Saturday

10th Dec 2022

Opinion

Think twice before giving Bosnia & Herzegovina candidate status

  • Bosnian football fans fly the flag (Photo: Brad Tutterow)
Listen to article

In June 2022, the European Council announced its possible willingness to upgrade Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) from 'potential' to full candidate status, and invited the EU Commission to review BiH's progress.

The commission having done so, the issue now returns to the leaders' table in December. Several countries have indicated their support for taking the step. However, it should not be done lightly, as it might well send the wrong message altogether.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • The dispute and troubled land (Photo: Wikimedia)

Surely, nobody entertain illusions that the council's aim is anything other than geopolitical. No objective basis exists for going ahead.

After BiH applied for membership in 2016, the commission published a detailed and damning 'avis' [judgement] in 2019, failing BiH on all criteria. The commission listed 14 key points — amounting to deep constitutional reform — to address before full candidate status could be granted.

Although the latest avis refrains from drawing conclusions, careful reading shows that precious little progress has happened.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index for 2021 ranks BiH as a 'hybrid regime', the only European country not to merit even the 'flawed democracy' label.

Most critical is BiH's system of ethnic discrimination.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which have governed BiH since 1995 instituted an elaborate power-sharing system between the three main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Belonging to one of these 'constituent peoples' is a formal precondition for holding several public offices, including place in the national presidency and the parliamentary upper chamber, and informally determines a person's prospects for positions in the civil service.

'Others'

Those citizens outside the three main ethnicities number approximately four pecent of the total population, and are, rather odiously, referred to as 'the others'.

Such practices was one thing while ending a war in 1995; their continued existence in the 21st century is clearly unacceptable.

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found in favour of two plaintiffs — one Roma, the other Jewish — who argued that the BiH constitution violated their basic human and political rights. The EU froze ratification of BiH's Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) until the country's constitution was amended into line with the ECHR ruling (and the EU's values, as stated in article two of the EU treaties).

Nothing ever happened.

Not that BiH's constitution is technically difficult to change, because it is not. Rather, the political will is non-existent in a system dominated by ethno-nationalist parties, all of whom benefit from the status quo.

In 2015, after significant lobbying from new member Croatia, the EU decided to ratify the SAA but make the constitutional change a condition for candidate status. That was also the commission's line in 2019.

The fact remains, though, that the EU has already backed down once on the issue of ethnic discrimination and human rights, and several members of the Council now seem prepared to do so again.

One should carefully consider the message that sends. Bosnian ethno-nationalists — who largely retained their power in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections — will achieve a symbolically important and domestically popular victory without meeting the required conditions.

Essentially, the EU will reward defiance of the ECHR. Can it do so again without losing credibility? What will happen, say, when in three years BiH demands actual negotiations, while still maintaining its ethnic quota system?

It is a very slippery slope.

What the EU needs to do before entertaining BiH's promotion to candidate status is two-fold.

Hungarian 'bromance'

First, get its own house in order, and put an end to its most irresponsible members undermining the EU's overall stance. Hungary's Viktor Orban has developed quite a bromance with Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who looks set to take office as Republika Srpska president despite credible allegations of voting fraud in the recent elections.

Croatia, since 2016 governed by the nationalist HDZ party, has been egging on their BiH sister party in their quest to further divide the country and entrench the ethnicity-based governance system.

This state of mixed messages is clearly untenable. Both countries are major recipients of EU funding, which could be leveraged against them, and bring them back into line with agreed positions.

Second, the EU must bring the Office of the High Representative (OHR) under control. Aside from having extensive decree powers, the OHR can serve as a bully pulpit, and should serve to encourage reform.

Yet, for most of his time in BiH, high representative Christian Schmidt, a German former minister of agriculture, has seemed rather out of his depth, and seemingly reliant on the Croatian government's advice on Bosnian matters.

In a controversial move on election night, Schmidt made several changes to election laws, which many argued would favour the Bosnian HDZ party.

Whether or not that is so, the biggest problem with Schmidt's action was the attempt itself to fix or improve a discredited system. By his actions, Schmidt entrenched the system that Bosnia and Herzegovina should seek to move beyond.

The EU will do Bosnia and Herzegovina no favours by moving them forward on a candidacy track that they are not prepared for and itself no favours by abandoning its own values. BiH's European path has been clear since 2003, but it remains for the country to embrace it.

Author bio

Kristian L. Nielsen is a research fellow at Corvinus University of Budapest, and previously an assistant professor at the International University of Sarajevo.

Disclaimer

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

Why is Germany rushing a new Bosnia high representative?

The Office of the High Representative, 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.

Why Bosnia & Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

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

Last-minute legal changes to Bosnian election law stir controversy

"[…] We were astonished that on election day, the high representative for Bosnia imposed significant further changes to the constitution," Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder, head of the European Parliament election observation delegation to Bosnia said on Monday.

No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

The European Commission has asked the member states' leaders assembling in Brussels next week for the customary end-of-year European Council to approve EU candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Doing so would be a mistake.

A plea to the EU from inside Tehran's Evin jail

As a result of my peaceful civil activism, I have been arrested 13 times, undergone five trials, and been sentenced to 34 years of imprisonment and 154 lashes in total. I am currently in Evrin prison, without the slightest regret.

No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

The European Commission has asked the member states' leaders assembling in Brussels next week for the customary end-of-year European Council to approve EU candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Doing so would be a mistake.

The military-industrial complex cashing-in on the Ukraine war

From the outset, arms manufacturers eyed this war as a profitable business opportunity. Structural changes took place across the EU, not only to fast-track arms to Ukraine, but also to make more public finance available to the highly-lucrative arms industry.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. EU Commission silent on Greek spyware sale to Madagascar
  2. A plea to the EU from inside Tehran's Evin jail
  3. EU lets Croatia into Schengen, keeps Bulgaria and Romania out
  4. Energy crisis costs thousands of EU jobs, but industrial output stable
  5. Illegal pushbacks happening daily in Croatia, says NGO
  6. No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU
  7. EU takes legal action against China over Lithuania
  8. EU Commission shoring up children's rights of same-sex parents

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us