Thursday, April 14, 2005

New Balkan Beginnings?

The time when the Balkans can be on the back-burner in terms of policies is fast coming to an end. It’s no longer enough just to handle the crisis of the moment, but necessary to deliver a strategy for the entire region that is comprehensive, clear and credible.

For too long, the talk was mainly about devising an exit strategy for NATO, when the key task is really to develop an entry strategy for the European Union. Increasingly, there is the realisation that without such a strategy the tactics of dealing with the individual challenges from Macedonia to Bosnia will simply not succeed.

This might not be the best of times to talk about starting bringing new members into the European Union. There is a noticeable enlargement fatigue in many of the existing EU members. At the same time, it is obvious that several of the countries in the region are at a considerable distance from meeting the Copenhagen criteria of readiness for membership negotiations.

But ten years after the peace in Bosnia, and more than five years after the end of the war over Kosovo, it is as obvious that only European integration can bring the peoples of Southeaster Europe along the road of reconciliation as it once was for the peoples of France and Germany. It’s a leap into the unknown, for sure, but the unknown brings hope of something better, while the known unfortunately brings very little.

The recent report of the International Commission on the Balkans does recognize the necessity of both dealing with the painful and unresolved status issue of Kosovo and of devising a coherent European strategy for the region and sees the intimate link between the two. It’s only within the framework of the later that the former can be handled.

There are obvious risks in the Kosovo situation. At the moment we see the economy declining at the same time as frustration is building up. It makes little sense to make the UN the scapegoat – the UN mission was set up for failure when the key powers for years simply refused to deal with the status issues. As has happened before, the UN was ordered to implement a policy that just as well could have been devised by an ostrich as by the Security Council.

Seen in isolation, we might well be on our way towards setting up a failed state in Kosovo. There is talk of it as a centre of organized criminality, and in view of the absence of honest alternatives for the rapidly growing population this would hardly be surprising. The political system seems to be driven by an unhealthy tendency towards revenge for real or imagined events in the past.

Nevertheless, there aren’t very many other alternatives than to continue along the path of state-building in Kosovo, and in the view of the European perspectives of the region, the aim ought to be that Kosovo gets the its full independence as it enters the framework of interdependence of the European Union.

In the meantime, the present holding operation of the UN should be replaced by a more focused member state-building operation under the direction of the EU, although still with the authority of the UN.

There will also have to be a far more effective effort at integrating all the economies of the region – irrespectively of if they met the political criteria for become candidates for membership or not – with both each other and the European Union. The extension of the customs union of the EU to the entire region, certainly including also Kosovo, could be as positive for its economy as it proved to be for Turkey during an earlier stage of its road to Europe.

Serbia and Croatia remains the most significant countries of the region, and it is only to be hoped that their leaderships can sort out their remaining issues with the Hague war criminal tribunal so that both of them can proceed on their European paths. A customs union arrangement for the region would make the earlier membership of Croatia into more of a possibility than a problem for the region, and create better possibilities for Serbia to speed up its progress.

If Serbia and Croatia moves forward along a European path, this should easy the situation for Bosnia as well. As it approaches the 10th year anniversary of the Dayton agreement, it is high time to close down the Office of the High Representative and hand powers to the elected representatives of Bosnia, making them responsible also for the new constitutional deals that may be necessary to move the country towards its European destination.

There are no easy or fast solutions to the remaining issues on the table. But if Kosovo status issues and customs union arrangements are sorted out during the period of this European Commission and Parliament, a fast track for membership for those ready for it should be perfectly realistic during the coming five-year period.

It was in the summer of 1914 in the Balkans that a long period of relative prosperity and peace for Europe come to its end, and we entered the horrible 20th century of wars, dictatorships and genocide. It should be in the summer of 2004 – with perhaps the possibility of also most of the peoples of the Balkans having the possibility of electing their representatives to the European Parliament – that Europe can finally but those horrors behind itself.

It’s possible, but it requires far-sighted and determined policies – and it requires them now.