How EU enlargement can be a tool for peace

The bloc must lead on efforts to prioritise preventive diplomacy over crisis management.
The Chairperson of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Borjana Kristo, met with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Nov 01, 2023

By Željana Zovko

Željana Zovko (HR, EPP) is Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs.

19 Mar 2024

With the European Parliament’s recent green light to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are witnessing an historic moment of preventive diplomacy. I encourage Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković to capitalise as he did in January, when he brought his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Sarajevo to show them the need to use this significant opportunity for peace and security. 

With Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, we found ourselves in a war that threatens our borders. Ukraine has been paying a high price for its European aspirations for the past 10 years, but with the return of enlargement policy to the EU agenda, the country quickly gained candidate status. 

Through my activity in the EP's Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), I have visited many places where armed conflict has ended but no peace treaty or other political framework has been put in place. Others have taken advantage of our lack of interest and assumed a not-so-benevolent role. We have seen a decrease in EU visibility in recent years, and our investments have not brought tangible results. 

Just think about Northern Ireland, the western Balkans, Africa, Cyprus, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Moldova and Ukraine. 

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, exemplifies preventive diplomacy by addressing the causes of the Northern Ireland conflict. The EU played a significant role in the peace process, together with our partners in the United States. Respect for the agreement was the key point of negotiations to preserve peace in a territory where many people have EU citizenship. It brought stability to a tense situation. 

Another power-sharing agreement was made three years earlier in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Dayton Peace Accords. That was the result of a Croatian military operation and a joint endeavour by European and US leadership. Here, too, we recognised the importance of security for present and future EU citizens, and how high-level diplomacy can act preventively. 

Preventive diplomacy requires a deep understanding of cultural, historical and political contexts.

Opportunity for peace 

My recent report to the parliament — Role of preventive diplomacy in tackling frozen conflicts around the world – missed opportunity or change for the future? — was adopted with an overwhelming majority at this year’s first plenary session in Strasbourg. In it, I included an amendment which called on Bosnia and Herzegovina urgently to reach a political agreement between its three constituent sides and find the middle way between the separatist and centralist tendencies impeding the country’s progress towards accession. 

Preventive diplomacy requires a deep understanding of cultural, historical and political contexts. Diversification of the diplomatic corps and inclusion of minorities have been essential in reflecting demographic diversity. Take the restoration of the Old Bridge in Mostar and the Višegrad Bridge, as well as three religious buildings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have become symbols of reconciliation. 

In the report, I also spoke of the importance of religious organisations as partners in conflict resolution, and of condemning attacks on religious entities. We witnessed countless such cases during Communism in the former Yugoslavia, notably with martyrs Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac and Bishop Petar Čule of Mostar. Unfortunately, attacks on religious entities and their freedom continue today around the world. 

Local understanding 

The EU system for early warning of conflict should be strengthened to identify risk factors more effectively. Active involvement of EU delegations in monitoring the situation and support for humanitarian aid is key. Transparency and parliamentary supervision of EU special representatives and envoys contribute to their effectiveness, and their role is crucial for achieving sustainable peace. 

It is also important to carefully select EU representatives with understanding of the local context and the skills for effective action. This is confirmed by an example from Sahel and the Horn of Africa, where EU actions have been compromised and Europe has lost its influence. 

Analysis of the EU’s experience in conflict resolution provides important lessons, highlighting the need to improve the tools of preventive diplomacy. It is important to establish strong partnerships with international, regional and sub-regional players to achieve long-term peace, and a multilateral approach so that  emerging conflicts are detected early. 

The sparks of conflict are easy to set ablaze once more if we do not replace hatred with hope.

Strategic moment

Through my work, I have witnessed the development of societies that have implemented fair electoral laws and conducted elections in accordance with local and international rules. This is a significant lesson in advocating for a solution to the election law based on a power-sharing agreement between constituent communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This, I believe, is non- negotiable for progress and the stabilisation of internal relations at this strategic moment. 

A tense situation in one country is reflected in another, creating a butterfly effect. A conflict in Africa causes migration to Europe, which becomes a security issue for European citizens and our borders. 

Diplomacy must not be a one-way street, and the EU, with its history of cooperation and dialogue, needs to lead on preventive efforts and creating a secure future for all its citizens, as well as globally. 

The sparks of conflict are easy to set ablaze once more if we do not replace hatred with hope. Rebuilding bridges, finding solutions for frozen conflicts and healing grievances are the catalyst for preventing future tragedies. 

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