The European Union has minimised the impact China has on the Balkans, the bloc’s Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn has said on Tuesday, adding he is worried about the level of loans for infrastructural projects those countries take from Beijing, the Beta news agency reported.
In an interview with Financial Times, Hahn said such loans increased the risk for those countries in the long run.
According to him, the EU would have been a more fair partner.
“China doesn’t take into account whether a country is capable of servicing the loans. And when a country cannot do that, there is certain pressure to turn the debt into the ownership,” Hahn said.
He added that the Europeans might not be the fastest, they might ask for more than the others, but eventually, they were “the most proper partners.”
The FT said the Balkans was a zone of interest of the EU which offered the membership perspective for a few more countries after Croatia joined in 2013, and Russia which had cultural and religious links in the region.
However, Hahn’s words, the FT added, signalled worries that Beijing’s influence could become an additional source of instability.
“Maybe we have overestimated Russia and underestimated China while we should give both the appropriate significance,” Hahn said.
The FT said China had invested a lot in the Balkans recently, as a part of the so-called format 16 plus one which includes 11 EU member countries and five which are outside the bloc – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The less controlled loans and investments into the infrastructure attract the Balkans countries, the FT said. Over half of some 9.4 billion dollars invested in all 16 countries in 2016 and 2017 were allocated to five non-EU member states, according to the Centre for International Strategic Studies, the FT reported.
Hahn said that the central European countries like the Czech Republic and Poland became more cautious regarding Chinese investments after the US accusations of the Chinese telecommunication company Huawei’s spying, but that the Balkan countries were attracted by those less supervised loans.
Hahn criticised a motorway project in Montenegro financed by Bejing loan to Podgorica which lifted the country’s debt to 80 percent of the GDP, while at the same time the taxes were increased and public servants’ incomes partly frozen.
He also criticised the EU decision to finance 80 percent of the construction of a bridge in Croatia built by a Chinese company which, according to him, most probably was subsided at home. The FT said that the Bosnia’s leadership planned to sign a 100 percent guarantee for the 614 million Euros loan from the Chinese Eskim bank to finance coal energy plants.
Energy community which includes the EU countries and their neighbours called on the MPs not to approve that since it would be considered as an illegal state aid according to the EU rules.
Commenting on a broader political issue, Hahn said the regional priority was to solve the Belgarde – Pristina dispute, adding their dialogue on normalisation of relations which began in 2011 under the EU auspices was “the central part of the Western Balkans’ perspective.”
“Without a positive result of the dialogue the whole region would not make any final progress,” Hahn said.
He added he hoped the recently solved dispute between Greece and Macedonia over later country name would have a domino effect across the region.