The European Union has the opportunity to prioritise preventive action over crisis management.
With the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Europe found itself in a war that threatens our borders. Ukraine has been paying a high price for its European aspirations for the past ten years. But with the return of the enlargement policy to the agenda of the European Union, it quickly gained candidate status, together with Moldova and Georgia.
Through my activity in the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) of the European Parliament, I have visited many places around the world where conflicts have become ‘frozen’ but tension remains. With decreased EU visibility in recent years, its investments have lacked tangible results and, amid our lack of interest, other players have been encouraged to take advantage, assuming a not-so-benevolent role in our backyard. Think of the western Balkans, a number of states in Africa, the south Caucasus, Afghanistan, the middle east, Moldova and Ukraine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday agreement, signed in 1998, exemplifies preventive diplomacy by addressing the root causes of the Northern Ireland conflict. The EU played a significant role in the ‘peace process’, together with our US partners. I visited Northern Ireland last year with the AFET committee, and we engaged with public authorities, businesses and political leaders on the post-‘Brexit’ Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol which avoids reinstating a hard border in Ireland. Respect for the agreement was the key point of negotiations to preserve peace and stability in a part of the United Kingdom where large numbers of citizens have EU (via Irish) citizenship.
Such a power-sharing agreement was made around the same time in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Dayton accords of 1995—also a joint endeavour of European and American leadership. Both instances highlight the importance of security, for present and future EU citizens, and how high-level diplomacy can act preventively. Last week, the prime minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, joined the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, in Sarajevo to address the possible opening of accession negotiations for BiH.
My report to the European 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. I incorporated a plenary amendment which called on BiH urgently to reach agreement among its political representatives—who need to find a middle way between the separatist and centralist tendencies impeding the country’s progress on its EU path—to open accession negotiations before March this year.
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Preventive diplomacy requires a deep understanding of local, cultural, historical and political contexts. For example, the restoration of the Old Bridge in Mostar (with EU technical support) and the Višegrad Bridge, as well as three religious buildings, in BiH has symbolised reconciliation and inter-religious dialogue. My report calls for recognition of religious organisations as important partners in conflict resolution and condemns attacks on religious entities—especially the imprisonment of numerous bishops and priests in Nicaragua, including the 2023 Sakharov Prize finalist Rolando José Álvarez, a martyr like those we witnessed during communism in former Yugoslavia.
The report also urges that the EU system for early warning of conflict should be strengthened to identify risks more effectively. Active involvement of EU delegations in monitoring on the ground and support for humanitarian aid are key elements in this.
EU special representatives are crucial for achieving sustainable peace and should be subject to parliamentary supervision. It is important to select such envoys carefully: they need to have a deep understanding of the local context and the necessary skills.
These prerequisites are negatively confirmed by experiences in the Sahel and the horn of Africa, where EU actions have been deeply compromised, including through Russia’s hybrid warfare. Having invested most with its segment of development aid, the EU has lost influence. Most waves of Mediterranean arrivals in Europe now come from these regions.
Analysis of the EU’s experience in conflict resolution highlights 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—including with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the African Union—and to apply a multilateral approach so that emerging conflicts are detected early.
I was appointed by the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy as head of observation mission for elections in Nepal and Honduras. Leading teams of over 100 members, I had a chance to see diplomacy at work for the democratisation of society through impartial and fair elections. The Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group of the AFET committee and the Committee on Development (DEVE) helps societies in post-conflict and developing countries to enable checks and balances in the democratic system, by conducting fair elections representing all citizens.
Fair electoral laws and elections conducted in accordance with local and international rules matter. After years of failed consultations in BiH on its electoral law, the high representative of the international community (a post-Dayton office) changed it unilaterally for the last state elections in 2022. Agreement between the political representatives of the ‘constituent peoples’ (Serb, Croat and Bosniak) on this is a sine qua non for progress and stabilisation of relations in BiH at this strategic moment.
Learning from experience
The EU can draw lessons for further action from this report. Indeed, learning from experiences in this context is extremely significant, given the many frozen conflicts listed above. In sum, particularly important are interventions tailored to the cultural, historical and political context of the countries concerned, strengthening of the EU’s early-warning systems and proactive risk analysis, and careful selection of EU special representatives and envoys to ensure they can act as impartial mediators.
A tense situation in one country resonates in others with multiple consequences, creating a ‘butterfly effect’ even on the other side of the world. For example, a conflict in Africa causes flight to Europe, which becomes a security issue for European citizens. That is why diplomacy must not be a one-way street and the EU—with its history of co-operation and dialogue—needs to take a leading role in promoting preventive efforts and creating a secure future for all its citizens, as well as globally.
The sparks of conflict are easy to set aflame once more if the seeds of hope are not embedded to replace the embers of hatred left behind. Rebuilding bridges, metaphorical as well as physical, assuaging grievances and finding solutions for frozen conflicts represent those seeds to prevent future wars and tragedies.
Željana Zovko is a Croatian member of the European Parliament for the European People's Party. She is vice-chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and vice-president of the EPP group . She previously served as Croatian ambassador to France, Spain and Italy and permanent representative to United Nations agencies.