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 as POLITICO finds out after talking to European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, who is responsible for relations with the EU’s neighbors and accession talks with prospective new members.
Speaking for POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast, Hahn warned that China’s “combination of capitalism and a political dictatorship” could appeal to some leaders in the region on the Continent’s southeastern flank, as the rising quiet ‘superpower’ makes a series of significant investments in infrastructure projects across the region.
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 to POLITICO.
“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.
In the interview, Hahn pushed back against Macron’s view, who succeeded in postponing a decision on Albania and Macedonia starting membership talks until after the May election. 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.
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 out of any clear time-frame, without even a tentative timeline for membership talks, while Serbia and Montenegro are advancing in their accession talks process.