1 December 2007

Can Europe establish peace in the Balkans?

By Liam Carroll

The European Union is conducting a bold experiment in South East Europe that is paving the way for enlargement and assimilation of the troubled former republics of Yugoslavia.

In the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bombing of Serbia by NATO, in 1999, the European Union developed a plan to integrate the region into its administrative orbit. While the final status of Kosovo, vis a vis its eventual independence from Serbia has exercised much concern about the renewal of conflict across the western Balkans, the bigger story is that the EU has embarked on a bold a experiment of assimilation that some have dubbed neo-colonialism and others are calling Empire.

The Stabilisation and Association process aims to bring all of the Yugolsavian republics, and Kosovo into Europe through a process of institution building, trade agreements, reconstruction assistance and policy co-ordination. Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo), Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albania as well, have all signed up to the process and have all received development assistance from a broad range of international development banks and institutions, including of course the World Bank and the United States.

Some have branded the exercise as colonial, some as foolish and beyond the capacities of the EU, but all, including it supporters, recognize that there is indisputably a risk, if not in fact, multiple risks of the whole project going disastrously wrong The charges that Europe is creating an Empire stem from the fact that the High Representative in Bosnia, and the Special Representative in Kosovo, for instance, both have highly autocratic powers in being able to dismiss officials, virtually at a whim, and the powers to impose policies over and above elected officials heads. Furthermore, tribunals have been run by international judges, the police by a NATO and European gendarmarie, with economic and trade policy being controlled by international and European technocrats.

Defenders of the project, including former high representative, Paddy Ashdown, have defended the authoritarian nature of the project as necessary for bypassing the corruption and criminality that is endemic to the politicians and parties of the region. Where organized crime and corruption is endemic and private militias abound, they argue, handing over political authority to whoever managed to secure enough votes might essentially be handing state power and development assistance straight into the hands of gangsters.

Brussels has then, to a large measure, offered the Balkan states incentives to establish judicial systems, national assemblies, tax regimes, budgetary controls, and laws that, when met, will enable these societies to enter the EU. The states in question undergo regular monitoring on their progress and receive assistance and or have assistance removed, depending on the assessments of their European co-ordinators.

In seeking to establish working state institutions and a civil society, before allowing representatives from that society a chance to model and shape their own agreements, therefore, the project certainly runs the risk of floundering in the face of a lack of political acceptance in the host country. When functioning elected assemblies do emerge in those states then, representatives may well choose to reject the EU accession process, claiming quite legitimately, that the process was at no time subjected to a test of public approval. Some critics, therefore, point out that the whole venture will ultimately end up as a huge mass of development assistance poured down the drain.

Public acceptance is indeed a big issue, however Paddy Ashdown and others contend that it works in the opposite direction. They claim that the vast majority of the Balkan people want to join Europe and that it is the politicians that fail to represent the will of the people when they do not pursue the association process with sufficient vigor.

In the background however, lie the ominous ethnic tensions of the bitter war between the Serbs, Croats, Bosnias and Kosovars that could reignite at any time. For this reason alone the EU was compelled to act in some form or another, and in this instance it was surely better to have acted comprehensively, rather than half-heartedly. This recalls the peace process in Northern Ireland that to no small degree was furthered by EU development aid and assistance. There are undoubtedly serious questions to be asked about the legitimacy of processes conducted largely out of the public eye, however they must go hand in hand with the possibility that some people might actually be pleased to have a functioning administration delivered to their door, rather than having to, almost literally, fight for them. The European stabilisation project may indeed have some imperial aspects, but for want of any better ideas, it might also prove to be the best form of peacekeeping around.