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EU vows virus help for Balkans and warns against China

The EU on Wednesday vowed to support its Balkan neighbours against the coronavirus but warned them to be grateful for the help, after China's "mask diplomacy" made inroads in the region.

A video summit with six Western Balkans countries, all of which aspire to join the bloc, came as Brussels faced accusations of an initially slow response to helping the region navigate the health crisis.

China, meanwhile, was has been hailed in some quarters as quicker to deliver -- and to publicise -- shipments of masks and other gear.

Brussels has now rolled out a series of aid packages, including 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) announced last week.

A joint declaration after Wednesday's talks also highlighted a 750 million euro package of macrofinancial assistance as well as a 1.7 billion euro package from the European Investment Bank.

But the pledges of solidarity came with a warning.

"The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement," the statement said.

In Serbia in particular, President Aleksandar Vucic publicly lambasted the EU, declaring that "European solidarity does not exist" at the start of the crisis while heaping praise on China's assistance.

He kissed the country's flag when Chinese doctors landed in Belgrade and Serbian media made great play of the intervention.

After the summit Montenegro's President Milo Dukanovic tweeted that the Balkans "must not be left to third parties, for it is a living European tissue."

With fewer than 500 confirmed virus deaths, the Western Balkans has so far avoided the devastation seen in Europe's worst-affected countries.

But the poor region's weak economies are bracing for a painful economic fallout -- and wondering how their future fits into an EU focused on its own survival.

- 'Strongman tactics' -

Of the EU hopefuls, Montenegro and Serbia are furthest along in their membership talks, with the earliest possible date of entry slated for 2025.

But they suffered a setback Wednesday as the US-based Freedom House rights group declared in its annual report that they could no longer be called democracies.

They lost their democratic status for the first time since 2003 due to "years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed" by their leaders, the report said.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, warned that while the countries' futures are firmly within Europe: "Governments in the region will need to deliver on reforms, particularly in the areas of rule of law, public administration, tackling corruption and fighting organised crime.

"A free press is also a cornerstone of democracy and in the EU's DNA," she declared.

Vucic reaffirmed that Serbia still wants to join the EU one day, but some of Serbia's frustration with the slow process came though in an appearance on RTS state television.

"I said that if it's not realistic to dare to hope we'll join in the next three to four years -- and it's clear that it's not realistic not just because of the situation here but also in the EU -- then I urged them to help open the frontiers in the Balkans," he said.

Vucic suggested Serbs be allowed to travel to and trade freely with EU members Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria as an interim measure. This idea did not come up in the EU leaders' joint statement.

Ever since Croatia, which currently holds the EU presidency, became the last country to join the bloc in 2013, the appetite for adding new member states has shrunk considerably while the timeline keeps slipping towards the horizon.

Last October, France and the Netherlands sparked outrage by insisting on redrawing the membership process before agreeing to begin talks with Skopje and Tirana.

The process will be reviewed by EU member states again next month.

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