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15th Aug 2022

Opinion

Why Bosnia & Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

  • While the citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina deserve and need a sign of hope from the EU, advancing the accession process at this moment would neglect the merit-based process that the EU claims to pursue in its enlargement agenda (Photo: World Bank Photo Collection)
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Recently, EU leaders have been more explicit that in the context of the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, tangible advancement of the EU enlargement agenda towards the Western Balkans is essential. The region is stuck in the EU waiting room, without considerable progress for a long time.

Due to a lost sense of urgency and growing internal scepticism towards enlargement in general — mainly caused by internal rule of law problems with several member states — the EU failed to live up to its promises, having devastating effects on the EU's credibility in the region and contributing to a standstill of reforms throughout the region.

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  • BiH might not be ready according to objective criteria, but if we're honest, neither are Ukraine and Moldova (Photo: Wikimedia)

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the intrinsic interest of enlargement for the EU itself finally seems to resonate among EU leaders. Geopolitical unity on the European continent at this time of external threat is crucial, and continuing to neglect 'the West Balkan Six' will have massive consequences for the stability of Europe.

Russia, China and other illiberal actors are already eagerly jumping in the political and economic vacuum that emerged in the heart of our continent.

Recent visits to the region by EU Council president Michel and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as well as a joint leaders summit two weeks ago could be the first minor demonstrations of the shifted enlargement debate and consciousness of the geopolitical necessity of EU integration of the Western Balkans.

In order to be serious, however, concrete and more serious steps of engagement are required. Decisions that are long overdue and have been recommended by the commission for years such as granting visa liberalisation to Kosovo and the immediate and unconditional start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia have to be urgently taken, without further excuses.

In this context, it might seem tempting to also accelerate the accession process of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and grant the country immediate and unconditional candidate status.

BiH might not be ready according to objective criteria, but if we're honest, neither are Ukraine and Moldova.

The biggest political parties in BiH and the European Parliament, as well as various EU heads of state seem to share this position towards BiH — the changed geopolitical context being their main argument.

However, there is a considerable difference. Where Ukraine and Moldova have just very recently started their accession processes and have leaders that are outspokenly pro-European and seemingly committed to work on the necessary reforms, BiH is in the reform process for years already.

The country's ruling political elite is unable to deliver any considerable changes. In 2019, the European Commission set out 14 key priorities for the start of accession negotiations, but so far, only two (minor) priorities have been fulfilled.

Due to a total capture of the country's institutions and economy by corrupted ethno-nationalist elites, BiH did not advance on key reform areas such as democratisation and improvement of the rule of law, arguably even backsliding.

Non-functioning

Since the last elections, institutions are not functioning.

The country faces a deep political crisis, as Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his SNSD party are boycotting federal institutions for almost a year and the UN representative recently had to bypass democratic institutions imposing a budget for the October elections, after a deliberate attempt by the Bosnian-Croat HDZ party to prevent these from taking place.

While the citizens of BiH deserve and need a sign of hope from the EU, advancing the accession process of BiH at this moment in time would neglect the merit-based process that the EU claims to pursue in its enlargement agenda.

It would be a reward to the ethno-nationalist parties in power, which will without a doubt explain the step as a de facto approval from the EU for their policies and behaviour.

Given their large degree of control over the media, this would likely resonate among their potential voters, giving them a devastating advantage for the upcoming elections, potentially contributing to four more years of standstill of reforms and politics based on ethnic division.

Three immediate conditions

Rather than granting immediate and unconditional candidate status now, the EU should put forward three very concrete demands, that should in theory be relatively easy to realise by the ruling parties: The full withdrawal of all secessionist laws that Dodik put forward, the long overdue adoption of three anti-corruption laws and the organisation of free and fair elections in October, including implementation of the results.

With the commitment that the EU will grant candidate status directly after the fulfilment of these conditions, the EU sends a clear, highly needed sign of hope to the citizens of BiH, while at the same time putting the ball in the court of the ruling political forces.

In case they fail to deliver, it will be very clear who is to blame for the failure. It will then be up to the citizens to judge, during the October elections.

While nationalist political leaders are unable to work together and pursue changes, the citizens of BiH recently gave the right example, demonstrating that change is possible.

The citizen's assembly put forward proposals to work to a democratic country, based on non-discrimination, which is an essential step to bring BiH closer to EU integration.

After the elections, this assembly and other civil society actors should be actively involved in the constitutional reform process required to ensure equal treatment for all BiH citizens, despite their background or religion. All future political leaders should ensure a transparent and inclusive process to this reform, working towards the civic society that Bosnian citizens so desperately want, need and deserve.

Author bio

Tineke Strik is a Dutch Green MEP and Greens/EFA spokesperson for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Disclaimer

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

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