This is the first material in our #BalkanStats series. Every post will focus on a statistically relevant indicator, briefly showing how the Balkan trends converge or diverge due to the various economic and political allegiances of the constituent states. Comments are reduced to a bare minimum, letting figures do the talking for themselves. This week, Horia Ciurtin – our Senior Expert – depicts how GDP per capita (PPP) varies in accordance with EU membership.
As always, GDP per capita is a relevant – but tricky – indicator. If one wishes to get nearer to the perceived standard of living in one country, it is better to use the GDP calculated at power purchasing parity (PPP) rather than the nominal one. The uniform and consistent World Bank Data (World Development Indicators) is suited just fine for this task, especially in a Balkan context where national statistical offices can be misleading and use different methodologies.
Therefore, what can a prima facie analysis of the above graph tell us? The first five countries in the GDP per capita top are all members of the EU. With the exception of Greece (an older EU member and hardly hit by the financial crisis), all Balkan countries have grown steadily over the analyzed period. But some more than others.
While in 2000 Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia started at nearly the same level (around 5000 USD/capita), in 2008 two of them – Romania and Bulgaria – started rising more rapidly (one year after their 2007 accession to the EU), while in 2016 they clearly distanced themselves from their non-EU peers. Their rate of growth is fairly impressive compared to all the other analyzed countries, as they have risen almost four times in the case of Bulgaria and almost five times in the case of Romania.
Presently within the EU, Slovenia and Croatia – both former members of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – neatly overcame their former confederated ‘colleagues’ . The EU accession acted as a contributing factor, but not a determinant one as they started from a much higher base. In these two instances, the Union membership did not appear to fundamentally boost their regular upward progression. But rather to confirm and consolidate an existing trend, as their economies were already integrated with those of EU member states.
On the other hand, when comparing two countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia, which are comparable in terms of initial positions (and population), the result is very different. Bulgaria’s EU accession in 2007 seems to have granted it an ever growing advantage over its neighbor, the difference increasing at a much higher pace than before becoming a member-state. If compared to Romania (also starting from a similar level), the rate of GDP growth is even more striking.
So … is there an EU factor to be taken into account when looking at such indicators? Definitely. But it acts in slightly different manners for various economies at different levels of development and integration with the European market.
- For countries with an already decent standard of living and nearer to the EU ‘core’ – such as Slovenia and Croatia – the Union membership did not really act as a growth catalyst. It stabilized their prior ‘performance’, allowing them to continue it within an institutionalized framework that has all-weather fail-safes embedded.
- For more distant countries, with weaker economies and a precarious integration with the internal market – such as Bulgaria and Romania – the EU really did boost their growth after accession, allowing them to increase their GDP per capita at a very high pace, slowly balancing their economies at the periphery of the Union.
And this is a lesson to be learned by the remaining non-EU Balkan polities. Countries such as Montenegro, Serbia and (perhaps) Macedonia – with actual EU membership prospects – should not allow themselves to drift apart or flow away from the Union. Even if attractive at a first glance, ‘offerings’ in cash from other major actors (such as China or Russia) never come without any strings attached. And they never bring a coherent and constant growth. Those (nearly) invisible strings should be closely assessed and seen whether they could become hurdles on the path to EU integration.