The Multilateralist

Can the EU Save Bosnia?

At the early stages of the Balkan conflict, a prominent European politician infamously declared that the "hour of Europe had dawned."  It turned out to be a false dawn of course. Europe floundered badly in its efforts to resolve the conflict, and only vigorous if very belated American intervention yanked Bosnia out of conflict. The ...

At the early stages of the Balkan conflict, a prominent European politician infamously declared that the "hour of Europe had dawned."  It turned out to be a false dawn of course. Europe floundered badly in its efforts to resolve the conflict, and only vigorous if very belated American intervention yanked Bosnia out of conflict. The Richard Holbrooke-brokered Dayton Peace Accords staunched the bloodshed in late 1995, and a muscular NATO force — including tens of thousands of American troops — poured into the country to keep the warring factions apart.

Since that time, however, initiative and responsibility has incrementally returned to Europe. The much smaller peacekeeping force in Bosnia now is almost entirely European, and NATO has yielded its lead role to the EU. At some point soon, the position of international trustee in Bosnia (the so-called "High Representative") may be terminated and replaced by a more powerful official reporting only to Brussels.

Lying behind all this is the question of Bosnian accession to the EU. That tantalizing prospect has for several years been held over the head of fractious Bosnian politicians to lure them away from sectarianism and toward unity and a bright European future. There have been a few successes along the way, but progess has stagnated in the last five years. And nobody holds out much hope that October’s elections in Bosnia will change the nationalist script from which most Bosnian politicians still read. 

All this leaves Europe in a difficult position. My conversations over the past few days with European politicians and observers have confirmed that the climate within the union has become very cool toward further expansion. Belt-tightening Europeans quail at the thought of wealth transfers to EU newcomers. Greece’s catastrophic economic mismanagement has depleted already low reservoirs of patience for entanglement in the Balkans. The EU has apparently agreed to lift visa restrictions on Bosnia, but that may be the most tangible prize that Europe is willing to award the benighted country for years to come. 

That creates a significant international policy dilemma. It’s not at all clear that Bosnia’s political and social trajectory is toward national cohesion and "Europeanization." By most accounts, Bosnian schools are producing a new generation of nationalists. International investors are scared off by Bosnia’s crazy-quilt political and regulatory system and by the possibility of new violence. The best and brightest are trickling out of the country. Moderate politicians willing to work across ethnic lines are reportedly close to despair. 

A decade from now, when Europe might be ready to seriously consider accession, Bosnia may be an even more politically radicalized, economically depressed, and culturally stunted place. Slow, incremental, process-heavy change is the EU speciality. It is often sneered at by Americans, but it has produced remarkable results in many parts of eastern and central Europe.  However, the union is almost allergic to the kind of decisive political or architectural moves that might change the political terrain in Bosnia. And that may well be what’s called for now.

The hour of Europe may still not have arrived for Bosnia and, for the moment at least, Richard Holbrooke is otherwise occupied.

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