MEPS call on EU to help ‘struggling’ Western Balkan countries cope with COVID-19 pandemic

Demand comes as EU leaders hold virtual summit on ongoing health crisis.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

21 Jan 2021

MEPs have written to the European Commission demanding that Western Balkans countries are not forgotten in the Coronavirus vaccine rollout.

The demand comes on the day EU leaders hold a virtual summit to debate the health crisis.

EU leaders at the online meeting are expected to discuss production and delivery of vaccines for the European market and equal access to Coronavirus vaccines to poor countries. There has been criticism of the slow roll out in many EU countries.

The 11 MEPs, in their letter, say that despite the EU starting a rollout of the 2.3 billion doses of vaccines it has so far ordered, countries at Europe’s doorstep are still struggling to secure vaccination of the population.

The letter, sent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was signed by a group of cross party MEPs - Vlad Gheorghe, Irena Joveva, Ramona Strugariu, Petras Austrevicius, Vlad Botos, Klemen Grošelj, Nicolae Stefanuta, Salvatore De Meo, Milan Brglez, Rasa Juknevičienė and Karen Melchior.

Throughout the pandemic, countries in the Western Balkans have had some of Europe’s highest levels of COVID-19 cases per capita.

Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are now among the 15 most-affected states in Europe. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also struggled to contain the virus.

“This is once again the moment to prove the privileged relationship we have with this strategic region, in line with a credible European perspective”

All Western Balkans countries imposed strict limits on public life that included curfews, lockdowns of neighbourhoods and entire cities, closures of businesses and schools, and bans on public gatherings.

Serbia, with a population of 8.7 million, has recorded nearly 380,000 cases and almost 4000 deaths. Its healthcare system is said to be on the verge of collapse and two new temporary hospitals are being hastily constructed in the capital Belgrade, as Serb authorities struggle to contain the crisis.

In the letter, the MEPs say many Western Balkans states are still struggling to secure vaccination of the population.

It calls for the EU to “stand by its Western Balkans partners and remain committed to actively supporting their efforts to combat the Coronavirus outbreak and its impacts on societies and economies.”

“This is once again the moment to prove the privileged relationship we have with this strategic region, in line with a credible European perspective.”

The letter highlights Serbia, “where the infection rate is one of the highest in Europe and where the healthcare system is on the verge of collapse.

“The financial pressure is extremely high for Serbia which largely relies on the European Union’s COVAX facility. We ask you therefore to ensure that Serbia and other Western Balkan partners are able to immediately benefit from the anti-COVID vaccine.”

It adds, “Additional EU assistance is needed for the distribution of vaccine and medical equipment, as well as in the construction of hospital infrastructure. The devastating effect that Coronavirus has had on Serbia is pushing the government to consider solutions that might have a detrimental effect on the health of population.”

“Additional EU assistance is needed for the distribution of vaccine and medical equipment, as well as in the construction of hospital infrastructure. The devastating effect that Coronavirus has had on Serbia is pushing the government to consider solutions that might have a detrimental effect on the health of population”

It says Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has expressed determination to obtain 500,000 to a million vaccines “no matter which vaccine it will be and no matter its cost.”

There are, they say, other factors that are aggravating the crisis in Serbia: restriction measures are not sufficient, the capacity of the government to trace and limit the spread of infection is low, the public trust in vaccination is very low (around 41 percent), whereas 38 percent of the population believe that the vaccine will be used for chip insertion and to control humans.

In addition to that, currently 18 percent of respondents in Serbia believe that the EU is Serbia’s most important partner while 59 percent see Russia and China as the country’s most important partners.

The MEPs added, “We believe that the capacity of the EU to help the Western Balkan partners, and in particular Serbia, to cope with Coronavirus and provide rapid and efficient help to its citizens, will determine the future of our partnership and the accession process.”

“We ask you to consider all possible measures to provide major financial assistance, ensuring that it reaches directly the citizens in need, as well as operational and expert assistance to Serbia and other Western Balkan neighbours.”

“We also emphasise that such assistance should be accompanied by a clear and strong communication campaign where the role and the contribution of the EU in hampering the pandemic is highlighted. “

“The EU has the opportunity to show concrete support to the Western Balkan population and this opportunity needs to be used so that tomorrow when the pandemic is over we can have a more fruitful progress in the partnership development.”

Remarking on the summit, co leader of the European Parliament’s Greens/EFA Group’s MEPs, Philippe Lamberts said, "The heads of state and governments should agree to prioritise cooperation and coordination. Today's summit should agree on comparable measures across borders and a pan-European approach to testing.

"Joint planning and the central collation and evaluation of data on emerging mutations at the EU-level are urgently needed to get the virus under control. The virus doesn't recognise national borders.”

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