Serbia – (not) just a stopover on the Silk Road?

During her first annual State of the Union Address at the European Parliament Plenary, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, addressed how the current fight against the COVID-19 pandemic brought into sharper focus the “planetary fragility”. Furthermore, she highlighted that this notion mirrors the fragility of the “community of values” (how she described the European Union) whose survival and continued relevance was called into question by both outsiders and its members.

While addressing this complicated context, von der Leyen also mentioned the Western Balkans in her speech. However, the way in which she did this was particularly striking, given that she highlighted that “[t]he Western Balkans are part of Europe – and not just a stopover on the Silk Road.” Even though the Commission is often accused of using technocratic language, such statement from the Commission President presents direct criticism of the ever-growing presence of China in the region, especially in Serbia.

Moreover, it is important to highlight that this statement adds to previous warnings from senior EU officials, such as the former Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, who emphasized that the EU underestimated China’s influence in Serbia, similar to former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who stated that China has a strong influence in Serbia as it is a place where the EU has failed to meet its obligations. However, the strength of von der Leyen’s statement, in comparison to those made by Hahn and Juncker, lies in the fact that she made it at the beginning of her mandate, unlike the two of her colleagues. In other words, it appears as if the Commission under the guidance of von der Leyen is straightforward in its readiness to prioritise Serbia and approach the issue with more determination than the previous administration.

This is salient especially considering von der Leyen’s reiteration that China is a “systemic rival” of the EU. Such assertion is likewise highlighted in her statement that the EU should react faster and more voraciously to Beijing’s repressive actions in Hong Kong and the human rights abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. By doing this, von der Leyen is a step closer towards the realisation of the “Geopolitical Commission“, despite some inaction on this field since her leadership began.

Additionally, such statements should be regarded as a sign of warning for Serbia. This warning is in response to a country that has so far refused to join the Union’s declarations which condemned China’s actions in Hong Kong while simultaneously supporting China at the UN when Uyghurs’ rights were discussed. A recent study by CEP (whose publication is planned for November) demonstrated that out of the total number of EU’s declarations regarding China since 2008 onwards, Serbia refused to side with them 19 times. Put simply, whether it was regarding human rights or geopolitical questions, Serbia has preferred siding with Beijing instead with Brussels.

As the rivalry between the Union and China intensifies and escalates, stronger pressure can be expected on Belgrade to progressively align with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), both by EU institutions and member states, which are increasingly concerned about the almost unconditional support that Belgrade has so far provided to Beijing.

Photo: Chinese workers are working on the reconstruction of the railway in Serbia. © Vesna Andić, RFE/RL