European Union foreign ministers will gather outside of Brussels Saturday to discuss the future of Macedonia. EU's concern is how to prevent a security vacuum from occurring in Macedonia once NATO troops complete collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas and withdraw later this month.
The leaders of France and Germany agreed this week that they are ready to prolong their countries' military involvement in Macedonia once the current NATO arms collection mission ends. But Germany may have difficulty in doing so because such an extension requires parliamentary approval, and opposition legislators have hinted they may oppose keeping 500 German soldiers in Macedonia.
Britain, too, is considering various options for a follow-up Western security force. A British diplomat in Brussels says his country, which is the lead player in NATO's so-called Operation Essential Harvest, says London would prefer that any Western military presence remain under the alliance's command.
NATO said this week that it has no plans to extend its presence in Macedonia beyond September 26. The alliance, which already has open-ended commitments in Bosnia and Kosovo, appears reluctant to become involved over the long term in Macedonia as well.
Still, many Western European governments are anxious about the peace deal in Macedonia unraveling after NATO leaves, and diplomats say privately a security presence there is desirable. But they stress that any new international mission must be requested by the Macedonian government.
According to analyst Mike Taylor, of the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based research institute, the Macedonian government is cool to an extension of NATO's presence. He said, "There seems to be a certain amount of interest in Western circles in having some sort of continuing presence, but, I think, one of the problems they're up against is the ethnic Macedonians, a lot of them are pretty antagonistic to NATO. There's quite a lot of anti-Western feeling being whipped up."
Mr. Taylor says many Macedonians believe NATO is sympathetic to their country's ethnic Albanian minority, who are supposed to get improved rights in exchange for the guerrillas laying down their weapons. He says the ethnic Albanians, too, assume that the West is on their side and fear that the departure of the NATO force will lead to abuses by Macedonian security forces trying to reassert control over areas now held by the guerrillas.
If NATO withdraws, the question is who will protect unarmed international observers and assure stability in Macedonia? The EU is not yet equipped for a security role, and a United Nations-mandated military force could take a long time to deploy.
Diplomats in Brussels say the most likely option is a coalition of countries, such as Britain and France, willing to station troops in Macedonia. Whatever the EU ministers come up with will have to be approved by the Macedonian government.