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During the so-called period of Yugoslavian disintegration, the European Union, still called the European Community, was composed of twelve member states, which had to deal with such an overthrow in the East, but also with internal issues, just before the signature of the Treaty of Maastricht. In this context, we can ask ourselves about the action of the EU during the disintegration of Yugoslavia? Has the EU been efficient in its response and reaction, before and during the different wars? And what about after?

With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia has been confronted to the problem of its future structure. At the end of December 1990, a special round of discussions was organized by the Federal presidency in order to “resolve outstanding differences among the republics” concerning this problem. Eight sessions took place between January 10 and April 3, 1991. But, there were deep political differences from one republic to another, especially concerning four issues: the status and value of maintaining the Yugoslav federation, the right of republics to secede from the existing federation, the character of republican borders and the most desirable type of future political arrangements among the republics. The dissensions were very huge, particularly between the representatives of Serbia and Montenegro (with Slobodan Milosevic as leader of the whole republic since 1986) who wanted “a modern democratic federation” and the other Republics.

Quickly, in early February, the negotiating atmosphere tightened when Slovenia and Croatia adopted measures to invalidate the authority of federal laws in their republics. As an illustration of these tensions, we can evoke the declaration of the Croatian President, Tudjman, on February 13. He asserted that “if Slovenia would leave the Yugoslav federation, Croatia would not remain part of the state”.

After several months of escalade of ethnic violence and political tension in Yugoslavia, the international community and especially the European Union (which was still the European Community in those days), finally understood, in June 1991, that maybe the negotiations between the republics would fail and that could lead to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. For instance, Giani de Michelis (The Italian Foreign Secretary) explained that “according to its present constitutional structure, Yugoslavia could be either united but undemocratic, or democratic – but in pieces”.

However, there was already a deep division within the 12-member European Community. In fact, when Germany, Austria and Italy for instance, clearly pleaded for a confederation of sovereign states (like Slovenia and Croatia), France and Great Britain more approved Milosevic’s view to make a remodelled federation (even if they didn’t approve his highly centralized perspectives). Here has been the first failure of the European Community: to be unable to find an agreement within its members in order to have a unique model of Balkan cohesion. Moreover, when Slovenia and Croatia announced their “planned dissociation” at the end of June, 1991, once again the European attention regarding the Balkans increased, but not in a crafted and coordinated manner, which maybe would have prevent such a worsening of the situation.

With the realization of the gravity of the situation in Yugoslavia, the European Community tried to find compromises and solutions but because of its internal divisions about this issue, these attempts at keeping peace finally failed. Two men, Jacques Santer (Chairman of the European Council of Ministers) and Jacques Delors (Chairman of the European Commission) first attached themselves to solve the Yugoslavian problem. On May 30 and 31, 1991, they flew to Belgrade to meet Yugoslavia’s federal and republican leaders. They submitted several propositions. Firstly, if Yugoslavia’s leaders managed to solve their constitutional difficulties, the European Community would be ready to intercede with international financial institutions to obtain supplementary support for Yugoslav economic stabilization. Then, that the EC was prepared to start talking immediately on Yugoslavia’s associate membership in the Community. Finally, they promised a significant financial support from the European Community (four to five billion dollar) whether a political settlement could be reached.

Of course, these propositions were attractive but as Vasil Tuperkovski (leader of Macedonia) explained to Santer and Delors, “the lack of a unified European policy toward Yugoslavia was sending mixed signals to the different political forces in the country, exacerbating the crisis”. Yugoslavia’s Prime Minister Markovic added that “Europe is not prepared to pay us not to fight. Let’s have no illusions about this. We must solve our own problems”. Consequently, twenty days after the nearly failure of the EC mission in Belgrade, the international community made another effort to address the looming Yugoslav crisis. On June 19 and 20 was organized a meeting of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Berlin. During the summit, the US secretary of State James Baker received support from major European leaders to strongly advocate Yugoslavia’s continued territorial unity and democratization.

On June 23, the members of the European Community, echoing Baker’s message, commonly voted NO to the recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia if those republics unilaterally seceded from the Yugoslav federation. But on June 25, these two countries ignored the European Community and declared their independence, provoking the beginning of the civil war in Yugoslavia. So, the European Community clearly turned out to be unable to prevent the war and the violent disintegration in Yugoslavia. On the contrary, according to some specialists, signals from the EC and the USA encouraging Yugoslavia’s unity and discouraging Slovenia’s and Croatian’s secessions in June 1991 might have actually “encouraged the Yugoslav federal government and the JNA to employ force against the two republics”.

Case study: Slovenia and Croatia

As we have seen previously, Slovenia and Croatia decided to secede from the Yugoslav Federation in June, 1991. This decision opened a completely new phase in the Yugoslav crisis, but there is to underline the disparity of the situation in these two countries, as well as the difference of success of the European Community reaction. On the one hand, in Slovenia, the war between Slovene forces and the JNA was fierce but also very brief, causing a dozen killed within the Slovenian forces and thirty-seven within JNA ones. Indeed, after ten days, a cease-fire was arranged by a negotiating team from the European Community and from July, 19, 1991, there were no more JNA forces in Slovenia. On the other hand, the armed struggle between Croatian police and military forces on one side, and forces from both the Serbian-led JNA and local Croatia-based Serbian militia on the other, cost more than ten thousand killed and thirty thousand wounded (military but also a large number a civilian victims). Savage atrocities were committed and numerous historical monuments and private properties were destroyed, without forgetting all the refugees who fled from the war zones into adjacent areas of Serbia and Croatia. Finally, on November 18, 1991, the Croatian forces surrendered.

