Biden visit muddies Balkan waters

The appointment of a US special envoy to the Balkans would only serve to undermine the legitimacy and leverage of the EU.

By Ian Bancroft

The visit of US vice-president Joe Biden to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia has reinvigorated debates about the extent and nature of US engagement in the region. Described as “unfinished business” by the Obama administration, there are growing calls for the deployment of a US special envoy to the region.

Such a move, however, would only serve to undermine the legitimacy and leverage of the EU in a region that is deemed key to the development of its common foreign and security policy capabilities. Furthermore, it would also be suggestive of a sense of urgency that belies the current situation, though often exacting and enervating, throughout the Western Balkans.

While the US was certainly instrumental in helping to end the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe has since developed a range of foreign policy instruments and commitments that make it substantially better prepared to contend with the plethora of challenges facing the Western Balkans on its onerous path towards EU membership.

A resolution on Bosnia and Herzegovina, passed by the US Congress last week, called for the appointment of a new special envoy to the Balkans “who can work in partnership with the EU and political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina to facilitate reforms at all levels of government and society, while also assisting the political development of other countries in the region”.

Although the resolution is not binding for President Obama, the post of special envoy has proved popular with the new administration; the last US special envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, is currently serving as US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and George Mitchell, who was previously the US special envoy for Northern Ireland, has been appointed special envoy to the Middle East.

Deploying a US special envoy at this juncture, however, would send a clear message that Washington does not believe that Brussels is capable of sealing a swift and sound transition from the increasingly irrelevant office of the high representative to a reinforced EU presence – thereby undermining the role of the EU not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but throughout the Western Balkans.

Valentin Inzko, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s new high representative, should therefore endeavour to guarantee that he is indeed the last high representative by ensuring that the conditions for the OHR’s closure are achieved forthwith, and by defining the composition and character of the EU’s future deployments in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, recently relayed to the foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sven Alkalaj, “such a transition is indeed essential for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s [EU] candidate status some time in the future”. While the US can certainly complement this process, it has at the same time the potential to cripple it.

With respect to Bosnia and Herzegovina, talk of a US special envoy has increasingly coincided with debate about the need for another Dayton conference – a supposed follow-up to the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 – as a means of reforming the country’s constitution after the failure of the April 2006 package of reforms.

Such proposals for a “Dayton II” – whereby “after consultations with all participants, the US and the EU would prepare a draft new constitution that meets European standards” – have been firmly rejected by Inzko. Instead, more international support needs to be given to the Prud process – a domestic initiative aimed at achieving the consensus and compromise necessary for constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Though US influence can undoubtedly have a positive impact on certain elements of the reform process – particularly when applied with the aim of facilitating and complementing, not predetermining and prejudicing, negotiations over constitutional reform – the appointment of a US special envoy to the Balkans would only serve to undermine the legitimacy and leverage of the EU at a critical juncture for its deployments throughout the Western Balkans.

By providing a mirror to Europe and its endeavours in the region, the visit of Vice-president Biden should therefore raise further questions not about the role of the US as such, but about that of the EU itself and the need for Europe to re-engage and re-energise the Western Balkans.

This article first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) section on Thursday 21 May.

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