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Tipping point in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo: EU and NATO must finish the job

Despite progress, trouble looms in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. Better engagement now by NATO and the EU can prevent backsliding.

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Clearly, countries must meet the conditions of membership. They must do the hard work of reform. But the EU and NATO can be passive or active. A passive stance gives little incentive and empowers those with revanchist agendas. But an activist stance, where we stress our willingness to admit new members and work with candidate countries on specific reforms, empowers those who are prepared to implement the fastest and farthest reaching change.

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Now is a time to give new energy to finishing the job in the Balkans – to bringing that region fully into the European mainstream before it slides backward. Several steps can be taken:

First, the EU and NATO must reiterate, emphatically and credibly, that they are prepared to admit as members every country in the Balkans that meets the conditions of membership.

Second, to generate this renewed political commitment, Washington will need to engage actively not only with the EU and NATO as institutions, but also with key member states.

Third, the EU and NATO should aggressively use the tools already at their disposal to incentivize necessary reforms – for example, visa-free travel, EU association agreements, and NATO’s Membership Action Plan.

Fourth, in Bosnia, we should maintain a robust international presence and commitment, including a strong, international “high representative” and an EU force, until Bosnia sustainably implements far-reaching reform.

Fifth, we should maintain a robust commitment in Kosovo – both through the nearly 10,000 soldiers that make up the NATO-led Kosovo Force and through the European Union Rule of Law Mission – while pushing for recognition by all EU states and improved governance within (and throughout all) of Kosovo.

Sixth, we need to give a renewed impetus to resolving the Macedonia name issue. Because Greece’s own identity is linked to ancient Macedonia, it strongly objects to its northern neighbor going by the name “Republic of Macedonia.” The Macedonians could begin with modest confidence-building measures – Does the airport really have to be named after Alexander the Great? – followed by compromises by both sides.

Seventh, NATO and the EU should reward Montenegro’s reform successes by accelerating its path toward membership in both institutions – not least because this can spur greater momentum in the region.

Eighth, the US and EU should carry out a robust bilateral engagement with Serbia, building its sense of belonging within the transatlantic community.

And ninth, we should work aggressively with Albania to strengthen democratic institutions, transparency, and anticorruption, in part by leveraging the prospect of EU membership.

Resolving these lingering issues is difficult, but doable. And far better to invest the energy and effort now, when the region is calm, than to risk greater instability in the future. Remember: The worst human-rights atrocities in Europe since the Holocaust happened in the Balkans just 15 years ago.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States.