Friday

23rd Apr 2021

Analysis

No strategy for Bosnia - other than enlargement

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina flags flying at football game (Photo: Brad Tutterow)

For the first time in seven years, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s bid to join the European Union has received a boost.

Later this month, member states’ foreign ministers are expected to approve a recommendation by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, that a pre-accession Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) signed in 2008 should take effect.

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  • The peacekeepers of EUFOR in Sarajevo. Maintaining a safe and secure environment is a legal obligation the EU took on from NATO in 2004. (Photo: EUPM)

But just as in 2008, the momentum is of the EU’s own making, and just as in 2008, it might fizzle out.

Back then, Bosnia signed the SAA, a first step on the way to potential membership, but the deal never took effect since the country has been in continued violation of a 2009 judgement from the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Dervo Sejdic, a Rom, and Jakob Finci, who is Jewish.

Both are barred from seeking election to the state presidency since they do not self-identify as members of one of the three ‘constituent peoples’.

Constitutional issues

The EU rightly insisted that Bosnia remove the discriminatory provisions from its constitution. But the way the Bosnian elites handled the matter was “deeply disappointing”, Stefan Fuele, the enlargement commissioner at the time, said in Sarajevo a year ago.

“Implementation of this judgement is not a remote issue or virtual issue,” Fuele said. “It is an international obligation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that, following the will of the member states, is now a key to progress on the EU path. It means the possibility for Bosnia and Herzegovina to submit a credible application for EU membership.”

Indeed, Bosnia’s political elites - whose chokehold on the country’s public life is as firm as ever thanks to the 1995 Dayton peace accords - have demonstrated time and again that they are unwilling to change the constitution or indeed agree anything that would make the central government more effective - even if required in order to move closer to the Union.

They feel comfortable in a dysfunctional state whose laws and constitution guarantee them the power of patronage and of a never-ending stream of finance from public and semi-public enterprises, without any sort of accountability.

German insistence

When the EU realised that the party leaders would not budge, it simply re-defined its own conditionality, on German insistence. No longer did it demand a "credible effort" to resolve Sejdic-Finci; a mere declaration to that effect would be enough.

In January, the party leaders obliged, with a declaration in which they “irrevocably commit” to improve the functionality of government institutions, to undertake economic and social reform, and to strengthen the rule of law.

An enterprising spirit even threw in a reference to reconciliation in the country, still divided 20 years after war’s end. (Is it too much to read this as evidence of at least partial authorship of the document by international officials?)

Subsequent to such reforms, the declaration says, the government institutions would devote “special attention” to Sejdic-Finci – not to broader constitutional change required to make the country actually fit for membership. Nothing in the declaration is measurable, and nothing has a deadline.

The declaration was a core element of a plan hatched in the fall by the German government for breaking Bosnia’s logjam and helping it advance toward eventual membership in the EU.

This is important to the EU because there is no strategy for Bosnia, and the Balkans, other than enlargement.

Social unrest?

International policy makers are terrified of a re-run of the social unrest, in parts violent, that shook the country last February. When I interviewed leading members of the country's nine main parties last November, they thought without exception that renewed social unrest was a question of when rather than if.

The EU is woefully unprepared for the possibility that ethnic rabble-rousers could hijack future protests.

The peacekeepers of EUFOR, for years massively below their minimum deployment threshold, would not even be in a position to secure EU embassies in Sarajevo, let alone protect anyone – even though maintaining a safe and secure environment is a legal obligation the EU took on from NATO in 2004.

Paddy Ashdown, who was the top international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002-2006, summed up well this dire state of affairs when he told a conference in Oxford on Tuesday (3 March): “It is not that we do not have the leverage to stop Bosnia moving backwards. It is that we have not, these last ten years, found the will to use it.”

The EU is facing geopolitical challenges that can no longer be ignored, as reflected in a review of the European Neighbourhood Policy presented Wednesday (4 March).

Some of the Union's responses in the neighbourhood might require it to leave its soft-power comfort zone. Just as this is becoming hard to escape, the EU's reticence to use its considerable soft-power leverage in Bosnia is sending an unfortunate signal to autocrats and trouble-makers everywhere.

Toby Vogel is a writer on foreign affairs based in Brussels and a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council.

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