Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

EU Braces for Critical Deployment in Bosnia

Brussels is preparing for its largest-ever military venture.
By Sanja Romic

Plans to hand authority over peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina from NATO–led to an EU–led force in just over six months will mark a crucial step in the development of Europe’s defence and security policy, analysts say.

The final decision to pass control over NATO’s Stabilization Force in Bosnia, SFOR, to 7,000 EU troops, following months of preparation, is expected to be taken at the western alliance’s Istanbul summit on June 28-29.

“We expect to announce that NATO’s mission to Bosnia will be successfully concluded by the end of the year,” NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Schaeffer told a Brussels conference on transatlantic defence cooperation on May 17.

De Hoop Schaeffer said the transfer “will be a major step forward in the NATO-EU relationship and will help enhance NATO’s role in other critical areas”.

Following De Hoop Schaeffer’s announcement, an agreement was recently concluded in Brussels on the future scope of the Bosnian mission, between the Dutch, Luxembourg and British delegations on one hand, and Bosnia’s prime minister Adnan Terzic and defence minister Nikola Radovanovic on the other.

The agreement was unprecedented for the degree of involvement by Bosnian representatives as a third party in the process of transforming SFOR into an EU force.

Giving the final go-ahead for the transfer on May 17, the EU’s 25 foreign ministers called for close cooperation with NATO “and also close consultations with the [Bosnian] authorities”.

The decision to terminate SFOR’s presence is not problem-free, however, as many military and peacekeeping experts have admitted.

“A mission as long-standing, as complicated and as complex as SFOR in Bosnia cannot be just turned off like a light switch,” said Michael Ryan of the United States Mission to the EU.

De Hoop Schaeffer also agreed the new security arrangements in Bosnia may be complex, as NATO intends to maintain a reduced presence after the EU handover. “[It] will take a lot of ambition and time to build a NATO-EU partnership,” he said.

An EU source in Brussels told IWPR this week that the new Bosnian mission will possess most of the basic functions of its NATO predecessor.

It will have deterrent and security functions, in case “anything goes wrong”, and the means to act as guarantor for continued implementation of the 1995 Dayton agreement. The source claimed the differences between the two “will not be too big”.

But Nicholas Whyte, of the International Crisis Group, ICG, in Brussels, suggested the EU and NATO forces would not be quite as identical as some observers maintain.

“It’s interesting that war crimes and the fight against terrorism - the two most operational aspects of the NATO mandate - will stay with NATO along with the EU,” he told IWPR.

“What is under discussion is a sort of military presence from the EU, intended simply as a security presence, rather than the interventionist mandate that NATO has at the moment,” he added.

Nevertheless, the mission that Brussels is about to undertake in Bosnia represents the EU’s third and - till now – largest-ever military venture. It follows earlier involvements in Macedonia in December 2003 and in Congo in June 2003.

With some 7,000-strong troops on the ground, “it will be a physical sign of the EU’s commitment to Bosnia”, Whyte said.

But on the organisational side, widely anticipated potential pitfalls following the take-over include the problem of a dual chain of command between the EU and NATO.

On the positive side, the EU hopes that its new role in Bosnia will act as a powerful stimulus to strengthen the European Defense and Security Policy, ESDP.

This is the common EU security policy, first laid down in 1993, which has as its aim the formation of an EU military task force capable of crisis management and peacekeeping.

Bosnia stands also to benefit from what one EU source described as “the fact that it [Bosnia] will now be a part of a comprehensive policy of the EU”.

In Bosnia itself, most eyes at the Istanbul summit will be turned to the prospects of Bosnia’s membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, PfP, rather than the changeover from NATO to an EU force.

Bosnia’s request is unlikely to meet approval, however, as the country has not fulfilled the key precondition for NATO membership - full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Whether the new military force in Bosnia will be any more successful in apprehending war crimes suspects in Bosnia than SFOR is anybody’s guess.

The ineffectiveness of SFOR, which the North Atlantic Council mandated to assist the tribunal, was not discussed by the three parties who recently sketched out the future of the Bosnia mission in Brussels.

But among possible scenarios that have been mentioned is the formation of a special NATO force on the ground, tasked mainly with apprehending war criminals.

A widely-reported example of Bosnia’s failure - till now - to collaborate effectively with the Hague court was the recent botched police raid on the Visegrad home of a prominent war crimes suspect, Milan Lukic.

The Bosnian Serb special forces who undertook the raid not only failed to apprehend the suspect but ended up killing his innocent brother instead.

Michael Ryan, of the US mission to the EU, told IWPR this week that although Bosnia was unlikely to gain entrance to the PfP at Istanbul, assessments of its efforts “are by no means uniform”.

“The key issue is to what extent Bosnians are seen as cooperating with the tribunal and on that there are different views,” he said. “There is still some time left for positive developments in Bosnia.”

Sanja Romic is a freelance journalist in Brussels.

More IWPR's Global Voices