1 March 2008

Balkans will make or break the European Security Strategy

By Liam Carroll

Violence in the Western Balkans seems to have been extinguished for the time being, given that the inflammatory declaration of independence by Kosovo and it's recognition by major powers has passed off with only a few skirmishes and a couple of embassy fires, so far.

The European Union has made peace and stability in the Balkans the linchpin of the European Security Strategy (ESS), and to this end both Kosovo and Bosnia have been under virtual occupation by UN, NATO and EU forces for a number of years now in an attempt to make violence unthinkable in the region.

Increasingly the burdens of maintaining security in the Balkans are being transferred almost exclusively into Europe's hands which has boldly declared that "the credibility of our foreign policy depends on the consolidation of our achievements there" (ESS).

Serbia, deeply embittered by the loss of the historically important region would no doubt like to cause more trouble than they are able, but know only too well that the balance of power, both militarily and economic, is heavily weighted against them.

Russia has of course been quick to capitalize on the situation by sending a delegation to the Serbian capital to sign a gas pipeline deal as a demonstration of its outrage. Unfortunately for Serbia, their powerful ally also bought up the Serbian state oil company for a bargain price at the same time, which goes some way to explaining why, despite everything, a majority of Serbians still prefer to see their future lying in Europe rather than in an alliance with Russia.

There has only been a tremor of volatility in Bosnia where the Bosnian Serb assembly has voiced support for the idea of breaking away from Bosnia-Herzegovina proper and joining Serbia, but would face a daunting rebuttal from the international community in attempting to do so.

Stability having essentially been imposed on the region then, the European Union now has to manage the transition of the western Balkans from virtual occupation to a region ready to undergo accession to the European Union which is the ultimate ambition of both the local populations and the EU member states.

Slovenia is already a member and Croatia is well on the way with Macedonia and Montenegro not far behind. Bosnia continues to make slow progress toward the various European benchmarks whereas Serbia, not surprisingly, has held back from signing the next agreement on the road to europeanisation. In the long run however it is expected that economic gravity will draw Serbia into the European fold one way or the other, and in line with the preferences of the population who just recently voted their pro-European President Boris Tadic, back into office. Kosovo had been part of the Serbian process of course, but will now be negotiating its own entry into Europe.

The success, or otherwise, of the Balkan project will determine the level of engagement with the next stage of the European Security Strategy which is already looking toward a number of intractable conflicts in the Black Sea region, the Middle East and Africa as the next challenge.

The development of this policy is based on the notion that civilian crisis management and reconstruction capabilities, as developed in the Balkans, can be used to restore order and provide humanitarian assistance to weak, conflict torn or failing states elsewhere. The EU has declared that the collapse of civil society in a number of states in the wider region represents one of the main threats to European stability, citing mass illegal immigration as one of the principle concerns.

To be sure, the threat of social collapse in certain countries is real enough and to this end EU missions in Georgia, Chad, DR Congo, Lebanon, and Gaza represent the early manifestations of a trend that could be set to increase.

These efforts are at an early stage though and it remains far from clear how effective these missions are, or indeed whether they have public support. Furthermore, it is not clear that European political leaders have the will to see these missions through given that both governments and populations remain suspicious of EU foreign policy encroaching on their own areas of national sovereignty.

That is not to say though that attempts at crisis management and reconstruction are unworthy tasks and indeed the pacification of the Balkans is not an inconsiderable achievement, given the volatility and lawlessness of the area.

If the European Union is successful in nurturing self-governance in Kosovo and Bosnia it would indeed be encouraging, for reconstruction efforts in general have a pretty sorry history, how refreshing it would be then to see one that actually worked.