Solidarity in the time of Coronavirus

‘By now you all understood that European solidarity does not exist’, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, told the nation during a press conference to declare a state of emergency on Sunday evening. It was ‘a fairy tale on paper’, he added, and the ‘only country that can help us is China’. It was a moment of grand political theatre, delivered with Vučić’s trademark pauses and profundity, in front of a TV audience eager to learn whether their sons and daughters would be going to school or kindergarten the very next day. Yet it was a moment that captured a sentiment that even Serbia’s most progressive voices have come to harbour – deepening and increasingly fundamental disillusionment with the EU and the European perspective. It is, moreover, a disillusionment that is felt across the Western Balkans.

The timeline for membership of the Union – a dream shared by the so-called Western Balkans Six – has been stretched to such an extent that it has begun to fray. The start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania were vetoed by France last autumn, despite the former having changed its name after an historic compromise with Greece. Kosovo still awaits visa liberalisation, even though the Commission determined that it had fulfilled all the stipulated conditions (of which there were plenty). Bosnia and Herzegovina’s internal upheavals threaten its own functionality, let alone its prospects of membership. Only Montenegro and Serbia have made some small but tangible progress; often to the chagrin of the others, especially the progress of the latter.

Without either absolving governments for their failures to implement EU conditioned reforms (and their subsequent attempts to distract attention), or romanticising their stated commitments to do so amidst almost constant electioneering, the recalcitrance of certain member states towards admitting new members has hindered progress on numerous fronts.

It is not just the waning of the European perspective, though well-documented, that is driving disillusionment. The region’s healthcare systems – including those of EU members such as Croatia and Bulgaria – have been decimated (especially outside the main urban centres) by the outflow of highly-trained medical personal (doctors, nurses, surgeons, anaesthetists), enticed by opportunities and renumeration in western Europe. Though one cannot begrudge these individuals the professional and life chances they so deserve, nor can the chronic mismanagement and underfunding of these systems be overlooked, it is nonetheless a loss of labour that is both hard to stem and exacting to replace (especially in the absence of sizeable immigration). Demand for such human capital from Europe’s ageing population is inexhaustible, and many feel these countries should be entitled to direct compensation for their investments. During public health traumas like the Coronavirus, such deficiencies become even more pronounced. There are already too few doctors and nurses, let alone when those on the front-line inevitably fall ill. They will face unimaginable stresses and strains, the result of which will be preventable deaths.

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