The disaster of Sarajevo?

The Sarajevo summit once again re-affirmed the impression that the EU is attempting to solve the region’s problems on an ad hoc basis, without a clear commitment and without offering anything that hasn’t already been on the agenda since 2000.

By Florian Bieber

Wednesday’s summit of the EU and the Western Balkans in Sarajevo was supposed to re-energize the accession process of the region to the EU and help deal with some of the regional problems in particular the political deadlock in Bosnia. Instead it appears to have accomplished the opposite. According to a report by the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the conference ended after just three hours, lacked an agenda, a clear purpose and was generally chaotic. It had already been clear for a while that it would lack high-caliber EU member states participants to genuinely signal renewed EU commitment and interest in the region. The fact that few prime ministers or heads of state showed up and that most EU countries did not even send their foreign ministers conveys the signal that the region has dropped on the list of EU priorities.

The meeting was not concluded with a ‘Sarajevo Declaration’, as the Spanish presidency had hoped, leaving in essence the commitment to further enlargement with the representatives of the EU, while the member states have sent a much more ambivalent signal by their modest turn out. It is unclear how the meeting signals a ‘new deal’ for the Balkans as the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, called it, as the EU does not appear to have offered anything to the region which had not been on the agenda since 2000.

Particularly striking was the absence of any proposal to overcome the three key stumbling blocks for EU integration in the region – the Greek opposition to accession negotiations with Macedonia, relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite talk of an EU special representative for the region, none was named. Such a special representative would have been a good idea –  a special representative can help put the region back on the map for the EU. Furthermore, a special representative would help link the enlargement strategy of the EU with its efforts at dealing with its post-conflict engagement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. Linking these two policies would greatly improve the effectiveness of the EU. Finally, the EU often looks at the region country by country, not recognizing the links. Somebody who is able to take a regional perspective would very helpful. Of course it matters who would be the special representative–it would need to be somebody with political clout in the EU and respect in the region.

The name floated in a recent Guardian article was Paddy Ashdown, not exactly an inspired choice. While he has the political weight to be effective, as one could see in Bosnia, his instrumentalization of EU accession in Bosnia has had long-term negative consequences and his image would not give him the necessary respect in the region. Instead, it would be good to see a fresh face in region.

For now, the conference appears to have confirmed the streak of rather disastrous initiatives over the last years in Bosnia, from the Butmir process to the visit in April to Sarajevo by EU and US representatives, which both yielded few results and instead compounded the impression that the EU is trying to solve the regions’ problems ad hoc and without a clear commitment. This latest effort  seems to have re-affirmed this message – not one the EU or the Spanish presidency intended.

Florian Bieber is a Lecturer in East European Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. Further analysis by Dr. Bieber is available by clicking here.

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0 Response

  1. Gerard Gallucci

    I am relatively new to following the Balkans but since first getting into it in 2005, I have wondered why the Western Europeans don’t seem to appreciate the situation they face. I look at this through the optic of the US and Mexico, I suppose. The two countries remain at quite different levels of economic development but share a long and porous border. And while there are people who still think of dealing with this by putting up walls, both sides nevertheless opted for NAFTA. This is based on the realization that freer trade and cross-border connections help us both. We still have issues between us but we try to deal with them by facing each other and not turning our back.

    The EU approach to the Balkans seems to be a sort of passive, turning of the back. But the Balkans is still there. With young populations yearning for a better life, with organized crime, with potential areas of religious fundamentalism, etc. The worse part is that the EU has made commitments — especially over membership and in Bosnia and Kosovo — that it seems incapable of getting right.

    But anyway, is there really anything such as EU foreign policy?

  2. Petar Nikolic.

    I agree, the suggestion that Ashdown could resurface as as some sort of EU representative is a thoroughly uninspired idea. His previous tenure was mired by accusations of ruling by diktat. The only purpose he would serve would be to antagonise the Bosnian Serbs. Until the powers that be end the perception of the Serbs as the problem, there will never be a viable long term solution to that part of Europe. There needs to be a new inclusive approach, that does not seek to punish one party and reward the other for incompetence.

  3. Gerard Gallucci

    Yes. A litmus test for anyone seeking to work in peacekeeping or conflict resolution should be whether they see the problem as just with one side. That should disqualify them from the role. Even if true or mostly true, if you need two sides to come to agreement, you must engage with both and seek solutions both sides can live with. And for that you need credibility with both sides.

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