Commissioner Johannes Hahn also pushes back against Emmanuel Macron’s enlargement skepticism.
The EU has sounded the alarm about China’s role in the Western Balkans, warning that Beijing could turn countries in the region into Trojan horses that would one day be European Union members.
European Commissioner Johannes Hahn told POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast that China’s “combination of capitalism and a political dictatorship” could appeal to some leaders in the region on the Continent’s southeastern flank.
Although much Western concern about the Balkans in recent years has focused on the role of Russia, Hahn said there is more reason to be uneasy about China, which has made a series of significant investments in infrastructure projects there.
Asked about the prospect of Beijing creating Trojan horses by using its financial clout to get political sway over countries that aspire to join the EU, Hahn cited the example of a highway in Montenegro being built and financed by China.
“This is exactly the case with this famous highway in Montenegro. And also this is a kind of pattern, or let’s say business model, by the Chinese to offer attractive or more or less attractive loans and if you cannot serve them, it’s turned into capital,” said Hahn, the commissioner responsible for relations with the EU’s neighbors and talks with prospective new members.
“I think we should be aware about the strategic concept by China and react in an adequate manner. I think this will be one of the great challenges of Europe,” said Hahn, an Austrian conservative and former minister.
Montenegro — which was in the headlines last week after U.S. President Donald Trump suggested its people could draw NATO into World War III — and its larger neighbor Serbia started EU membership talks back in 2014. The EU has suggested they could become EU members by 2025 — although Hahn said that timeline is “rather ambitious.”
Serbia and Montenegro are among six countries, most of which emerged as Yugoslavia collapsed into war in the 1990s, that all aspire to join the EU in the coming years. But European Union countries are divided over how to handle those aspirations.
French President Emmanuel Macron has emerged as the leading skeptical voice on opening the EU up to new members from the Western Balkans. He has insisted the EU should focus on reforming itself before it even contemplates expanding.
French officials also fear any signal that the bloc plans to take in relatively poor countries with deeply entrenched problems such as organized crime and corruption would be a gift to Euroskeptic parties in next year’s European Parliament election. In June, Paris succeeded in postponing a decision on Albania and Macedonia starting membership talks until after the May election.
Pushing back against Paris
In the interview, Hahn pushed back against Macron’s view. He said citizens of Western Balkan countries “have the right to become [EU] members” and the EU faces a choice between exporting stability to the region or having instability imported into the bloc.
Hahn said he agrees with Macron that the EU has to reform itself — but said this could take place at the same time as Western Balkan countries conduct membership talks.
“My point is maybe a little different from President Macron,” he said. “Maybe we can convince him that both have to be done in parallel.”
Hahn said he is “very confident” that negotiations for Albania and Macedonia could start next year, noting the process of vetting the countries’ readiness for negotiations has already begun.
“This is a very comprehensive work and I hope we can conclude it in a year to 14 months,” he said. “The aim is really to get a green light by all member states middle of next year.”
The EU’s current plans leave two Western Balkan countries, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, without even a tentative timeline for membership talks.
Hahn said Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragmented political structure — the result of the U.S.-brokered Dayton accords that ended the war there in 1995 — would have to change.
“They are living in the so-called Dayton logic. And this is not in accordance with Brussels logic,” he said.
But Hahn said the country has made some progress, forming a commission with representatives from different ethnic groups to respond to a detailed EU questionnaire on its readiness for membership.
One of Kosovo’s big barriers to EU membership is that it needs to resolve its disputes with Serbia, the country from which it declared independence in 2008. Hahn noted Kosovo’s government also relies heavily on customs tariffs for revenue and this would have to change before it could join the EU’s single market.
He cast the project of enlarging the EU to include all of the Western Balkans as a historic mission.
“Everything started in ’89 with the fall of the Iron Curtain,” he said. “The huge enlargement in 2004 was … a first great consequence. And I would say all this is only concluded once the six countries are members of the Union.”