Daniel Korski

Lord Ashdown’s the right man for the Balkans

Lord Ashdown's the right man for the Balkans
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Last week, Europe’s foreign ministers gathered in Sarajevo under much fanfare – and did very little except issue a repetitive press release about the region’s future in the EU. The only highlight of the event was William Hague’s speech, which was excellent.

 

Enlargement, however, is deeply unpopular among European elites, and the gathered foreign ministers seemed to be acutely aware of how little the market will bear by way of new ideas and initiatives.

 

So the ideas I put out in a brief in the run-up to the summit for improving the EU’s accession process went nowhere. Only Austria and Estonia openly defended proposals at the meeting. Germany joined France as a major opponent of any change in enlargement policy. Germany's era of concern about the Western Balkans is being superseded by an age of reluctance to take on EU-level commitments. The Spanish thought the meeting was a success – by virtue of just happening.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy “czar”, has enough on her plate – she can only handle a morsel of Balkan food. She showed up late at the meeting, left early and put Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle in charge of the press conference. Her speech at the plenary was, to quote someone present in the room, “the most empty of content of all around the table.”

The truth is that the EU is most likely to sit on its hands until there is another crisis, and then moves towards accession will look even more problematic. As so often in Balkan history, timing is against the region. They are applying for membership at a time of very weak political will for European-level action on anything. All is not over. The Enlargement Commissioner will need proposals to put in his Strategy Paper later in the year and I have yet to see better ones than what I suggested. One thing that did seem to come out of the meeting was the idea or a Balkan envoy a la the US envoy in the Middle East George Mitchell.

 

This makes sense. Catherine Ashton cannot focus full-time on the region and Enlargement Commissioner Füle will be tied to the accession process as well as the much greater challenge of Turkey. Having a big political best that can engage in the region and nudge progress on a range of issues, not just in Bosnia, but also between Serbia and Kosovo and even Greece and Macedonia would be good.

Few people are better equipped for such an assignment than Paddy Ashdown. CoffeeHouse readers know I have a soft spot for the ex-Marine, but his energy, experience in and commitment to the region as well as links in London, Washington, Brussels and other European capitals make him a far better candidate than the other names likely to enter the fray. The usual suspects can be expected to protest, drawing caricatures of his tenure in Bosnia.

There are bound to be other solid candidates for such an assignment, but none can be assured of the support of the likes of David Cameron, Joe Biden and Catherine Ashton. None have Lord Ashdown’s track record and none have his pan-European cache. If European governments want to keep a close eye on the region and ensure that progresses continues, they could not do better than ask Lord Ashdown to down to the Balkans again. Whether he would be up for it, who knows?