European leaders have an obvious choice in the Balkans – either deal with the problem, or wait for it to deal with them, says Carl Bildt.
The former special EU envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina proposes, in an op-ed published on the Project Syndicate website, accelerating EU enlargement and integration, and “replicating the EU Eastern Partnership, with the creation of a Balkan Partnership, while always keeping membership on the table.”
The article, published under the headline, “Keeping the Balkan Ghosts at Bay,” that the EU needs to step up its political engagement in the region and can start by mediating “outstanding minor border disputes, so that these are not left to fester.”
“For Europe, the only way forward is to assert its powers of containment, while also accelerating European integration. To address the emerging risks in the Balkans, the EU should demonstrate that it has the will and means to act, by deploying EU Battle Groups to conduct military exercises in the region. This would send a powerful message that its military forces are not paper tigers, and that it is capable of wielding more than just words,” Bildt wrote, quoted by Sarajevo-based Dnevni Avaz newspaper.
The former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister said he “started becoming concerned” when, during s private trip to Bosnia last year, he was asked repeatedly whether “war was coming to the region.”
“I was certainly right to say that the wars of the 1990’s will not come back: the conditions today are very different from what they were then. But, as we have seen many times before, individual hotheads can ignite fires that are difficult to contain. Once upon a time in Sarajevo, a single person named Gavrilo Princip triggered a world war when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Today, the region is gradually becoming more combustible, and another spark could be lit, perhaps this time in Skopje,” Bildt said.
European Union leaders “have suddenly awoken to new realities in the Balkans – at a recent summit, they emphasized the need for increased EU engagement to maintain stability – and to push back against Russian influence – in the region,” he writes.
“But the Balkan countries’ geopolitical situation should not come as a surprise. After all, post-Ottoman fractures – stretching from Bihac in Bosnia’s northwestern corner to Basra on Iraq’s Persian Gulf coast – have repeatedly been a source of regional and global instability since the demise of the old empires a century ago,” according to Bildt.
“At an EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, delegates solemnly vowed to bring all of the Balkan countries into the bloc as members. That promise would be as hard to keep as it was important to make. When the Balkans’ immediate problems had subsided, EU leaders assumed that they had secured peace for the region. Henceforth, their business-as-usual approach to the Balkans essentially meant maintaining the status quo,” he wrote, and added:
“After Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed European Commission President in 2014, he confirmed the status quo, by declaring that the EU would undergo no further expansion during his five-year term. Juncker’s statement was technically correct, but politically disastrous. With the light that had been guiding reform and integration efforts now extinguished, nationalism in the region predictably started to rise again. And the EU, meanwhile, became fixated on its ongoing financial problems, such as member-state sovereign-debt crises.