A More Perfect European Union

December 09, 2011

European leaders are gathering in Brussels on Dec. 8 to organize a collective response to the growing debt crisis -- but it's not only the euro that endangers European unity. Lost in the headlines is the possibility of renewed violence in the western Balkans, which threatens to roll back the significant progress we have made in the region over the past 15 years. The deteriorating security situation in northern Kosovo requires an urgent, united, and focused transatlantic response that re-commits us to helping bring the countries of the region into Europe and the West. Unfortunately -- judging by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent statements suggesting Serbia may not be offered EU candidate status this year -- we may miss an important opportunity to calm tensions and move the region toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

Last week, the U.N. envoy in Kosovo called the situation in the north "extremely volatile," noting that "combined factors of frustration, fear, and mistrust could easily and quickly provide the spark that could ignite violence." The fact is, we have already begun to see violence.

Last week, more than two dozen NATO soldiers were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and broken bones when clashes broke out with local Serb protesters in northern Kosovo. The NATO troops were attempting to remove roadblocks in the north in order to ensure freedom of movement and supply lines for their forces.

The United States and our European allies support the right of all people to protest peacefully. However, violence against NATO troops attempting to maintain the peace is absolutely unacceptable. Attacks will do nothing to advance the objectives of Kosovar Serbs and will only isolate them further in the transatlantic community. NATO leadership has responded that it will use "all means available" to defend its troops, and the entire alliance will stand behind them.

One can understand, in today's current economic climate, why European eyes are turned inwards, as our close allies in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere attempt to stem the growing contagion within the eurozone borders. However, the situation in Kosovo and Serbia calls out for attention and transatlantic leadership. At a time when economic and security challenges are all around us, our alliance cannot forget about its own backyard.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has rightly called for the dismantling of the barricades in northern Kosovo, saying that they "do not defend a single national interest." I agree with President Tadic, and believe that all people in the region, Serbians and Albanians alike, have absolutely nothing to gain -- and much to lose -- by a return to violence. I would echo Tadic's call for all sides to demonstrate restraint at such a tense and dangerous time.

There is no appropriate military solution to the dispute in northern Kosovo. The alternative -- a sustainable, peaceful resolution -- will require time, patience, and diplomatic creativity. Leaders in both Kosovo and Serbia have boldly decided to return to the negotiating table to continue important technical talks, despite the unrest and the political difficulties these negotiations have prompted. This renewed round of discussions follows on several months of progress, particularly with respect to customs and border issues.

These talks need to accomplish much more, and both sides need to demonstrate their serious commitment to progress in the days and months ahead. None of us should allow a small number of extremist forces to undermine the significant progress being made between Kosovo and Serbia, and the United States and Europe should redouble our efforts to give political cover to both sides as they engage in politically difficult -- but necessary -- discussions on the future of their relationship.

Perhaps the most critical decision on the future of the region, however, lies with our allies in the European Union this week. On Dec. 9, EU leaders are set to decide whether Serbia will receive EU candidate status -- one of the first major steps for any country that wishes to join the European Union -- and whether other Balkan countries, including Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia will continue down that path.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Merkel's comments suggest that Serbia may not receive candidate status before the end of the year. This is obviously a decision for our European allies, but there is little doubt that all transatlantic members will be affected by a return to instability in the western Balkans.

Few are under the illusion that Serbia, or other Balkan states seeking to move forward on the EU accession process, are ready to join the European Union today. There will be plenty of time for pressing all countries of the western Balkans on much-needed reforms and institutional changes. However, it is critical that citizens in the region -- in Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and elsewhere -- see a light at the end of the tunnel if they are to continue to accept difficult reforms and embrace a Western-oriented future.

As is so often the case, the international community has proven itself capable of bringing violent conflict to an end, but managing the peace in the long-term has proven difficult. The western Balkans is no exception, and it will require our continued attention.

At a time when Europe is asking significant questions about its own fiscal and financial future, it is important that we do not abandon a goal that we have all fought for over the past 60 years -- that of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. The stakes are high and our mutual objective is in our grasp, but it will never be met without all of the countries of the western Balkans -- including Serbia and Kosovo.


By:  Senator Jeanne Shaheen
Source: Foreign Policy Op-Ed