30th Mar 2023


EU enlargement is 'only real solution to Balkan conflicts'

  • Robert Cooper (c) at EU-brokered Kosovo-Serbia talks in 2011 (Photo:

Taking in the Western Balkans and tackling climate change, thereby depriving Russia of oil and gas revenues, were the most powerful steps the EU could take to keep order in Europe, Robert Cooper, a retired British diplomat has said.

But the West also needed to tackle its own demons, such as nationalist-populism in Hungary and Poland, to have a geopolitical impact, he added.

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"The most important strategic act the EU did was the grand enlargement of 2004. The most important thing it could do now would be to get serious about enlargement again in the Western Balkans," Cooper told EUobserver in an interview.

Ten mostly former Iron Curtain states joined the EU in 2004. Bulgaria, Romania, and then Croatia, also joined later.

Cooper was, at the time, an aide to former EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana.

And looking back at what the past 17 years of post-Cold War reunification have meant for Europe, the 73-year old, who is now retired, said: "While the EU isn't ever going to be a military power in the traditional sense, it can be an 'Ordnungsmacht' ... a [German term for] power which creates order."

"The EU is a great power in the sense that it has reorganised Europe," he said.

"I think of the EU as a civilisational power - that's why enlargement is the biggest contribution the EU can make to the Western liberal order," Cooper said.

He spoke to this website amid an EU pause in enlargement progress.

Denmark, France, and the Netherlands are blocking Kosovo visa-free travel even though Pristina has met all conditions.

Bulgaria has also vetoed North Macedonia talks even though Skopje met EU demands.

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, which Cooper helped to launch, has stalled, and Serbia is becoming frighteningly un-European under its nationalist president Aleksandar Vučić.

But the only way to make peace between Belgrade and Pristina, and to settle other Balkans border grievances, is to bring them all into the EU, Cooper said.

"Enlargement is, actually, the only real solution to all the Balkans conflicts in the end," he said.

"Once you are in a borderless world [the EU], who needs a greater Serbia? Who needs a greater Albania? All of these problems cease to exist", he said.

Vučić might return Serbia to democracy if he believed EU membership was really on the cards and "if he wishes to be remembered as someone who served his country well", Cooper noted.

And Kosovo's new prime minister, Albin Kurti, was a "very clever as a politician," Cooper said - even though Kurti once threw tomatoes at Cooper on a visit to Pristina in Kurti's activist days.

Joint Western action with US president Joe Biden could also help get things moving, Cooper added.

"I'm very hopeful of Biden," he said.

Looking back to the Ashton-brokered Kosovo-Serbia talks, Cooper said the fact there was always a "very respected" US official in the room when Kosovar and Serb leaders met gave weight to the EU dialogue, even though the US delegate "was not visible" in the public eye.

"This stopped altogether under [former US president Donald] Trump," Cooper said.

Wider world

Zooming out from the Western Balkans, the EU has also tried to be an Ordnungsmacht on Russia, by imposing sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine and its violence against opposition dissident Alexei Navalny.

And Europe has blacklisted Chinese officials over their inhumanity toward the Uighur Muslim minority.

But for Cooper, who recently published a book on the history of diplomacy, the EU was kidding itself if it thought these would make Russian president Vladimir Putin or the Chinese Communist Party think twice.

"This [the EU's Navalny-linked sanctions] isn't going to change Russia ... that sort of stuff isn't going to work," he said.

"We're getting into a mug's game, if we think China is going to change its internal order [on Uighurs] because we don't like it," Cooper added.

The UK had a legal case to press against China on its crackdown on Hong Kong because China was party to an international treaty on Hong-Kong rights, he said.

And sanctions could be a gesture of last resort if Russia re-invaded Ukraine or China attacked Taiwan, he noted.

But a more strategic move on Russia would be to stop burning its fossil fuels by implementing far-reaching CO2-emissions cuts, Cooper said.

"I always regard the great hope for Russia as being climate change," he said.

"We're all going to stop using gas and oil, with a bit of luck, and then that'll force Russia to start becoming more of a free-market country, not a Saudi Arabia with [nuclear] rockets, which enables them to have politics like Saudi Arabia," Cooper said.

"It's a pity, because the Russians are an interesting, talented people who could make much better neighbours than they do," he also said.

"But they [the Kremlin] will only change their foreign policy when their leadership dies," he added.

Meanwhile, any hope of exporting EU-type order to Russia or even China in the long term rested on an even bigger challenge, Cooper said.

Beauty contest

And this was the creation of a successful democracy that people emulated, in the same way the West emerged as a more attractive model in the Cold War, he said.

"The Cold War came to an end because the Soviet Union basically recognised that it didn't work," Cooper said.

"For now, Russia's got oil and China's running a rather efficient autocracy, but I don't believe it will last," he added.

"Russia becomes a liberal democracy because over a period of time it becomes clear liberal democracy is more effective than autocracies," he said.

"China can also learn [from a good EU example]," he said.

"But we're not showing much of that at the moment," Cooper added, referring to crumbling democratic norms in central Europe, as well as further west.

"The only way we can do that [change Russia and China] is by having our democracies work better," Cooper said.

"So long as you have things like Trump and Brexit, and indeed Poland and Hungary, it's hard to say that democracy is great," he said.

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