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War, Peace and Development Europe D66 European Parliament

Kosovo needs action, not political games

   Tue 07/09/1999

When the EU needed to establish an agency for the reconstruction of Kosovo when it had just suffered a terrible war, it became absorbed in a political game on which EU-member states should benefit. Gjergj Dedaj (president of the social-liberal party of Kosovo) and Dutch social-liberal MEP Lousewies van der Laan ask the EU to take a closer took at the real priority: rebuilding Kosovo.

One would assume that the European leaders would have learned a lesson from the low turnout at the European elections. The message they should have heard was that European citizens are revolted by the way Europe conducts its business. It lacks transparency, is difficult to understand and signals that political games are the order of the day. One would hope that the pettiness of daily European decision-making could have been put aside in the face of a large scale human tragedy such as we witnessed in Kosovo. It seems however that old habits die hard.

As is usual after tragedies that the European Union failed to prevent, it has shelled out generously for the reconstruction of Kosovo. We all know however that providing money alone does not rebuild countries. Effective implementation of the assistance will determine the success of the effort, not only the amounts that are pledged. Europe's reconstruction efforts in Bosnia have been hampered by bureaucratic procedures, which were dictated not by needs of accountability, but by member states that seemed primarily motivated by lucrative contracts their consultants could receive. It was thus with relief that non-governmental organizations and members of the European Parliament noted that the reconstruction of Kosovo was to take into account the lessons learned in Bosnia. An Agency for reconstruction was to be set up in Pristina in order to work on the spot with the people of Kosovo to quickly rebuild their country. Contracts could be signed locally, without the need for signatures from headquarters in Brussels.

The relief was short-lived. Even before the proposal was put to the European Parliament for endorsement, the Prime Ministers of Europe decided to have the seat of the Agency in Thessalonica, Greece. The meeting took place behind closed doors, but it is said that this was a price to be paid to lift a Greek veto on the nomination of Bodo Hombach as head of the Stability Pact for the Balkan region. But the decision to set up the Agency in Greece is misguided for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the Agency will employ about 300 people, whose work is to build houses, schools, and hospitals in Kosovo, not in Greece. The work will need to be started, implemented and monitored on the ground. If the staff have to fly between Thessalonica and Pristina on a regular basis in order to do their jobs, costs will increase and effective control will diminish. This leaves aside the added environmental and organizational burden such travel will impose. Separating operational from administrative staff, as some have suggested, will lead to extra bureaucracy.

Secondly, European aid can only be effective if it is closely coordinated with the efforts of other donors. These are based in Pristina, where the actual reconstruction is taking place. Among those donors are: the United Nations Mission for Kosovo (which coordinates the overall effort), the UNHCR, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the US mission for Kosovo. Numerous non-governmental organizations are also active there. Coordinating with these players from Thessalonica will, if it succeeds at all, be cumbersome and time consuming.

Thirdly, the reconstruction effort can only succeed if it is implemented in partnership with the people of Kosovo. The Kosovars have run a parallel economy and underground society for over 10 years with resourcefulness and considerable succes. Their knowledge, experience and dedication should now be put to use rather than wasted. They should thus be closely involved in the work of the Agency and have easy access to it. Even leaving aside the insurmountable obstacle of the cost of airplane tickets to Thessalonica, there is another problem. Kosovars need a visa to travel to Greece. There is no Greek consulate in Pristina and one can hardly expect them to travel to Belgrade to obtain a visa. Putting the Agency outside of Kosovo thus means effectively excluding the people it is meant to help.

Finally, the symbolism of not putting the Agency in Kosovo is strong. It indicates that European officials are not willing to live in the country they must help rebuild. It denies Pristina the economic impetus that comes with 300 well paid officials renting offices and apartments while offering them to Thessalonica. But mostly Europe will miss an opportunity to give a much-needed signal of partnership. A clear indication that this is a task we will tackle together would provide valuable moral support to a people who desperately need this.

This Wednesday, the European Parliament has a chance to undo the decision of the Prime Ministers. They should know better than anyone else how frustrating it is to have to shuffle back and forth between two places of work. The outcome will not only determine whether the reconstruction of Kosovo will be fast and effective, it could also help rebuild some of the lost public confidence in European decision making. The Parliament must now show that it will put the rebuilding of people's lives, before the petty political games that have so marked Europe these past years.

Lousewies van der Laan is a member of the European parliament for D66. Gjergj Dedaj is Vice-speaker of the Kosovo Parliament and President of the Liberal Party of Kosovo.