So, there is to say that obviously, the response of the whole international community, especially of the European Union, was at least a semi-failure, because if it permitted to quickly stop the conflict in Slovenia, it hasn’t been the same in Croatia. According to Laslo Sekelj (Yugoslavia: The Process of Disintegration), this response (of the EU but also of multilateral organizations) was “contrived, incoherent and frequently lacked of a sophisticated grasp of the region’s complexity”. This was a time when mechanisms for conflict management hadn’t been established yet to deal with such a crisis. Nevertheless, concerning Slovenia, we have to emphasize the successful attempt of the EU to negotiate a general cease-fire agreement – the Brioni Declaration – which provided for a three-month moratorium on further moves toward independence by Croatia and Slovenia and for EU-sponsored negotiations among the republics regarding their future. This three-month moratorium ended on October 7, 1991, after that both republics had reaffirmed their intention to leave the Yugoslav federation. Finally, the Croatian war ended on January 15, 1992, when both the Serbians authorities in Belgrade and JNA leaders accepted the UN special envoy Cyrus Vance’s peace proposal. So, the war was stopped by the United Nations and not thanks to the European Union.

It will be unfair to say that the EU did nothing to stop the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. But obviously, because of its internal divisions principally (on December 1991, Germany reaffirmed its difference with France and Britain at a meeting of EC foreign ministers at Brussels, by announcing that it would formally recognize Croatian and Slovenian independence), its reactions hadn’t been very efficient. To give an illustration of this ineffectiveness, we can just recall that over a dozen EC negotiated cease-fire agreements collapsed in rapid succession during Croatian war, and that the small number of EC cease-fire monitors stationed in the region was unable to control the spreading violence.

So, what have been the EU reaction and response to the war in Yugoslavia? The twelve member states were left with two possibilities: To remove as far as possible the civilians from the fighters or to react very firmly to make understand the belligerents that they had to stop because the tolerable limit had been crossed. Concerning the first type of option, the idea was Bernard Kouchner’s one (French Minister of Health and Humanitarian Action), that is to say the installation of a “corridor humanitaire” or “humanitarian corridor”, for example in Dubrovnik. But, the Serbian army managed to turn away this corridor and finally, the French were unable to implement their policy. Then, the EU tried to react strongly. Indeed, on November, 9, 1991, the twelve member states decided to impose symbolic sanctions to Yugoslavia, such as the freezing of agreements with the EU. However, facing Serbian provocations, in the end, Brussels annulled these sanctions…

Consequently, the statement is clear and obvious: the EU failed, with inoperative boycotts, slack warnings, and, above all, a completely disorganized and inefficient diplomacy, as during the Slovenian and Croatian wars as during the one in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For instance, on May, 4, 1992, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeintung editorial explained that “Serbian leaders are considered almost everywhere as respectable partners. Nobody had been so clear and so hard than Genscher [German Foreign Minister] on the Serbian Foreign Minister. At the same time, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans Van den Broek, was moderating his warnings to Serbia…” This example obviously demonstrates the “flagrant malfunction” of European policy during these conflicts.

The EU had been hesitating the whole time, and its main action had been the successive cease-fire agreements signed during “peace” conferences. In fact, the first clear condemnation of Serbian and Croatian armies in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the EU was only obtained thanks to Washington pressure. Nevertheless, some people, on the field, really tried to act, and sometimes, their attempts had been successful, even if they were insufficient to stop the whole conflict. It would be overstated to just say that the EU no tried to do anything in Yugoslavia. In fact, since October 1991, men were sent by the European Community to observe the situation in Slovenia and in Croatia. Then, in January 1992, these observers were transferred in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The main issue was that their mission was not clearly defined: the only sure fact was that they don’t have to intervene on the battle field. But apart from this, there was no coherent policy or even the beginning of a common strategy.

So, on the field, some men and women acted themselves, without the EU directives. They were for instance members of humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross, MSF, and Equilibre. Another example is the one of Henri Wiynaendts, Dutch representative in Paris, who was one of the first to go on the field in Osijek, in order to negotiate a cease-fire with local militia leaders and staff officers. He explained that he was here “to show the European presence”, even if he was alone… As a European soldier sent in Yugoslavia emphasized, “a lot of people showed willingness on the field […] but they didn’t have enough support or resources to accomplish a good job”; and another adding that “in Brussels, no one was preoccupied by what they were doing”. Clearly, a lot of European people (with people from other countries) really committed themselves during the Yugoslavian process of disintegration. But because of the lack of common European policy and strategy, these individual successes were insufficient to permit to stop the Yugoslavian wars particularly in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To conclude it is obvious that the disintegration of Yugoslavia had done the European Union much harm. In fact, this crisis had revealed publicly and widely its incapacity to implement a common strategy and policy. So we can say that the disintegration of Yugoslavia called in question the efficiency and even the legitimacy of the European Union from the international point of view.

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EurActiv Network