The EU and Peacebuilding – Double Standards in the Neighbourhood?

Stefanie Kappler

1 June 2016

The crucial month of the Brexit referendum may be a good time to stop to reflect on the EU’s role in peacebuilding, both within and outside its borders. What benefits does the organisation bring to the citizens of Europe? Not least in the light of its 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, we are tempted to assume that the EU does have an important role to play in the field of peacebuilding, particularly in its immediate neighbourhood. And indeed, historically speaking, the European idea can be considered a success as we think about the role of the ECSC in pooling the resources needed for arms production between France and Germany and thus preventing further warfare.

If we focus our attention on the Balkan countries and their potential perspective to become future members of the EU, the incentives seem promising, too. The idea of a frame of identification beyond ethnicity, the increased transparency mechanisms for states with contested legitimacy (at best) that the EU is asking for and the prospect of resolving regional disputes via the EU are all powerful reasons of why the EU could help bring peace to the region. In this context, Galtung has long argued for the benefits of the establishment of federal structures [PDF] as a mechanism of accommodating pluralism, almost as is the case with Switzerland.

It is particularly the visa liberalisation programme that was received positively in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that Kosovo is desperately waiting for that brings a sense of liberation and potentially, in the longer run, a feeling of inclusion with respect to the EU. The symbolic value of this cannot be underestimated.

At the same time, I would argue that the EU undermines its powerful message through its double standards. Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), for instance, has a catalogue of conditions to fulfil in order to be able to apply for membership – many of which are not even fulfilled in other European countries (particularly the condition relating to ‘social inclusion’ raises a few questions with respect to an increasingly nationalistic European landscape).  This sends a message of inequality to aspiring members and does not help make the EU more credible.

Moreover, as part of those conditions to BiH, the EU requires the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR). This institution is internationally-led, supervises compliance with the Dayton Peace Agreement and also represents the country’s constitution.  At the same time, the EU is the main funder of the OHR and thus has a powerful tool at its disposal to delay the accession process. The irony of this is evident.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the EU struggles to open its structures up to alternative versions of peace that deviate from the European project. To quote the example of BiH yet again, the EU was from the beginning and remained sceptical of the 2014 protests. The latter emerged locally as a movement against corruption, mainly in the political arena, as well as hardship and unemployment. It was probably the most cross-ethnic movement the country had known in a long time. Yet, instead of taking the concerns that citizens raised seriously and at least reflecting on the peace potential of the movement, Valentin Inzko, the High Representative of BiH, initially called for EU-led troops as a potential response to the protests.

This is not dissimilar to the EU’s perception of and response to the ‘bufferer movement’ in its member-state Cyprus. This movement started in Nicosia in 2011 between activists from both the north and the south of the divided city as a way of reclaiming the space of the buffer zone and to argue for a reunification of the island. In fact, the buffer zone is the most visual symbol of division on the island. However, the European Commission and UNDP eventually evicted the activists from the space and thus put the cross-communal movement to an end.

Why is this important? The two examples show that the EU may want peace, yet only at its own terms. There is even disagreement within the EU as to whether the organisation sees itself as a peace actor. And when local initiatives develop their own ways of ‘claiming peace’, the EU struggles to embed these with its own objectives. This is certainly symptomatic of the EU’s more general problem of inflexibility and focus on the status quo, not least caused by its often bureaucratic and national-interest-based decision making mechanisms.

This is indeed often perceived as a double standard – the desire for peace on the one hand, and the inflexibility to accommodate and support it when it ‘just happens’ on the other hand. Maybe it is about time the EU reflects back on what peace means, not only within its borders (where it is clearly facing a whole set of difficult challenges at the moment), but also with respect to its neighbouring countries. A convincing role of the EU in the field of peace presupposes credibility, solidarity and a genuinely open dialogue. This will benefit not only aspiring member states, but also those who are already part of the EU.

About the Author

Stefanie Kappler

Stefanie Kappler is a Lecturer in Conflict Resolution and Peace Building at Durham University.

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