By now people in the Balkans are used to seeing foreign troops patrolling their streets, but recently in Macedonia's troubled northern villages, a subtle change has occurred. A new emblem, the European Union's circle of stars, has replaced NATO's pointed cross on foreign military vehicles and uniforms.
It is a small change for Macedonian and ethnic Albanian villagers in the area where NATO-led forces narrowly averted a civil wartwo years ago. For the European Union, however, it is a historic achievement. It may consist of only 400 soldiers at the moment, but the European Union finally has an army.
Known as EUFOR, this is the first European Union military mission ever deployed. In the wake of recent violence, the mission, code-named Concordia, is testing not only the EU's political will but also the endurance of the military forces cobbled together by member states.
The past two weeks have seen a spate of bombings in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and the kidnapping of two Macedonian policemen. On Sunday, the government launched a crackdown on ethnic Albanian militants in northern Macedonia that killed several gunmen.
The renewed violence poses a challenge for a force that was supposed to serve as a deterrent. EUFOR soldiers do carry light arms, but their limited mandate only allows for self-defense. Their main mission is to monitor and report, and in that spirit EUFOR has moved close to the scene of Sunday's events.
Up to now, the force has carried out its duties almost without incident.
"This isn't just the first EU military operation. It is the first success story in the implementation of a common European defense policy," says Alba Lamberti, an analyst on European policy for the International Crisis Group. "At the same time this is a very small mission with very low risk, which is exactly what the EU needed to prove it can handle a military mission."
The EU announced it would establish a common defense force in 1999, and Concordia, widely considered a model peacekeeping force on an easy assignment, is the EU's first concrete step towards realizing those goals. Having taken over the NATO peacekeeping mission "Allied Harmony" in March, the EU force completes its first term of duty at the end of this month. Macedonian has already invited EUFOR to stay until Dec. 15. If all goes well, European officials hope the EU will move on to take over larger Balkan missions, such as taking over from the 12,000 troops under NATO command in Bosnia.
"Whether you like the EU or you don't, there is no doubt that it is an economic powerhouse but politically it is relatively weak," explains one senior EU diplomat, who asked not to be named. "There is a very strong desire to redress this imbalance."
EUFOR troops patrolling the tense ethnically mixed villages north of Skopje receive the kind of welcome soldiers dream about. Even six months into the mission, children cluster by the roadside cheering, while their elders smile and wave from porches and windows, as the patrols pass. Mefail Osmani,theethnic Albanian mayor of Zelino,says, "People feel safer when they see EUFOR patrols. If they weren't here, there would surely be fighting in our area again. There is no trust and little communication between Albanians and Macedonians, but we both trust Concordia."
Lieutenant Tsialikis Asterios, a Greek soldier on patrol in the village of Bukovic, is evidently proud of Concordia. "I like this work. It is stressful because we are always at risk, but I would fight a war for the European Union, if necessary," he says. "The EU is much closer to our hearts as citizens of Europe than NATO, which is often seen as a representative of the United States."
The force brings together troops from 26 nations, half of them EU members. Six of the participants are non-EU members of NATO, including Turkey - but the force does not include the US.
Despite Concordia's small size, political and military analysts have been watching it closely. The European Parliament has approved the concept of a rapid-reaction force of 70,000 troops and a pan-European military, which may eventually number in the hundreds of thousands. Concordia is its first concrete move and, with the US progressively withdrawing from traditional European bases and EU-US relations on a roller-coaster, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"Especially after the Iraq war, the EU has splintered between the French Continental camp and the British trans- Atlantic camp," says Sam Vaknin, a regional analyst. "The French camp hopes the EU military will serve as a counterweight to US hegemony. The British are terrified that this could damage their transAtlantic alliance."
Publicly, US officials have expressed cautious optimism about the EU taking a larger role in regional security, but privately diplomats admit that the US is skeptical of the EU's ability to handle military forces and would not welcome the emergence of a large European military. Critics of EUFOR have questioned the EU's military capacity. For example, the planned rapid-reaction force has been delayed due to lack of air-transport capacity among member states.
"It is true that EUFOR has coordinated the mission in Macedonia perfectly, but this is the military equivalent of homework for the first grade,"says Stevo Pendarovski, a Macedonian security adviser. "We are going to declare Concordia a success, of course, but it is a relative success because this was a relatively easy mission. In my view, the mission in Bosnia is too big for the EU to swallow at this point. They have very little in terms of air lift and transport capabilities, and they rely heavily on NATO for intelligence."
Under an agreement signed at the end of last year, EUFOR has access to NATO intelligence and technology. While a Greek force is constantly on call to reinforce Concordia within a matter of hours, NATO troops in Kosovo can also provide back up in emergencies. The agreement, known as Berlin Plus, allows EU members to participate in both NATO and EUFOR without duplicating their efforts and gives the US a voice.
But the EU has already begun to step out from under NATO's shadow with a three-month military mission this summer in the Republic of Congo. This second EU mission did not depend on NATO help, but analysts say traditionally pacifist Europe will have to quadruple its military spending if it ever hopes to rival the US militarily.