The countries of the Western Balkans and the EU's Eastern Partnership could benefit from the slowdown of globalization during the pandemic, Radu Magdin writes. They should engage with the EU creatively and pragmatically.
Though it might be tempting for officials in countries that have been back-burnered by the European Union to mock EU institutions for their delayed response to the pandemic and to point out the lack of solidarity among member states, the bloc will continue to remain a key player in the fates of nations in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership. Given that a period of economic and strategic change will follow the pandemic, it is crucial for the governments of these countries to quickly understand what comes next and to creatively and pragmatically engage with the European Union.
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In March, the EU finally agreed to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The decision is important — especially given the context in which it was made. Even as the pandemic puts a strain on the European Union, the bloc is still demonstrating its commitment to the stability and prosperity of its neighborhood. The EU way of doing things may be (excessively) bureaucratic, but what the bloc lacks in communication skills, it makes up for in its genuine commitment to the democratic and economic development of partner and candidate states.
The European Union will shape the future of the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries. Obviously, things are more complicated for the second group, given how this partnership is defined; there is not a clear path toward EU accession for these countries. However, one should keep in mind two aspects: first, the dependence on the EU market — Moldova, for instance, exports two-thirds of its products to the European Union — and, second, that the bloc is the main home for the diasporas of these countries, with, for example, a growing Ukrainian workforce before COVID-19. On Monday, the European Union announced financial support for these countries in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. How much the EU will be involved in the recovery will depend on how committed and creative the relevant governments are. The European Union has a lot on its plate, so driven partners will likely have a more productive relationship with the bloc. There will be regional competition for resources and attention, and the countries that are willing to adopt the changes required by the EU may get more of both. EU bashing will not likely be as productive.
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In working with the EU, governments should seek to benefit from the slowdown of economic globalization in a manner similar to what happened with countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The crisis will have an impact on global value chains, and production in key industries will be moved within or closer to the EU borders. This is a huge opportunity for these countries to make the case that they are reliable partners. It would mean jobs, technology and know-how and, even more importantly, a chance to offer a clear role to people who have to return home as EU countries become less appealing through cutbacks. This is one of the silver linings of the crisis, but the reaction has to be fast.
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The leaders of countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership must quickly assemble virtual war rooms of domestic specialists and foreign experts. You can lead and greatly benefit by thinking ahead about the economic aftermath and the staunch — including regional — competition for each penny of aid and investment. Your slowly returning diaspora should also be viewed as an opportunity and invited to join the national effort ahead.
The analyst Radu Magdin worked as an honorary adviser to Romania's then-prime minister, Victor Ponta, in 2014 and 2015, and advised Pavel Filip, Moldova's prime minister at the time, from 2016 to 2017. From 2007 to 2012, he worked in Brussels with the European Parliament, EurActiv and Google. He is a Forbes Romania Trendsetter and a NATO emerging leader with the Atlantic Council of the United States