European Union at Cross Purposes in Kosovo


Apr 27, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on on April 27, 2009.

Standing on the Mitrovica bridge looking at the Serbian flags flying on the northern side of the Iber River, it is clear that something is gravely amiss in Europe's youngest democracy, Kosovo.

Serbs in the three municipalities across the river refuse to allow the new state of Kosovo to extend its authority to their land. The result is a quasi-stateless area and haven for criminal elements seeking to provide passage for illicit cargoes to the West.

Of all the international actors involved in Kosovo right now, the European Union has by far the most at stake. It is also in the strongest position to remedy the situation. Sadly, it is too divided over Kosovo's declaration of independence over a year ago to take effective action.

Last week 35 countries deposited formal statements for or against Kosovo's declaration of independence at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. A majority of the countries, including the United States, Britain, and France, offered arguments in favor of Kosovo statehood. Some European Union members, notably Spain and Romania, deposited statements against, however, evidence that the division within the EU itself is not going away.

Europe could end up paying the price for its divisions. Last year the European Union deployed an ambitious civilian operation to Kosovo to build the rule of law. The mission was intended as a partial replacement for UNMIK, the UN operation the international community put in place after NATO ousted Slobodan Milosevic's forces ten years ago. It is a crucial part of the international community's broader nation-building effort, and its success is essential for continued progress on the ground.

But while the mission announced full operational capability this week, it is barely present in the Serb dominated north, and thus still has a long way to go before it can really begin to fulfill its mandate.

European customs officials have been deployed along the border with Serbia but only collect data - no duties. European justices have established themselves at the controversial north Mitrovica courthouse that was the scene of rioting a year ago, but in four months they have tried only one case. European police cannot deploy to the disputed area and the chief of police of the European mission was himself forced to turn back during a recent visit after Serb protestors threw rocks at his car.

Kosovo Serb resistance to the EU and the international effort in general is underwritten by Belgrade, which continues to pay Kosovo Serb salaries and encourages active and passive resistance in the North. The EU could take advantage of Belgrade's aspiration for membership to bring an end to Kosovo Serb resistance, but so far has stopped short of doing so.

The result is that the European Union is working at cross purposes in one of its most strategically crucial regions, a fact that is a source of enormous frustration in the EU's own mission and within the broader international community in Pristina. If this self-contradictory policy is not changed, serious consequences could follow. If the mission in Kosovo falls short it will be a major setback for Europe's security and defense policy, which was born in the Balkans, and which must succeed there if it is to have any credibility further afield.

Continued problems with the EU mission could also complicate the broader international effort to inch the region closer to lasting peace and stability. The standoff in the North gives hope to separatists elsewhere in the region, from the Republica Serbska in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the ethnic Albanians living in Serbia's Presevo Valley. And it raises the perilous question of whether or not an extensive redrawing of the map of the Balkans - this time along ethnic lines - might still be a possibility.

Needless to say, any return to nationalism and ethnic strife in the Balkans would strike a major blow to the core values for which the European Union stands. Two decades ago, it was division over the Balkans that prompted Europe to forge a common foreign and security policy. If Europe can't agree on Kosovo, where it has invested so much for so long, the prognosis is not good at all.

Christopher Chivvis is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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