Leading article: The EU's new test in the Balkans

Wednesday 10 December 2008 01:00

The European Union has begun, after much delay, its mission to strengthen law and order in Kosovo. Some 2,000 civilian officials have started taking over police, court and customs duties from the United Nations. Early reports say that the initial stages of the handover went without a hitch. The whole process is due to take several months.

Already, though, there are two pieces of good news here that risk being submerged in the global and regional economic gloom, but should not be. The first is that, despite all the expressions of hostility from Serbia and forecasts of ethnic clashes inside Kosovo, the region's independence, declared in February, has gone more smoothly than many dared hope. Flare-ups have been few and far between. The EU flag now flies over the main Serbia-Kosovo border crossing. Kosovo's probationary statehood may not be universally recognised, but it is being tolerated. So far, what is more, the change of status has turned out to be a factor for stability rather than not.

The second reason for praising Eulex, as the mission is called, is that this sort of operation – to encourage and underpin the rule of law in places where it is deficient – is precisely the sort of thing that the European Union should be doing. It is a further stage in the EU's projection of its influence beyond its borders and a way of spreading the EU ethos of tolerance, collegiality and flexibility – but always within the framework of the law. If successful, the Kosovo mission could be a model for future operations elsewhere in the region and the world.

As a civilian operation, Eulex, does not affect the internal debate about whether the European Union should have its own standing army. It is worth noting, however, that the military force under the EU flag that took over from Nato in Bosnia-Herzegovina four years ago had its mandate uncontentiously extended at the start of this year.

A decade after the former Yugoslavia shamefully exposed the EU's reluctance to act outside its borders and its general regional ineffectiveness, these two operations – harnessing the EU's hard power and soft power – serve to demonstrate how much has changed.

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