"The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."
Well, Bismarck always was a cynic – but he was no fool. And now, more than a century after his death, he is still worth listening to. Especially now that the EU is considering expansion in those very same Balkans to embrace Serbia.
Serbia has applied to join the European Union, and the EU seems to be looking favourably on the idea. So much so, in fact, that the EU is turning a blind eye to some distinctly non-communitaire behaviour on the part of the Serb government.
Serbia began its membership negotiations in 2003. The first step is a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). This involves the EU offering tariff-free access to some or all EU markets, plus financial assistance. In return the candidate country is expected to make commitments to political, economic, trade or human rights reform.
But all is not well, and the key problem is Serb treatment of Kosovo. That province with its mainly Albanian population was part of the old Yugoslavia, forming an autonomous region within the Republic of Serbia. When Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Serb military marched in to impose Serb control on Kosovo. NATO launched bombing raids on the Serbs and in 1999 Kosovo became a UN-administered territory of undetermined legal status.
In 2008 Kosovo announced its independence. Britain, France, the USA and 85 other countries now recognise Kosovo as an independent republic. Serbia is among those that does not, claiming that Kosovo is still part of Serbia.
Serbia's intransigence is driven partly by the fact that there is a strong Serb minority in northern Kosovo, but mostly by history. In 1389 the Serb ruler Lazar Hrebeljanović led an army of Serbs and Bosnians into the excessively bloody Battle of Kosovo against the invading Moslem Turks. Lazar and most of his men were killed, but so was Sultan Murad I and the bulk of his army. The battle became a key building block in Serb nationhood, Serb Christianity and Serb self confidence. The idea that the site of the battle should lie outside Serbia is taken as an affront by many Serbs.
Now Serb authorities miss little opportunity to harrass Kosovo and Kosovans. The border between Serbia and Kosovo is closed to Kosovans. Serb authorities ignore any documents issued by the Kosovan government, and confiscate, destroy or void any Kosovan passports they can get their hands on.
While the European Commission and the European External Action Service (the nascent EU foreign office) are quick to condemn such practices elsewhere, they have remained strangely silent about Serb treatment of Kosovo. Not only that, but the SAA between Serbia and the EU is to go into effect in 2012. All the signs are that the EU intends to admit Serbia as a full member state, though the date is as yet unclear.
As always in the Balkans, there is right and wrong on both sides. But why Serbia should get such favourable treatment, while Kosovo is kept out in the cold, is not obvious. Nor does it seem terribly fair.
There is a final irony here. The last time Serbia was a major player on the European stage was in 1914. Then the Serbs were wanting to free themselves from the dominance of multinational state that was the Hapsburg Empire. Now they are applying to join the multinational state that is the European Union.
Given the latest news from Brussels, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the EU will pass the way of the Hapsburgs before Serbia can join it.