There should not be any doubt that the EU successfully served its original foundational goals for more than seven long decades.
Under the nuclear umbrella of NATO, the Union provided prosperity, stability, and peace for hundreds of millions of Europeans since 1949. It also seemed to have used membership prospects as an efficient policy tool to stabilize the Western Balkans, where the Yugoslav wars in 1991-2001 caused human suffering and property destruction.
Even the Russo-Ukrainian war, which has been going on since 2014, long before Feb. 24 when Russia attempted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, did not seem to disrupt Pax-Europa. The response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the emergence of breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine under the protection and control of Moscow was merely verbal denouncements and some weak economic sanctions which did not have any major effect on the Russian economy.
On the contrary, relations between Russia and major powerhouses in the EU grew even deeper despite objections and warnings mainly from the Baltic States and Poland. Germany, whose industry was thriving partly on cheap Russian energy, progressed with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would increase its reliance on Russia.
France went on to say that Russia should be part of the new European security architecture. Moreover, the trade volume between Russia and EU countries kept increasing. Consequently, Russia was the fifth largest trade partner of the Union in 2020. Similarly, the EU was Moscow’s biggest trade partner as of 2020.
Therefore, the EU, particularly Germany and France, were most enthusiastic to prevent the war, which seemed imminent in January, even semi-overtly or behind scenes, forcing Ukraine to give concessions to Russia.
Things spoiled on Feb. 24
Russia launched a full-scale attack against Ukraine on Feb. 24. The EU, despite initial short-lived confusion and hesitation, devised a strong and united response to Russia. Therefore, it introduced strong and comprehensive sanctions which are slowly but surely undermining Russia’s energy sector, which is the main pillar of its economy, along with the banking and technology sectors. The Union, moreover, has been providing a steady line of financial aid to Kyiv, and a flow of arms, in coordination with NATO and the US.
Subsequently, the EU not only played an important role in enabling Ukraine to resist Russia but also prevented the alienation of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States, which consider themselves most exposed to the Russian threat.
Having said that, the war’s outcome remains uncertain. It is likely that European security would be worse off than it used to be before the war no matter who emerges victorious. A Russian victory could render it even more assertive and would risk an escalation between Poland and Russia and or the Baltic States and Russia. Furthermore, Russia would boldly press NATO to withdraw troops from its eastern flank, which would practically end the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. A Ukrainian victory, on the other hand, could result in Russia’s being taken over by unpredictable hardliners and destabilization of the country, which possesses one of the biggest nuclear and conventional arsenals in the world.
Either way, nothing will be the same in Europe, which will face a multitude of short- and long-term consequences of the war no matter who wins.
Resurfacing of frozen conflicts in Western Balkans
In 2022, Bosnia Serbs pushed, once again, a secession attempt while the other two major constituents in the country, Bosniaks and Croats, experienced a severe disagreement about elections, which eventually were held in late September. This state of affairs further damaged the fragile trust and poisoned relations between the three groups and hurt governance at the entity and national levels and consequently rendered it an almost non-functioning state.
Furthermore, Western powers, as well as Croats and Bosniaks, fear the Russian-Ukrainian war could have a spillover effect in Bosnia judging by the strong influence of Moscow on Bosnian Serbs.
In Kosovo, ethnic Serbs living in the north withdrew their representatives from state institutions, including police forces, judges and prosecutors in protest of the government’s decision to ban them from using Serbian-issued license plates. Even though the ban was eventually lifted by the Kosovo government, it added to the already heightened tension.
The tension shortly was renewed Dec. 10 when former Serbian police officer Dejan Pantic was arrested on suspicion of attacking election officials.
Protesting Pantic’s arrest, Kosovo Serbs have been standing guard at barricades they set up at border crossings since Dec. 10.
Two new barricades were set up after Kosovar authorities blocked Serbian Patriarch Porfirije from entering the country ahead of Orthodox Christmas celebrations.
As Western states and institutions warn parties to de-escalate, the situation, which risks triggering a regional war involving Albania – Serbia, and Bosnian Serbs in addition to Kosovo remains tense.
Against that backdrop, the prospect of EU membership of countries in the Western Balkans, which does not seem likely in the near future, seems the strongest tool to prevent a new war in the region.