Balkan ghosts still haunt Europe

Even though Europe’s foreign policy reach is now truly global, talks on Kosovo’s independence have seen Balkan ghosts return to haunt Europe

Clad in white from head-to-toe, unarmed and mockingly referred to as the “Ice-cream Men”, the EU’s monitors in the Balkans were powerless to stop the unfolding Bosnian genocide in the mid-1990s, which saw at least 100.000 people die and millions driven from their homes.

Like accountants, the Ice-cream Men recorded what they saw and sent their tallies back to Brussels, London and Paris. There, in chanceries, and at successive conferences, Europe’s leaders struggled to seize what Jacques Poos, the Luxembourgian Foreign Minster, called the “hour of Europe” and end the conflict.

As the Balkans burned, the EU babbled. Germany’s unilateral recognition of Croatia and Slovenia had pre-empted a common European stance while attempts at negotiating peace, in partnership with the UN, failed repeatedly. All the Ice-cream Men could do was watch. And record.

In the end, and to the EU’s chagrin, it took US gun-backed diplomacy to bring the parties to Dayton and the Bosnian War to an end. But from Europe’s inaction in Bosnia and its military weakness during the subsequent Kosovo campaign, came a renewed impetus for a common European foreign policy.

Europe‘s global reach

Ten years on, Europe’s foreign policy has truly entered its post-Balkan phase. Military forces – cap-badged with the star-studded blue-and-yellow EU flag -are deployed in trouble spots from Africa to the Middle East. Most visibly, in Lebanon 3.000 Italian and French troops are policing the still-tense stand-off following Israel’s 2006 strikes.

The EU may remain divided over Iraq, but on other issues in the Middle East, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, guaranteeing Lebanon’s stability and ending Iran’s nuclear enrichment, they have an increasingly common perspective. In Congo and Chad, EU forces have deployed and in Aceh, European monitors patrolled the ceasefire after a decades-long conflict.

In the Balkans, the EU’s has played an important role in the region’s reconstruction, deploying solders, policemen and development workers in their thousands. EUFOR’s mission in Bosnia saw a robust 7,000 troops deploy while the EU has spent billions of euros. Much like its impact in the rest of Eastern Europe, it has provided a model for the countries trying to escape their sectarian and misgoverned past. As Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader and UN envoy in Bosnia explained: the “pull” of Brussels, rather than any push by any outsiders would transform the Balkans.

Instead of being weighted down by additional tasks, the EU’s bureaucratic tree has been given new branches and put down deeper roots. Innovations include the formation of ‘battle groups’, 1,500-person military formations, eventually giving the EU a deployable force of 3,000 troops and potentially beyond.

The EU Treaty, now agreed in Lisbon, will provide for better integration between the European Commission and the Council. The post of High Representative will be strengthened and a diplomatic corps – the External Action Service – will be set-up to support the post. The EU’s common foreign policy has become global in its reach, broad in its remit, and supported by new bureaucratic structures.

Balkan ghosts return

But the ghosts of the past have come to haunt, or came back to haunt, the EU’s common foreign policy. Progress is obvious in Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and even newly-independent Montenegro. Slovenia’s already in the EU – and ranks twelfth in terms of GDP- with Croatia and Macedonia both on the way. They are in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, the ante-room for NATO membership and Lilliputian Montenegro has, since its peaceful departure from Serbia-Montenegro, been an example of stability.

However, from the Unna River in northern Bosnia across to Belgrade in Serbia and south to Kosovo a triangle has formed in the region. Within it, old-style nationalism has returned to the region. Kosovo receives the most attention, as the U.S and Europe wrangle with Russia and Serbia over the UN-run province’s future. The recent electoral victory of former KLA leader Hacim Thaci, who ran on a platform to declare Kosovo’s independence on 11 December, have seen tensions escalate with militants on both sides of the border arming for conflict.

In Serbia proper, the electorate remains divided over their country’s place in the world and between the draw of Europe and the imagined glories of the nationalist past. War criminals like Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army chief and architect of the Srebrenica massacre remains at large. For years, the EU had assumed there would be an inexorable, if occasionally diverted, march of progress.

But with Russia’s articulation of an alternative European order has tempted many in Belgrade to march to Moscow’s beat instead. Prime Minister Kostunica has made clear he has little interest in joining NATO and is increasingly lukewarm on European integration.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where CSFP was originally forged in the late 1990s, a twelve year internationally-run democratisation has been underway. But instead of creating a new workable state, the country’s three communities – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – have drifted further away from each other. The Bosnian economy is in tatters – with at least 60 percent unemployment – and the billions of EU aid spent have produced little sustainable development.

Independence for Kosovo may encourage a Russian-backed Serb push for the break-up of Bosnia. In all three countries, the prospect of European integration has become distant, as European publics – led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – are reluctant to accept new members into the European club.

Europe no longer deploys monitors – the hapless “Ice-cream Men” – but with its policies in the Balkans – of using the “pull” of EU membership and the “push” of ESDP – in shatters, the risk of a conflagration on its doorstep is no longer unimaginable, even if military action remains unlikely for now. 

Yet despite this, there is precious little discussion in Europe about the Balkans, beyond how to solve Kosovo. This will need to change. The Slovenian Presidency of the EU, which starts in January, provides an opportunity for the one country that has exorcised its Balkans ghosts to lead the way for others to do so too.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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