22 January 2021

Britain cannot afford to abandon the Balkans

By Baroness Helic and Luke Coffey 

Last month, the United Kingdom lowered its flag at Camp Butmir in Sarajevo, marking the end of its 16-year participation in the EU-led military mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The UK’s commitment to security and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina actually dates back to 1992 with the UN Protection Force, the first UN peacekeeping mission during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

During the same week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a controversial visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina where he did what he does best, giving a shot in the arm to the Kremlin’s local proxies, and opposing Nato enlargement in the Balkans. It was telling that the Bosniak and Croat members of the Bosnian presidency refused to meet with Mr Lavrov on the grounds that his visit was deliberately disrespecting the country’s sovereignty.

Mr Lavrov did, however, meet with the Bosnian Serb member of the Presidency, who thanked the minister by gifting him an Orthodox icon believed to originate from war-torn eastern Ukraine. It was a fitting present, given that Russia has long used the smaller Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska as a way to keep Bosnia unstable, divided and unfit for Euro-Atlantic integration: the same pattern we have seen in eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The juxtaposition of the Union Jack being lowered while a grinning Lavrov caused a commotion is a concern for Britain’s place in Europe, not to mention the idea of Global Britain.

The Balkans remains a region with considerable unfinished business. Division is a constant undercurrent, and the region as a whole continues to struggle with high unemployment, pervasive corruption, and the flight of human capital, especially among the young and well educated.

Even today, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity is being used by nationalist leaders to hold on to power while keeping the people hostages to fear of another war. Meanwhile the challenges posed by the destabilising influence of Russia, rising Chinese interests and investment in the region, and pockets of extremism threaten to ensnare the Balkans in a permanent state of geopolitical stagnation, creating a potential threat to the stability and security in Europe.

We both understand the importance of the Balkans. In 2011 we worked together, whilst serving as Special Advisers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence respectively, to ensure that the UK contributed a company of troops to the reserve force for the EU’s military operation in Bosnia. Politically, convincing certain parts of the Conservative Party that sending more British troops to an EU-led military mission was no easy feat. Already in 2011, Euroscepticism in the Conservative Party was reaching a boiling point that would ultimately lead to the Brexit vote a few years later. Geopolitically, however, it made perfect sense for the UK to have skin in the game in the Balkans – a region of strategic importance for Britain and Europe.

Today, the UK should not overlook the importance of the region for the future of Europe, and should make engagement with the region a key priority. There are several things the Government can do to make this a reality.

Firstly, the UK needs to have a bigger footprint on the ground. If the UK is not going to contribute to the EU-led mission in Bosnia then more must be done to work bilaterally with the Bosnian armed forces to help them professionalize and reform. This will help their Nato membership prospects. The UK should also consider increasing its presence as part of the Nato-led mission in Kosovo. London’s contribution to this important peacekeeping mission is currently around 30 soldiers, behind countries like Ukraine and Moldova—neither of which are even in Nato. 

Secondly, the UK must also convince Nato to be more focused on the Balkans. A good opportunity to do so is with Nato’s forthcoming Strategic Concept—the main policy document that sets the Alliance’s direction. The last Strategic Concept, published in 2010, was almost 3,900 words long but devoted only 27 words to the Balkans. This did not give the region the focus it needs. Nato has a chance to correct this.

Promoting Nato enlargement should also be a priority. There has been no greater tool to encourage good governance, economic improvements, and defence reforms than the desire to join Nato. While it is great news that countries like Montenegro and North Macedonia have joined the Alliance in recent years, there needs to be a realistic path for Bosnia and Herzegovina too. Bosnia and Herzegovina embraced by the Alliance will remove the main stumbling block to the long term stability: the borders. 

Finally, Britain should think again about cutting funding for the region. At a time when the USA is signalling an increased focus on the Balkans – as per Mr Biden’s call with the Prime Minister – it looks as though the UK’s Western Balkans programming will be slashed from £80m to a ‘best case’ of under £50m, and perhaps as little as £35m. This is especially bad for the Good Governance Fund, which the UK has used to help dismantle state-owned companies and support reforms and reformers. The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, a success story for the UK in the Balkans will also be hit hard, as will supportive interventions to break patronage networks, strengthen the rule of law, and build community resilience.

While these steps are modest in scope, taken together they can lay a strong foundation for a more robust UK approach to the Balkans 

Some have blamed the recent withdrawal from the EU mission in Bosnia on Brexit – but this is not the full picture. Albania, Chile, North Macedonia, Switzerland and Turkey are part of the same EU mission and none are in the European Union – and Chile is not even in Europe.  If there had been the political will for those British troops to remain, it could have been done. Sadly, it was not.

The Balkans need British leadership and Britain needs a stable and prosperous Balkans.

Over the years, the UK has played a crucial role in the region working through both Nato and the EU to help secure and stabilise the region, putting an end to the bloody wars of the 1990s and establishing a committed presence on the ground to safeguard this hard-won peace. Now is not the time to abandon the region.

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Baroness Helic is a Member of the House of Lords. Luke Coffey is the Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. 

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.