international analysis and commentary

Why the European Union needs to take charge in the Balkans

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France’s Emmanuel Macron and key leaders in other countries want the European Union to be a major player in global affairs, and the EU’s economic status provides a solid foundation for that ambition. However, EU leaders must step up to deal with some troublesome political, diplomatic, and security issues as well as economic matters. That requirement is especially pertinent with respect to threats to stability that are taking place in the EU’s own neighborhood. The latest flare-up of tensions in the Balkans in the spring of 2023 highlights both the opportunity and the need for a more proactive policy.

 

The political situations in Bosnia and Kosovo have become unstable, even turbulent. The political arrangement that Washington and its NATO allies installed in Bosnia with the Dayton Accords in 1995 ended the country’s bloody civil war and created two semi-autonomous entities within a single state. One was a Muslim-Croat federation, the other was the overwhelmingly Serb Republika Srpska. Both the leaders and the populations of the latter have been disgruntled with the arrangement from the outset, and Bosnian Serb leaders repeatedly threaten to declare full independence. The latest episode began in April 2023, when the current leader, Milorad Dodik, raised the secession specter in response to a new national property law that he charged is unfair to Serb interests.

As with the original Bosnia crisis in the 1990s, NATO, rather than the EU, took the lead on policy. On May 30, NATO’s leading power, the United States, sent 2 B-1 bombers over Bosnia in an unsubtle attempt to intimidate Dodik. Such an approach was the antithesis of nuanced diplomacy designed to address and resolve the underlying grievances. The episode also suggests that the principal European powers should have a vested interest in preventing Washington’s crude strategy from making an already bad situation even worse.

Events in Bosnia are worrisome, but they pale in comparison to the volatile situation in Kosovo. When NATO amputated Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 and subsequently midwifed its declaration of independence in 2008, a new minority problem emerged. The majority Serb population in Kosovo’s northern region wanted to rejoin Serbia instead of being a despised, powerless ethnic minority in an independent Kosovo that was now 90 percent Albanian.  Attempts by Kosovo’s national government in Pristina to establish control over the region have led to the eruption of violence on several occasionsespecially over the past two years.

The latest crisis began in April 2023 when Serb voters in northern Kosovo boycotted mayoral elections that Pristina ordered. Election boycotts are almost always a bad idea, since they enable minority factions to win, and do so by artificially large margins. That is precisely what occurred in northern Kosovo. When the new (almost entirely Albanian) roster of mayors sought to take office in late May, they were met with large, angry demonstrations. The efforts by NATO peacekeeping troops in KFOR (Kosovo Force) to restore order led to 40 peacekeepers and more than 50 demonstrators being injured.

NATO subsequently strengthened its peacekeeping contingent with 700 additional troops.  Once more, the tone-deaf nature of policies that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Alliance’s career officials pushed was all-too-evident. 500 of the troops came from Turkey.  Anyone even reasonably familiar with the history of the Balkans – as well as Ankara’s current intense support of Muslim factions in both Bosnia and Kosovo – should have grasped how such a deployment would enflame longtime Serb grievances. If the EU had been in charge of policy, it is not certain that the organization would have adopted a better approach, but it could scarcely have been more ham-handed than the decision NATO made.

 

Read also: Do Kosovo and Serbia have a deal? The question baffling the Balkans

 

The mismanaged situation in Kosovo is another indication that NATO is a poor institutional mechanism for addressing the complex, parochial problems in the Balkans. NATO is an organization designed to deal with big picture security issues. It clearly played that role during the Cold War, when it focused on deterring the Soviet Union. Even in the post-Cold War era, it has been primarily concerned with significant disruptions in the international system. At the moment, NATO leaders are paying most of their attention to the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s rise as a potential geostrategic challenger.

That creates both an opening and a need for the European Union to become responsible for dealing with secondary security problems in Europe. Instead of embracing that mission, though, the EU seems content with echoing NATO’s efforts in Ukraine and voicing heady desires to play a role in potential military confrontations on the other side of the world. The latter ambition became apparent in April 2023, when Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, suggested that EU warships patrol the Taiwan Strait to discourage any notions Beijing might have to use force against the island.

Such a plan would be highly questionable even coming from the United States or Washington’s principal military allies, Britain, France, and Japan. Coming from an organization that has heretofore focused overwhelmingly on economic issues and mundane European political matters, Borrell’s scheme completely lacked credibility.

Instead of gratuitously trying to insert itself into a dangerous military rivalry between the United States and China, the EU should deal with less dangerous (but still important) matters closer to home. The situation in the Balkans is a smoldering political dumpster fire that needs to be addressed promptly, and both the United States and NATO are preoccupied with higher-priority problems.

 

Read also: Western flexibility to prevent the simmering Balkans from flaring again

 

The European Union must take the lead in dampening tensions in the Balkans. Moreover, EU leaders should not be bound by the rigid policies that Washington and NATO have pursued since the mid-1990s. In particular, EU officials should consider whether partitioning Bosnia and granting the Republika Srpska independence might be a more equitable and sustainable arrangement than the jury-rigged structure created at Dayton. Likewise, NATO’s utter refusal to consider a boundary adjustment in Kosovo that would allow the Serb-majority region in Kosovo’s north to rejoin Serbia appears to have been counterproductive and sown the seeds for periodic crises. The EU should be willing to reconsider that policy.

Whatever the course adopted, though, it needs to be determined by European leaders free from the shadow of US and NATO dominance. Given its population and collective economic strength, the European Union should be a much more significant factor with respect to policy throughout Europe and adjoining regions. The Balkans are the place to begin asserting the EU’s political and security relevance.