Regional Integration as a System of Conflict Resolution: The European Experience

By Stefanova, Boyka | World Affairs, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Regional Integration as a System of Conflict Resolution: The European Experience


Stefanova, Boyka, World Affairs


Against the background of profound global political, economic, and social change since the end of the cold war, the European continent--itself an arena of profound transformations-has been preserved as a remarkable instance of continuity. Europe remains the meeting place of cooperation, competition, and conflict as well as a leading example of regional interdependence. European integration has developed into a model of regionalism for the international system. Since the 1950s, through successive rounds of enlargement, the majority of European countries have become or aspired to become members of its institutional structure, the European Union (EU). (1) EU integration has been a factor contributing to the sustainability of the post-World War II order in Europe by presenting a working alternative and an extension to regional conflict resolution.

During the early stages of its evolution, integration unfolded as a peace-building process by re-creating regional interdependences, expanding across issue areas, and increasing the number of participating countries. It made conflict in Western Europe unthinkable. After the end of the cold war, it developed as a proxy for the historic reunification of the European continent by extending its integrative dynamic to Eastern Europe. Although interstate conflict in Europe's core is practically nonexistent, conflict patterns in the European periphery have persisted. Thus armed conflicts remain a nontrivial category for the region--mostly at the level of ethnic communities and national groups. During the early 1990s, Europe became the theater of war as the conflicts of disintegration of the former Yugoslavia could not be prevented by diplomatic means. Sustained peacekeeping and nation building in the western Balkans (and elsewhere in the European periphery) emerged as a long term task and commitment of the EU. Contemporary European integration, therefore, is related to conflict resolution in a dual capacity. As a security actor, the EU performs the functions of an external, benevolent, third-party mediator. As a process of regionalism, it represents an incentive structure through which contested interstate incompatibilities can be reformulated into the bargain of a regional membership.

The potential for European integration to act systematically as a mechanism of conflict resolution remains underestimated due to the difficulty in determining its causal influence independently of other factors. Irrespective of the EU's continued involvement as an agent of political change and democratization of Eastern Europe, its broader integration strategy still lacks a clear incentive structure that would define it precisely as a system of post conflict reconstruction beyond its existing long-term partnership and enlargement policies. Conversely, the academic and policy literature on conflict resolution lacks a comprehensive study on the relationship between integration and conflict resolution, although earlier work points to the integrative functions of conflict, the relevance of integration as an alternative to the distributive effects of peace settlements, and the capacity of international communication to redefine actors' preferences and interests. (2) At the same time, the European experience demonstrates that regions are important in issues of high salience in world politics, such as conflict and peace. The history of regional integration in Europe provides important insights into the role of regionalism as a nonconventional conflict resolution strategy.

At the intersection of the historical experience of regional integration and the contemporary challenges to conflict resolution in Europe, this article examines the impact of integration beyond its apparent economic and political effects. The objective is to explore the conditions under which EU integration has served and could continue to serve as a system of conflict resolution in Europe's subregions. Such an approach permits us to open up the theory and practice of conflict resolution, so far confined within the model of settlement, to that of integration--the concept defined in practical terms as "a working peace system. …

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