Skip to content

Kosovo is a test of European will

Article by Richard Gowan

September 15, 2006

March 2004 may mark a crucial month in the evolution of Europe’s post-Cold War strategy. Visiting Kosovo Polje, Javier Solana announced that the international community “cannot tolerate and will not tolerate” inter-ethnic brutality. He faced jeers: Balkan familiarity with such lofty sentiments from foreign politicians has bred contempt.

There are good reasons for scepticism. Recent events have re-concentrated minds on the use of military force: two months after Britain, France and Germany agreed to form “battle groups” for peace operations, the three countries rushed troops into Kosovo. Here was the tougher Europe touted by Solana in his 2003 European Security Strategy. But Jose Zapatero’s threat to withdraw from Iraq is a reminder that, for much of Europe, the desire and ability to deploy troops remains in question.

Though Europe often agonises about its lack of military hardware compared to the Americans, it is not our crude strength that is being tested. It is our ability to spread European norms of democracy and human rights in post-conflict zones. The recent BBC poll of Iraqi opinion found a small majority in favour of last year’s invasion – and a larger one against the Coalition’s continuing presence. State-building can be more controversial than intervention.

Europeans like nothing more than to mock the US’s lack of interest in the “social work” of reconstructing societies. Yet in Kosovo, European, American and UN administrators share responsiblity for a failure to establish faith in the rule of law since 1999. When NATO forces entered the province, they opted for an easy life by failing to confront the Albanian rebels who had, in part, precipitated the crisis there. Since then, the distribution of power in Kosovo has been contested.

The international community has attempted to keep power off the agenda, insisting that Albanian and Serb politicians should focus on “standards not status”. As Carl Bildt has noted, “a decent, multi-ethnic Kosovo” has been the goal. But, on the ground, local strength has all too often appeared to trump abstract standards. The final status of Kosovo is already under negotiation – but it is being negotiated through force rather than dialogue, with Albanians pushing Serbs into the north of the province, permitting partition.

Solana, Bildt and others have underlined that this is unacceptable, and that renewed toughness is required. All agree that “extremist factions” must be disciplined. But we should also appreciate how far our policies have created space for extremism in Kosovo. Our defence of property rights (particularly those of Serbs) has been particularly weak. It has long been common for Albanian gangs to drive through Serb enclaves, firing into the air, pressuring the residents to sell up and move out. Intimidation has become a widespread norm – and an easy theme for Belgrade’s nationalists.

Facing this, the international administration has been inconsistent. Its representatives have often looked for ad hoc local political deals to maintain security. Legal practice has frequently appeared to be dictated by expediency rather than fairness. David Marshall, head of legal systems monitoring in Kosovo from 2000 to 2001, warned that “the continued use of arbitrary detentions by the executive and the rejection of lawful court orders set a precedent that the UN may come to deeply regret”. Not enough local leaders have developed a stake in building a legal system that would genuinely place standards above status.

It should not be difficult to identify and punish at least some “extremist factions” for recent events. But if these punishments are not followed by an overhaul of how day-to-day justice in the province, they will be seen as one more arbitrary political gesture. The space for “extremism” (and opportunism and criminality) will re-emerge. Western leaders must not only resort to military peace-enforcers but evaluate the extent to which their civilian peace-builders can sustain state-building that works.

The EU has a key role to play here. It has established a civilian rapid reaction mechanism to compliment its emergent military capacity – Norway is experimenting with a similar mechanism with a specifically legal focus to handle judicial and penal challenges. Such a legal rapid reaction force might help to make law more central to peace operations from their inception.

The European leaders must now demonstrate that they have not only the institutions required to build civilian peace efforts, but the political will. They should declare that if the UN and other international organisations cannot bear the burden of Kosovo – where the EU already has a formal role and considerable leverage – Europe will lead the way in reinforcing and reforming them. We should not be prepared to sustain civilian structures than cannot maintain our values.

In time, and beyond Kosovo, the EU should develop greater capacities for effective legal work and human rights monitoring. Currently, more commitment and prestige are placed on how quickly Europe can get troops to a crisis zone, rather than how effectively we can export European values to those areas that we already govern. The events in Kosovo give us the opportunity to change.

Richard Gowan is a Europe Researcher at the Foreign Policy Centre and co-author of Global Europe: Implementing the European Security Strategy (

    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre