Comment: Maintaining Balkan Stability

Europe must extend more than a hand of friendship to the western Balkans if it is to consolidate and build on the achievements of the past few years.

Comment: Maintaining Balkan Stability

Europe must extend more than a hand of friendship to the western Balkans if it is to consolidate and build on the achievements of the past few years.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

As the European Union, EU, prepares for its historic expansion eastward in 2004, the western Balkans is at risk of becoming an island of instability and underdevelopment in the heart of Europe.

To prevent this, Brussels must send the countries of former Yugoslavia and Albania a strong signal that the promise of “Europeanisation” is not an illusion. Without the EU producing a credible strategy for the region, it will fall yet further behind its neighbours.

The multi-billion dollar post-conflict missions to reconstruct and stabilise the western Balkans are drawing to a successful close. The international community’s engagement in the region, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, has helped push the threat of ethnic conflict into the background, making it far more hopeful place than it was five years ago.

The overriding danger is no longer ethnic hatred, national extremism or military conflict. Rather, a deepening economic crisis jeopardises many of the international community’s most important interests in the Balkans - effective government in Bosnia and Kosovo, political stability and inter-ethnic peace in Macedonia, and many other reforms taking place across south-east Europe.

There are three dynamics unfolding here, which will converge in 2004.

The first is the inevitable but painful adjustment to the end of reconstruction aid, which has kept Bosnia and Kosovo afloat in the post-conflict period. The second is a deepening employment crisis caused by the collapse of the old socialist industries. The third is the growing disenchantment of citizens with the faltering democratic process itself.

The risk of further instability in the western Balkans is a matter of deep concern to the EU. Today, European institutions and member states are engaged in the region more intensively than ever before. They are by far the largest donors, provide the bulk of peacekeepers in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, and are deploying a new police mission in Bosnia.

The High Representative in Bosnia and the leading international mediator in Macedonia are both EU special envoys, and Kosovo’s economy is under the trusteeship of EU officials in the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK.

Moreover, through the Stabilisation and Association Process, the union has told all the countries of the western Balkans that they are “potential” candidates for membership. As US engagement wanes, the region has become the testing ground for a specifically European vision of how to spread stability and prosperity beyond its borders. The rhetoric of “Europeanisation” underlies many programmes in the region.

However, as it stands, the promise offered by Europe to the region is curiously insubstantial. The states of the western Balkans have no early prospect of opening formal membership negotiations with the EU, as Romania and Bulgaria already have. On the contrary, they face sharply declining aid, whatever their formal status within the Stabilisation and Association Process. Most importantly, they are excluded from the larger European project of strengthening economic and social cohesion across the continent.

The challenges facing the western Balkans today may be severe, but they are not categorically different from those that recently faced the EU’s central European candidates, or indeed those which have been tackled with considerable success in once-underdeveloped member states such as Portugal, Greece and Spain.

In order to maintain stability in the western Balkans and ensure the progress that has been made continues, the EU must do a number of things.

It must announce explicitly that its commitment to economic and social cohesion across Europe includes the western Balkans, and that it is prepared to help these societies keep up with the new member states after 2004.

It must ensure that future assistance is consistent with the development principles underlying the EU's efforts to overcome rural underdevelopment and industrial decline within the union or in the new member states. This means multi-annual development programmes requiring co-financing by national authorities, and real partnerships between the EC, national governments, local authorities and civil society in setting priorities and monitoring implementation.

It has to make a commitment that total financial assistance to the region will not decline as political stability is consolidated and reconstruction is brought to a successful conclusion. Support should be maintained at the levels of 2000 or 2001 - around 900 million euro per annum.

It must rethink its existing institutional tools. The states of the western Balkans might be brought under the auspices of a post-2004 Directorate for Enlargement, to utilise the experience gained from working with the existing candidate countries.

Beyond 2004, the European Agency for Reconstruction could be transformed into a European Agency for Development, to focus on the long-term challenges facing the region. Other institutions such as the High Representative in Bosnia and the stability pact could be reoriented towards problems of employment and development, becoming elements of the European integration process.

The UN Special Representative in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, has already proposed that the EU take over from the UN as the leading international actor in Kosovo in the near future.

The choice facing the EU is stark. Either it makes a serious commitment to addressing the root causes of instability in the western Balkans, or it will continue to spend its resources fighting the fires of conflict as they recur across the region. As the last decade of conflict teaches, the latter option may prove to be far more expensive for Europe.

Gerald Knaus is the director of the European Stability Initiative, ESI. Marcus Cox is a Senior Editor at ESI.

The full report "Western Balkans 2004: Assistance, Cohesion and the New Boundaries of Europe" can be accessed at

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