The EU has jealously protected and sought to augment its leading role in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where it has held a steering responsibility for a decade and a half.
The union was the primary determinant for the democratic world’s policy in BiH. That policy has long been failing by its own standards as well as in the eyes of BiH’s citizens. The EU’s demand for primacy without responsibility has forced it into a humiliating capitulation to the world’s two leading autocracies, Russia and China.
A vote in the UN Security Council (UNSC) on November 3 demonstrates this.
Permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and the United States acquiesced to Russian blackmail on the wording of the resolution. This amounts to an abject humiliation for the West.
The resolution radically denuded hitherto standard references to the international Office of the High Representative (OHR), the civilian executive peace enforcement instrument. Paris, London, and Washington wanted to save the EU’s peacekeeping mission EUFOR—the executive military instrument—from a veto.
This leaves the OHR politically weakened, while the latter is already anemic. And that’s in a country where the EU, the United States, and NATO have held a dominant position for more than a quarter-century.
The humiliation may not be resonant in Brussels and EU member states’ capitals—or Washington, for that matter. But it certainly is in the Balkans, Moscow, and Beijing. It will be read—correctly—as signifying the West’s decline and its inability to summon the will to defend its position, even where it holds powerful tools. This is a crisis of will, not capability.
But perversely, there are EU—and member state—officials who welcome the outcome, if not the process by which it came about. There are multiple reasons for this, given the differentiated agendas in the union. But for the EU institutions and some member states, the executive instruments of OHR and EUFOR are the problem, sullying their enlargement machinery.
Executive enforcement mechanisms, civilian and military, were built into the 1995 Dayton Agreement to prevent threats to the peace.
The accords ended nearly four years of a terribly violent war in former Yugoslavia, particularly in BiH. Different ethnic groups— the Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs—were organized in complicated power-sharing and rotational structures. This did not end competitive infighting.
Over the past weeks, Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik, Russia, and China objected to High Representative Christian Schmidt’s appointment. They argued there was no international consensus and Dodik claimed he wasn’t consulted. In reality, they want to close the OHR. This would radically undermine the ability to enforce the Dayton Accords—which is exactly the point.
Unfortunately, EU institutions and many of its member states have also long subverted the OHR. They see it as a throwback to peace enforcement in a country with a membership perspective and believe the prospect of joining the union should impel BiH politicians to adopt the EU acquis and meet their standards.
The European Commission’s latest country report on BiH demonstrates how risible that contention is. And while the EU eagerly took over the role of ensuring a “safe and secure environment” in BiH from NATO in late 2004 as a low-risk theater to demonstrate it could deploy forces, it tired of this responsibility as contradicting its overarching message.
Executive mandates were seen as impeding ownership of reform by BiH politicians. So the OHR has been bled at EU insistence, while EUFOR has been below deterrent capability for over a decade. While the EU Delegation to BiH is large, its results are meager, as is evident in the European Commission’s country report. BiH is a dysfunctional country for its citizens, but not for its politicians—the EU’s “partners.”
Unwilling to reckon with its failing policy in BiH—and the rest of the Balkans—the EU’s political leadership is turning to bureaucratic triage to camouflage failure: collaborating with local ethnic leaders to achieve pacification.
In BiH, the big winner has been Dodik. But his Bosnian Croat nationalist ally, Dragan Čović, has also been well-served. Dodik has radically escalated his independence drive in direct violation of the Dayton Peace Accords. These include paramilitary maneuvers above Sarajevo in October and threats to reconstitute a Republika Srpska army. Secession would lead to a violent reaction.
Meanwhile, the EU’s response—supported by the United States—is to assemble a package that will “give Dodik something” and satisfy Čović. He wants structural changes to ensure he alone can win the Croat seat on the BiH presidency in next year’s election and has threatened to prevent the election if not satisfied. Meeting threats with rewards in the hope that they cease has a name: appeasement.
The United States’ performance is also deeply disappointing, particularly given President Joe Biden’s impassioned advocacy as a senator for intervention during the war in Bosnia. But that was before Afghanistan.
Today, the United States’ relationship with Europe isn’t about Europe; it’s about working with Europe on issues of common concern elsewhere. Were the EU capable of handling the responsibilities it desires, that would make sense.
But it is evident that enlargement has not been performing transformative wonders in the Western Balkans, despite such self-assurance following the 2004 big bang enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe.
The backsliding in some of the members of the Class of 2004, most vividly “illiberal democracies” Hungary and Poland, soured many EU members on enlargement. Indeed, its most vocal cheerleaders are Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Slovene sidekick, President Janez Janša, who want their autocrat friend Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in the club yesterday, to bolster their camp.
Two years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron effectively proposed a values-neutral cordon sanitaire in the Balkans as an alternative to enlargement with standards—essentially economic rewards without standards for national kleptocracies in the region. The November 3 vote in the UNSC brings this closer to fruition.
Bosnia’s sliding toward potential conflict without guardrails is not solely the EU’s failure—but it has a “made in the EU” label on it.
The message is broadcast far beyond BiH, whose citizens now are growing to see the EU and the United States as just two of many self-absorbed geopolitical actors—and incompetent hypocrites to boot. All their talk about anti-corruption rings hollow as they desperately seek deals with BiH’s ethnic godfathers.
The message citizens throughout the Balkans are hearing is: if you actually believe in liberal democratic values, rule of law, and societies of equality that protect the dignity of the individual, the normative power of the EU isn’t in your corner. You’re on your own. The EU is with your “leaders.”
Kurt Bassuener is co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank.