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Euroviews. Delors advocated for peace in Europe, and others should too

European Commission President Jacques Delors in Bordeaux, July 1992
European Commission President Jacques Delors in Bordeaux, July 1992 Copyright AFP/Euronews
Copyright AFP/Euronews
By Aleksandar Brezar
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

While Delors’ little-known Yugoslavia episode was overshadowed by the atrocities of the 1990s conflict, he left us a lasting lesson on how European unity could — or should try to — prevent violence and brutality, Aleksandar Brezar writes.

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The passing of former European Commission President Jacques Delors’ on Wednesday stirred an outpouring of emotions across the continent, as people were reminded of the legacy of a true European political giant.

From his humble beginnings as a French socialist, Delors is singularly credited with shaping what many take for granted, or even love to deride: the single market, Schengen agreements, and the Economic and Monetary Union which was the predecessor to the euro becoming a common currency.

Yet, beyond these achievements, Delors deserves recognition for his concerted effort in attempting to prevent the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II, the Yugoslav disintegration wars. Of course, this was before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine broke all previous grim records.

Faced with the imminent breakup of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, Delors — ever the European idealist — attempted to stop the war in its tracks through his belief that the European Economic Community could act as enough of a motivator for the warring sides to lay down their arms. As we now know, he failed.

History’s biggest failures carry the single advantage of being important lessons and warnings for the future. While Delors’ role in Yugoslavia was overshadowed by the atrocities of the conflict, he left us a lasting lesson on how European unity could — or should try to — prevent violence and brutality.

This lesson gains renewed significance as Brussels grapples with another major challenge on the continent, as it deliberates on the best course of action to help Ukraine — a prospective EU member state — win its war and integrate into the European Union.

An ambitious precursor to the union

The EEC at the time was not the EU of today. Primarily an economic union, it only began exercising its growing political influence in the early 90s, acknowledged by Delors himself in January 1991: “Much is expected of it. We must remember this and … shoulder our responsibilities.”

However, the Cold War was not completely over just yet, and international foreign policy in the West was still squarely in the US court. Amid growing rumblings out of Belgrade for potential trouble, Washington initially chose appeasement and was already knee-deep in negotiations with those in power.

Emboldened by ongoing support from the likes of France, the UK and Italy, and confident after striking a deal that would finally lead to a unified Germany, Delors believed that Brussels should be the one to handle the crisis.

Aside from an opportunity to further unify Europe’s at times disparate North and South, Delors was convinced that Brussels, unlike Washington, was standing on solid ground. 

US President George H. Bush talks with Luxembourg PM Jacques Santer and European Community Commission President Jacques Delors in the White House, April 1991
US President George H. Bush talks with Luxembourg PM Jacques Santer and European Community Commission President Jacques Delors in the White House, April 1991Barry Thumma/AP

Harking back to fears of Soviet military takeover after its August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia under president-for-life Josip Broz Tito became the first socialist country to develop relations with the EEC. Even after Tito’s death in 1980, further trade deals with Yugoslavia meant that some 90% of its exports were sold to Europe – completely untaxed.

Brussels’ confidence was further strengthened by the fact that Yugoslavia had already initialled the association agreement to join the EEC by late 1989, following decades of inching closer to Europe. 

Delors, joined by Luxembourg Prime Minister Jacques Santer, came to Yugoslavia with a watershed proposal in May 1991: together with a $5.5 billion (the equivalent of $12.8bn, or €11.5bn today) structural reforms aid package, they offered the Yugoslav leadership full-fledged membership in the EEC — right away, no negotiations needed.

There was only one condition: all republics were to remain together, and all hostilities should cease. Once Yugoslavia was a part of Europe’s club of equals, differences were to be worked out at the negotiating table with the help of Brussels.

The deal, in Delors’ eyes, would have been the ultimate feather in the union’s cap that required crossing the thinnest of lines while also strengthening the EEC’s foreign policy credentials.

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Sadly, it was all too little, too late. The wheels of conflict were already set in motion, fed by rampant and toxic ethno-nationalism that would see the country slowly fracture along the lines of its republics.

Nationalism wins in Europe, again

By the time Delors and Santer made their plea, the first democratic elections in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia resulted in the leadership of all three pledging to split from the union. Belgrade, already under the firm hand of strongman Slobodan Milošević, threatened to respond to any attempt at independence with military force.

Croatia’s own nationalist leader Franjo Tuđman, emboldened by German conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s support for self-determination rejected the deal together with Milošević — whose main concern over continued financial support from the EEC in case of Yugoslavia’s dissolution was allayed by France’s François Mitterrand — slamming the door to the country’s joint European future firmly shut.

By June, Slovenia’s formal declaration of independence shattered the already frail federation, kickstarting a war campaign that would eventually devolve into ethnic cleansing, torture camps, systemic rape and in the end, genocide.

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The EEC’s — and the EU’s — inability to step in and defuse the Yugoslav crisis was seen as the union’s biggest political defeat at the time, and Delors was left to ruminate what could have been.
Soldiers of the Slovenian militia have a rest after the federal army of Yugoslavia withdraw from this small town near the Italian border in Sezana, July 1991
Soldiers of the Slovenian militia have a rest after the federal army of Yugoslavia withdraw from this small town near the Italian border in Sezana, July 1991AP Photo/Gianni Foggia

Soon enough, Delors would be in Yugoslavia once again, trying to negotiate a ceasefire, or what Brussels dubbed as the Common Declaration for a Peaceful Solution of the Yugoslav Crisis, in Tito’s former summer retreat of Brioni in July 1991. Yet, it failed. No one trusted the idealistic promises of a rosy future over the sound of rolling tanks and explosions of artillery shells.

Meanwhile, political leaders sitting in various European capitals became increasingly unwavering in the inaction, choosing to look the other way, a sentiment best embodied in the cynical words of British negotiator Lord David Owen who told the starving citizens of besieged Sarajevo, Bosnia, to not “dream dreams”.

"Don't, don't, don't live under this dream that the West is going to come and sort this problem out," Owen said in late 1992, as if unaware that life had already turned into a years-long nightmare for millions — and that the West had already tried to stop the bloodshed.

The EEC’s — and the EU’s — inability to step in and defuse the Yugoslav crisis was seen as the union’s biggest political defeat at the time, and Delors was left to ruminate what could have been. 

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The Yugoslav blemish

In an interview in October 1995, after he stepped down as the head of the European Commission — only to be replaced by Santer — Delors said that “the fact that the EU has not been able to do anything about former Yugoslavia … has dealt a terrible blow to the construction of Europe.”

Ironically, the Copenhagen criteria, established by the EU in 1993 as rules for future accession, saw most of the formerly communist Eastern Europe jump over Yugoslav states and become full-fledged members of the bloc.

Despite Santer’s pledges to integrate the former Yugoslav republics — now independent countries — followed by European Commission President Romano Prodi’s words in Thessaloniki in 2003 about how “Europe's unification will not be complete until the Balkan countries are members of the Union,” the searing hole in the heart of Europe remains to this day.

Constant changes to the methodology have turned membership into a constantly moving target, and growing disinterest in Brussels in integrating the Western Balkans, resulted in just Slovenia and Croatia joining the union more than 30 years later, with Zagreb catching the last train in 2013.

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It wasn’t until Russia rolled into Ukraine, tanks and all, that the EU decided to take the former Yugoslav countries seriously again, fearing that the Kremlin’s increased influence in the region could be a means to disrupt Europe by disembowelling its soft underbelly.

Today, as Europe’s leaders remember Delors’ legacy, maybe the decision-makers in Brussels could also spend some time pondering: is there something we could do differently this time around? 

Aleksandar Brezar is Opinion Editor at Euronews.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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