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14 June 1999

It was immoral to worry about the euro while Kosovo burned

By Norman Davies

By any standards, the performance of Europe’s politicians during the 1990s has been less than impressive. It was a serious error of self-centred judgement for the leaders of western Europe to have clung at Maastricht to the old agenda of the cold war era and to have given priority to monetary union. We now have a community that is divided between the 11 and the four and which is raising the barriers against further enlargement with every day that passes. Yet that misjudgement pales into near insignificance compared with the repeated failure of Europe’s leaders to formulate an effective policy on the former Yugoslavia.

By and large the countries of the former communist bloc have launched themselves into a new era with a surprising lack of conflict. The prophets of doom who argued that all the wild nationalism of eastern Europe would break loose as soon as the check of communist dictatorship was removed have been proved wrong. Given the potential for trouble, the number of conflagrations – in Georgia, in Chechnya and in Yugoslavia – has been relatively few. And almost all the perpetrators of violence have been, in common with Milosevic, ex-communists, reminding us that Stalin, the “nation-killer” who still has his disciples, was every bit as much the godfather of ethnic cleansing as Hitler was.

The symptoms of disorder have been visible in Yugoslavia throughout the decade. No one in western Europe thought to protest when Milosevic withdrew the autonomy of Kosovo in 1989; and no one took precautionary measures when Sarajevo started to burn in the shadow of Maastricht. European security, after all, was primarily the concern of Nato, and Nato is American-led. So at every turn of the Yugoslav screw, European leaders have deferred to the reluctant, ponderous and poll-driven workings of US policy.

They cannot complain. The Dayton agreement over Bosnia may be less than perfect but it was the only agreement in sight. The high-level bombing campaign against Serbia may have caused untold damage and failed in its original objectives; but if it was the only alternative to doing nothing about Kosovo, the Europeans, lacking their own military capacity, have only themselves to blame.

The one positive result of the Kosovo tragedy may be the realisation that Europe must take responsibility for its own defence and security, especially in small-scale conflicts. The partnership with the US should continue, particularly as a deterrent against large-scale, strategic or intercontinental conflict. Nato should be remodelled, along lines that have been waiting ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is unreasonable that the Americans should be called on indefinitely to act as Europe’s fire brigade. And it is simply immoral that Europe’s leaders should spend most of their time worrying about the euro and their future prosperity while ethnic cleansing takes place on the doorstep of euroland.

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Tony Blair’s resolve over Kosovo has been admirable. But if he had applied his leadership talents to assembling an independent European Rapid Reaction Force, instead of trying to strengthen Clinton’s spine, the tragedy would have long since drawn to a close.

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Norman Davies Author of “Europe: a history”