Europe’s foreign policy supremo, Federica Mogherini, is off on a mission even more difficult than getting Iran and the US to agree their nuclear deal, writes Denis MacShane.
Mogherini is in the Western Balkans which still more than 20 years after the worst post-war mass murder of innocent citizens at Srebrenica remains Europe’s most problematic region.
Foreign ministers and leaders from the big EU countries have gradually lost interest in helping the Western Balkans find a way out of their enduring conflicts.
As long as there is no war or violence Berlin, London, Paris and Rome switch off. Instead it is down to Mogherini to try and show that Europe has a foreign policy that can bring a final peace settlement to the region of Europe
In the 1990s it showed how nationalism could spiral into open war and more than a million asylum-seekers cascaded across the Alps – the first great movement of people now duplicated by those fleeing violence in the Middle East or poverty and tyranny in Africa.
She is not helped by EU member states like Spain which refuse to recognise Kosovo even as 120 UN states now have. The fiction that Kosovo is some kind of integral part of Serbia that has temporarily left rule by Belgrade can no longer be asserted with a straight face.
Greece also makes life as hard as possible for Europe with its nationalist rejection of the right of Macedonians to fly under their own name.
To be fair there has been an absurd nationalism on show in Skopje with the pretence that Alexander the Great was other than a founding father of Hellenist greatness. But Athens should reach out to the new social democratic government in alliance with moderate Albanians in Macedonia and work towards a settlement on the name issue.
For Mogherini the main problem remains Serb revanchism. Backed by the Kremlin which via Belgrade seeks to become a Western Balkans player, Serb nationalists encourage Serb minorities in both Bosnia and Kosovo to refuse all cooperation to make these two small successor states function properly.
Serbs were also involved plotting in Montenegro with allegation of Russian backed murder attempts on Montenegrin political leaders.
There is a presidential election in Serbia and most candidates for office play the Serbia-as-victim card and back a hard line on Kosovo and Bosnia.
The Serbs know there is no chance of EU accession until they come to terms with the 1990s and accept that Belgrade can rule over Serbia but no longer over neighbouring successor states.
But no Serb leader has emerged ready to tell that truth to the Serb nation.
Small steps however can be taken by the EU in the form of aid, scholarship and visa-free travel. As it is any Serb, Kosovan, Bosnian or Albanian can easily slip into an EU member state and work in the black labour market.
Albanians do all the immigrant work in Greece and Kosovars are welcome in Austria, Germany and Switzerland as hard-workers – and are even star footballers.
The EU spends a fortune returning thousands of Serb and Kosovans who cross borders illegally but it is money wasted on a merry-go-round as people movement is a Western Balkan speciality.
Now Brussels had made Mogherini’s life even more difficult by stipulating that Kosovo cannot have any hope of visa free travel until it has fully and finally settled its border with Montenegro.
The Kosovan government – a coalition of the two main post-conflict parties, the PDK and LDK, have agreed a common border with Montenegro running though largely uninhabited mountains and gorges that hikers and shepherds roam irrespective of formal frontier lines.
Hashim Thaci, the Kosovan president, has worked with Brussels and Montenegro and there is no dispute between the state authorities. But to get the border demarcation accepted as part of the constitutional frontiers of Kosovo a two-thirds majority in the Kosovo National Assembly is needed.
This allows a coalition of Kosovan politicians – some ultra-nationalist, some just politically ambitious – to withhold their votes in a bid to embarrass the government and force new elections in which they hope to do well. It is political tactics but as a result all Kosovo citizens suffer.
Tania Faijon is the smart Slovenian social democratic MEP who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Kosovo. She told a conference of EU national parliament European affairs spokespersons in Pristina last month that Kosovo politicians had to settle their differences on the Montenegro border question.
Her Kosovan audience looked on in dismay. They can provide a majority but not a two-thirds one sufficient to end the political manoeuvres of the ultra-nationalists in Kosovo who reject any dialogue with Serbia or any compromise with Montenegro.
The EU could cut this Gordian knot by dropping the stipulation that a border agreement has to come into effect before allowing visa liberalisation. After all, there is still no final deal on the unending dispute between Slovenia and Croatia on the Alpine nation’s access to the sea but both Slovenia and Croatia are in the EU!
The EU can only benefit by allowing legal travel from the West Balkans instead of demanding unrealisable conditions which only play into the hands of extremist ambitious nationalist politicians.
If Mogherini can return to Brussels and persuade her fellow EU leaders to re-think policy on travel to and from the Balkans she will have made real progress in a region where the future is on hold and held hostage by nationalism.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe and the Balkans who visits the region regularly.