is a lack of physicians in general in the Western Balkans. The EU therefore offers 38 million euros, which is not a lot, for medical equipment while knowing how difficult it is to find doctors. The second part of the aid given by the EU is for the social-economic recovery; 374 million euros. To put it into perspective, the trade deficit of North Macedonia is twice as high as the help the EU has for the whole region.

In that regard the EU is not perceived as a strong actor, but as a hesitant actor. That is why some countries turn to China or the US for help, since it is perceived as much more straight-forward. The EU’s lack of credibility is a challenge. The investments of the EU in the region are not high enough, and have not been high enough for the past 20 years in order to bring convergence in the region. The region is exactly at the same level in terms of GDP per capita compared to, for example, the average of Central and Eastern European countries, 20 years after the beginning of the enlargement process. The EU being more and more perceived as an actor lacking credibility perspectives for other actors such as China or Russia to play their own game on the European fields.

Florent Marciacq is a senior fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne and Deputy Secretary General of the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe.

Zoé Kappes is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe and currently an MA student of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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