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Bosnia after Brexit. Causes for Concern?

Great Britain’s prospected withdrawal from the European Union has already revived discussions about security on the continent. Germany and France renewed proposals to deepen European military cooperation in a ‘defence union’. Besides such far-reaching visions, Brexit may also bring about immediate changes for boots that are already on the ground. The EU is currently militarily involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an involvement that may end, or change fundamentally, in the face of Brexit. Brexit would thus be an opportunity to reconsider the EU’s military involvement with Bosnia-Herzegovina, but in the light of recent developments it may quickly turn into a cause for concern as well.


How the EU became militarily involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina

December 2004 marked the beginning of the EU’s military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Operation Althea. From 1992 to 1995 the Bosnian War took the lives of an estimated hundred thousand people. The European Economic Community, together with the United Nations, was involved in several diplomatic attempts to find a solution to the conflict. However, the different warring parties (Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats) were only forced to the negotiation table after NATO conducted airstrikes on Bosnian Serb forces. The resulting Dayton Agreement, signed on 21 November 1995, was not just about ending the hostilities, it also aimed to reconstruct Bosnian society – it aimed to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a democratic, ‘European’ state.

Milošević, Tudjman and Izetbegović sign the Dayton Agreement, source: Wikimedia.org

Milošević, Tudjman and Izetbegović sign the Dayton Agreement, source: Wikimedia.org

The implementation of the Dayton Agreement became the responsibility of NATO forces. Consisting of 60.000 troops with robust rules of engagement, the Implementation Force (IFOR) had the mandate and military power to enforce compliance. However, as military historian Thijs Brocades Zaalberg points out in his PhD-dissertation Soldiers & Civil Power, military prowess came at the expense of longer-term successes in the implementation of peace. The Dayton Agreement actually institutionalized the ethnic lines of division along which the war had been fought. Dayton failed to create the right conditions for a ‘civil-military unity of effort’ since, among other issues, the position of the civilian leadership versus the military commander was relatively weak.

Between 1997 and 2004, IFOR’s successor, the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR), aimed to create a ‘safe and secure environment’. Yet the limited size of SFOR hindered this aim. By the time the EU took over from NATO and began Operation Althea, troop numbers had diminished to 7000. Still, NATO remained present in Bosnia and has maintained a military headquarters concerned with defence reforms and counter-terrorism policies. Moreover, the EU has agreed to make use of NATO’s assets and capabilities under the Berlin-Plus arrangement.


A distinctive security conception?

A EUFOR Althea mission pin, source: Wikimedia.org

A EUFOR Althea mission pin, source: Wikimedia.org

In the eyes of the French government, the EU High Representative Javier Solana (formerly NATO’s Secretary General) and the European Parliament, EUFOR Althea was an excellent opportunity to present a distinctly ‘EU’ take on security policy. These three actors therefore insisted that a full transfer of authority from NATO to the EU would be crucial. Without NATO lurking about, the EU mission could bring its key distinctive element to the fore: a closer working relationship with civil institutions and instruments. Rather than having a military operation as an isolated endeavor, the EU’s military operation would actually support the EU’s overall strategy for Bosnia with prospected Bosnian EU-membership as a central aspect.

The European Commission has, however, been critical of operation Althea from the outset. The position of European Commission instruments and the civilian EU Special Representative (EUSR) remained weak in relation to the military command. The Commission feared that the military presence would undermine the intended goal of fostering local ownership in Bosnia. The troops on the ground would give local elites the opportunity to hide behind the EU’s military presence rather than take responsibility for the security of its citizens. One hindrance is that the peace enforcement mandate allows the EU to overrule the administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The United Kingdom in particular vigorously defends the executive character of the operation though it is a highly contentious issue. The majority of EU member states strongly oppose the peace enforcement character of the operation as it would prevent a shift from military to civilian involvement. Even though UK troop contributions are quite minimal, Britain has provided the Operation Commander ever since 2004. Moreover, the unanimity that is required to change EUFOR into a non-executive training mission or terminate it completely, gives the UK a very strong position.

British reluctance to change primarily has to do with Atlantic partnership and a strong interest in maintaining close ties with NATO and the US. Additionally, there is a substantive disagreement about the role the military can and should play in long-term policies of creating a ‘safe and secure’ Bosnia-Herzegovina. Those in favor of terminating the peace enforcement character of EUFOR Althea argue that the presence of the military operation is actually inhibiting political progress. The enduring mission allows local elites to keep on ‘playing the ethnic card’ rather than overcome Dayton’s institutionalized fragmentation. In contrast, others genuinely fear that the situation will further deteriorate without the EU’s military presence, and even call for a reinforced military presence. The recent Bosnian-Serb referendum only fuels these concerns. Voters showed overwhelming support to maintain a national holiday that the country’s Constitutional Court deemed discriminatory. Russia’s support for the referendum did not help to diminish worries.

Frederica Mogherini visiting EUFOR Althea troops, source: Flickr.com

Frederica Mogherini visiting EUFOR Althea troops, source: Flickr.com

Paths into Bosnia-Herzegovina

Overlooking the current state of affairs, the EU’s military involvement with Bosnia-Herzegovina clearly displays the dynamics of path-dependency: early decisions have a strong bearing on the later decision-making process. First, the provisions of the Dayton-agreement institutionalized the ethnic cleavages and as such inhabit all reforms. Secondly, since 2004 the EU has been unable to change the civil-military relationship and create a military operation ‘distinctively’ different from its NATO predecessors. Thirdly, the peace enforcement mandate without an end-date worked to ‘entrap’ the EU into an enduring military role that it does not want. However, now that Brexit has come around the corner it may at least seem that this third factor of entrapment could be overcome. Without the UK, the coalition in support of keeping a UN-Chapter VII mandate, is severely weakened. Nonetheless, as the recent referendum episode shows, Bosnia-Herzegovina may soon become an area where increasing tensions between the EU and Russia are further played out. In this looming ‘Cold War’ rerun, Brexit may quickly turn from a ‘window of opportunity’ to a cause of concern for both the EU and Bosnia-Herzegovina.