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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 22:13 GMT 23:13 UK
Analysis: The EU's role in Macedonia
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason
The European Union is playing an unusually active political role in trying to resolve the crisis in Macedonia after the recent fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
The Union's two senior foreign policy officials, Javier Solana and Chris Patten, are taking a hand in all party talks in Skopje designed to meet the grievances of the Albanian minority.
The United States is taking a back seat for the moment, in contrast to the high-profile diplomacy by former President Bill Clinton's trouble-shooter, Richard Holbrooke, during the Kosovo crisis.
That is partly because of President George W Bush's desire that Europe should take more of the burden in the Balkans, its own backyard.
And partly because the Bush administration is still developing - or arguing about - what its policy should be in various hot spots.
So the EU has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can conduct an effective foreign policy.
Both condemn the violence of the Albanian guerrillas and support the territorial integrity of Macedonia.
Both also call for further reforms in building a multi-ethnic society and extending minority rights, in order to isolate the extremists.
Macedonia is not another Kosovo. There are Albanians in the government, and education laws have recently been revised to increase the number of schools where children can be taught in Albanian.
But the minority - up to 30% of the population - complain that they cannot get jobs in the public sector, and that the special police and the upper ranks of the army are almost exclusively Macedonian Slav.
The key symbolic issue is the constitution, which defines Macedonia as a state made up of Macedonians - that is Slavs - and minorities.
They will undoubtedly seek ammunition in the documents on minority rights drawn up in the last decade by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE's Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, said in February that one cornerstone of a stable multi-ethnic country was a constitution that reflected the true character of society and included guarantees for the rights of all citizens.
There are detailed European recommendations on education, language and participation in public life for the negotiators to draw on.
Given this background, it seems natural for the EU in the shape of Mr Solana and Mr Patten to get involved in trying to promote agreement between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians.
But they stress they will not be leading the talks, only trying to act as facilitators.
Before they went to Skopje, they took part in a joint EU-Nato meeting - both to add weight to their mission and to emphasise that the two organisations would not be duplicating their efforts.
The EU's main lever on the Macedonian government is economic aid, and the carrot is eventual membership of the Union.
Hard lessons have been learnt in the Balkans, and the Europeans are now trying to move faster.
Some European officials say they are picking up the pieces from the former mistaken policy of giving too much backing to the Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo. Washington is the main target here.
If a sudden crisis develops in Skopje, Mr Solana and Mr Patten cannot decide what to do on their own. Lengthy consultations between the capitals would be necessary.
By contrast, if Washington were to decide to get involved again, an American mediator would have only one ultimate point of reference for a quick decision: the White House.
The United States also has the ultimate sanction of military force. Despite the controversy over EU defence plans, there is no equivalent European capacity.
It is striking that the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade was the result of an American economic ultimatum, not a European one.
A glance at the Arab-Israeli conflict makes the EU's weakness plain.
Some European politicians would like to play a political role, and commentators have argued that President Bush's partial disengagement presents a golden opportunity.
France occasionally asserts its right to take an initiative on its own - more pro-Arab than the rest of the EU - while Britain stresses the pre-eminent role of the United States.
A similar, more pronounced disagreement makes a common European policy towards Iraq impossible.
Ironically, the EU is at its most assertive when it is quarrelling with Washington - in trade disputes where vital interests are at stake, or in shocked reaction to Mr Bush's sweeping dismissal of the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
The conflict in Macedonia, however potentially dangerous, does not arouse such strong feelings.
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