25th Feb 2021


Why is Germany rushing a new Bosnia high representative?

  • Christian Schmidt, pictured here in 2017 at an EU Council meeting (Photo: Council of the EU)

With the nomination of Christian Schmidt to serve as the next international high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the German government risks putting a personnel decision ahead of a policy debate.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR), tasked with coordinating international actors and ensuring implementation of the non-military components of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, has languished for a decade and a half, most of that period under Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko.

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Germany, then newly under the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel, was instrumental in forcing a change of transatlantic course by the nomination in 2005 of Christian Schwartz Schilling as High Representative, after the interventionist tenure of Britain's Paddy Ashdown.

The move was part of a joint EU-US decision to shift to a policy that, in the name of "local ownership," further entrenched the power of incumbent elites, who rule through fear and patronage and have proven to be remarkably resistant to reform.

Schmidt's nomination came to public attention in an apparent leak just before Christmas.

Following nearly a month of official silence, Germany is now trying to sell Schmidt's nomination as an attempt to breathe new life into the institution.

With the nomination, "Germany is taking the initiative to put [Bosnia and Herzegovina] again on the international political agenda," the German foreign ministry said in announcing it.

Yet there is no credible evidence so far that Schmidt's candidacy is the result of a German change of heart on what to do with the OHR, let alone a political strategy on how to support Bosnia in its stalled EU accession course.

Without any explanation offered by Berlin on the timing of its initiative, the suspicion lingers that Schmidt was positioned to pre-empt possible moves by the incoming Biden administration to re-engage with the Balkans, and especially Bosnia.

A series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Dayton accords in November seemed to suggest that the administration might take a more active role in Bosnia.

Why the rush?

Schmidt's nomination, on 20 January – the day of president Joe Biden's inauguration – feeds doubts that the move is really intended to strengthen the OHR. Why the rush? Why suddenly replace Inzko now, after 12 years of inaction?

There may well have been some foreshadowing in mid-December, when Germany's current ambassador to the United Nations and longtime policy advisor to chancellor Merkel, Christoph Heusgen, intimated that some strengthening of the OHR might be required, including reconstitution of the executive 'Bonn Powers', which enable the High Representative to take such actions as annulling laws, imposing them, and removing from office political leaders for violations of the Dayton Accords.

These have only been effective when there was Western unity behind the High Representative – and the coercive deterrent now operated by the EU but backed by Nato, EUFOR, was credible.

In the same conference appearance, in response to a question posed by one of the authors, Heusgen declined to endorse restoring EUFOR's deterrent capacity.

The wider policy context feeds concern as to Germany's disposition toward transatlantic strategic cooperation in the aftermath of Trump.

The EU, during the German presidency, signed a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China last month.

Nord Stream 2, stalled by US sanctions, remains a divisor.

On issues in the Balkans, when faced with the opportunity to confront policy failures, Berlin demonstrates a deep-seated impulse to sidestep the hard choices.

This was evident just over a year ago, in response to French president Emmanuel Macron's applying the brakes to accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in spite of progress made in those countries; and in the process raising problems with the EU's enlargement policy to the political level.

Germany preferred to find a modus vivendi with Macron through a new accession methodology, but without addressing the wider reasons why much of the region is backsliding on democracy and rule of law, in spite of holding an "enlargement perspective."

On matters where Germany undeniably led – on migration in 2015 and in resisting calls for a "land swap" between Kosovo and Serbia from 2018 to date – Merkel's leadership was reactive.

Similarly, on strategic matters, Merkel clearly prefers continuity and incremental change at most, illustrated as well by her weighing in to support for new CDU leader Armin Laschet.

In the absence of any clarity from Berlin, all these factors imply a preference for continuity rather than a shift in policy toward Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at least no clear idea on a policy shift.

If borne out, this would signify a wasted opportunity. It would mean doubling-down on muddling through.

Schmidt's nomination should trigger a policy discussion among the transatlantic democracies on Bosnia, not forestall or substitute for one.

We have indicated elements of such a debate in a recent paper, dispelling the myth that the only way for the international community to engage in Bosnia is through either imposed solutions, or through an - reliance on local elites ("ownership"), which while declaratively stating they want to meet EU standards, in practice demonstrate their deep unwillingness to reform.

What the situation calls for instead is employing the coercive advantage of a transatlantic consensus to create an environment in which focused engagement by citizens to define a vision for a new social contract can be articulated.

Our paper described this top-down, bottom-up dynamic as a "pressure sandwich" aimed at squeezing an elite that has no incentive to change the status quo.

Germany's nomination has initiated a policy discussion in the worst possible fashion – by indicating a lack of coordination among the Western democracies and a strategic void.

Now that discussion must begin with the new US administration and other democratic partners, starting with an honest situational assessment of where Bosnia is, and why, 16 years after Berlin's last personnel decision.

Author bio

Dr Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel are co-founders and senior associates of the Democratization Policy Council.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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