Melanie McDonagh: Like it or not, we are needed in Kosovo

The PM must brace himself for another foreign military commitment to stave off a wider conflagration in Europe

This is not, perhaps, the best time to add to the woes of the Prime Minister, but there is one element of the Blair legacy that he would probably prefer not to think about but which is becoming quite impossible to ignore – Kosovo. Remember?

This was the most successful instance of his predecessor's policy of humanitarian engagement in foreign affairs before it got a bad name, and it is now an issue that is likely, temporarily at least, to become as urgent as Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover – and this is something Gordon Brown really will not want to hear – it raises the question of further British military engagement, this time back in Europe.

No one will want to contemplate yet another theatre for troops who are generally agreed to be overstretched. Particularly after a week when the generals in the Lords went out of their way to embarrass the Prime Minister on the extent of his commitment to the armed forces. The suggestion that British troops may return to Kosovo would make them even more worked up. But the reason why Kosovo is a matter that cannot be pushed down the Prime Minister's in-tray is that the question of its status – that is, whether or not it is to be an independent country – is meant to be resolved by 10 December.

That is the date the UN billed for bringing talks between Serbia and Kosovo to an end. These negotiations have gone on for two years and, to nobody's great surprise, they have got nowhere. There is no common ground between the Serbs' insistence that Kosovo return to Serbian control, at least in respect of foreign relations and defence, and the Kosovo Albanians' stubborn resolve that independence is non-negotiable. As the German in charge of the negotiations said, the international community has tried to square every possible circle to find ways of reconciling these positions and has failed.

At present, Kosovo is in the invidious position of being a failed state even before acquiring statehood. It is controlled by the UN's Unmik, and the performance of that body in administering almost every element of its responsibilities – particularly justice – should put paid to any further experiments on the same lines for years to come. Organised crime, chronic unemployment, poverty, corruption, infantile politics and impotent policing – that's what Kosovo is made of right now.

My husband is a Kosovo Albanian and I have seen moderate, rational Albanians – they do exist – becoming steadily more dispirited over the past eight years in an international protectorate. Privatisation should never have been attempted until the status of Kosovo was resolved. It has been a disaster, undervaluing state assets to the level of swag for the politically well-connected.

So far as the Serbs are concerned, the UN-approved plan by the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, is generally agreed to offer them the best deal possible – independence for Kosovo conditional on a very high level of self-government for Serbian communities and, more importantly, international supervision of policing and the judiciary. For all its elaborate safeguards, that plan was rejected by the Russians, on the Serbs' behalf, at the Security Council a few months ago.

The stakes are very high indeed. If there is a unilateral declaration of independence, as the new Kosovo Prime Minister, Hasim Thaci, threatens, then there is a real likelihood that the remaining Serbs in Kosovo will simply leave the country. So too may the unfortunate Gypsy community, at the bottom of every Balkan pile, because they have been identified with the Serbs. There are shadowy paramilitary groups forming on both sides: Albanian extremists who want to expedite the exodus of the Serbs, and in Serbia paramilitary groups who want to destabilise the nascent Kosovo state.

That is why the question of British military involvement in Kosovo arises. If the Serb communities are not simply to flee from areas where they have lived for centuries, they need the reassurance of a credible military presence. And frankly, there is no armed force that has quite the credibility of the Brits. During the anti-Serb riots of March 2004, the response of UN troops ranged from cowardly (the Germans) to inadequate (the French).

Kosovo on the brink of independence is a febrile, dangerous place: its minorities need protection and so do its borders, beyond what the existing 16,000 international troops can provide. And no one is quite as professional as the Brits. They were withdrawn from the Balkans to concentrate on Iraq and Afghanistan – but it may now be time for 2,000 of them or so to return.

That, plainly, would have political consequences for relations between the generals and the Government. But it would be in a good cause. Leave out of account the question of organised crime – drugs, women, people-trafficking, money-laundering – that flourishes there. (If there is one area where there is inter-ethnic co-operation, it is between the mafias of Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.) If there is a conflict, the repercussions may spread to the parts of southern Serbia where there is a significant Albanian community.

But there is another reality – the Serbs in northern Kosovo, chiefly in Mitrovica, closest to Serbia, will not recognise the writ of an independent government. There may also be greater instability in Macedonia, where the Albanians form at least a quarter of the population and are notably more Islamic in character than those in Kosovo.

But the argument that you often hear from the Serbian side, that independence for Kosovo makes for a dangerous precedent for other areas, won't run. Of course there are other areas in ex-Yugoslavia where minorities would very much like political unification with their ethnic brethren by redrawing borders – such as the Serb Republic in Bosnia – but they have no constitutional status. Kosovo, like Bosnia, was a federal unit of the old Yugoslavia and that means it has proper borders and a constitutional standing.

So what should Mr Brown do? First, he should acknowledge, as he has yet to do, that Kosovo is an international and European priority. Second, he should vigorously back the Ahtisaari plan as the sanest option anyone is likely to come up with. Third, he should support US pressure on the Albanians to delay independence until January. Fourth, he must seriously consider British military assistance.

But there is also scope for his favourite approach to foreign policy questions – the economy, stupid. About 60 per cent of Kosovo's external trade is with Serbia, something that will not survive a declaration of independence. The unemployment rate is more than 50 per cent – the country could not survive were it not for remittances from Albanians working abroad, many of them here. Giving aid in such a way as to circumvent politicians and support long-term investment is genuinely worthwhile. Mr Brown may not welcome being landed with the consequences of Mr Blair's foreign policy interventions – but Kosovo is, at least in part, Britain's responsibility and he must shoulder it.