30th Mar 2023


No, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not ready for the EU

  • Ursula von der Leyen meets Zoran Tegeltija, chairman of the council of ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2022 (Photo: EU Commission)
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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, however.

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  • The EU and its member states should take a hard look at why 20 years after the membership offer for the Western Balkans at the Thessaloniki summit (pictured), the region remains stuck (Photo: European Commission)

It would undermine what credibility the EU accession process still has by rewarding the most obstructionist politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It would undermine the credibility of the European Commission, which together with its recommendation for candidate status also delivered a scathing report on the almost complete reform standstill in the country.

It would also fail the seriousness test since Bosnia, just like most of its neighbours, has no meaningful prospect of joining the Union for many years.

Instead of simply waving through a country that is run by a cartel of venal and unaccountable politicians purporting to serve their ethnic constituencies while enriching themselves, the EU leaders should be bold, for once, and commission a comprehensive review of the EU's enlargement policy.

Such a review should identify why after more than 15 years of EU leadership of the "international community" in Bosnia, so little progress has been achieved. In many policy areas, there has in fact been backsliding, as the commission's own country report outlines.

The commission's justification for recommending candidate status to Bosnia was geopolitical: having done the same for Ukraine and Moldova (and conditionally, Georgia) as a way to bolster their resilience against Russian attack, the commission argued that the same needed to be done in the Western Balkans, the six southeast European countries that are not members of the EU.

Real, or symbolic?

But there are good reasons to question whether the membership offer to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is genuine or largely symbolic. There are equally good reasons to ask the same in the case of Bosnia, where the commission is on the one hand seeking to advance the accession process while on the other seeking to appease Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat separatists in ways that would make Bosnia even less able to assume the responsibilities of EU membership.

In its opinion on Bosnia's membership application of June 2019, the commission wrote: "Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to bring in line its constitutional framework with European standards and ensure the functionality of its institutions to be able to take over EU obligations."

Not only has the country's political leadership done nothing to address this point — the EU itself has been pushing the Bosniak and pro-Bosnian parties to acquiesce in demands by the main Croat nationalist party, the HDZ BiH, in alliance with the Bosnian Serb ruling party, to re-engineer the electoral system in a way that would deepen ethno-national divisions and secure the HDZ's hold on power in perpetuity.

Instead of working towards a less divided electoral system as required by several rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and demanded in the EU's own statements and various resolutions by the European Parliament and the German Bundestag, the commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), together with the Americans and the British, sought to pressure Bosniak and non-sectarian parties into accepting further division.

Hungary and Croatia only ones pushing

Inside the EU, this approach had two main sponsors: EU member Croatia, whose governing HDZ is a sister party to the HDZ BiH, and Hungary, which has openly supported the secessionist Bosnian Serb regime of Milorad Dodik.

Together, Croatia and Hungary have captured the EU's Balkan policy; EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen is too weak, or too disengaged, to rein in enlargement commissioner Oliver Várhelyi.

The problems of the enlargement process go far beyond Bosnia, however, and have been in evidence for some time.

Serbia progressed on its accession path even as president Aleksandar Vučić deepened the autocratic transformation of his regime and sided with Russia following its brutal attack on Ukraine.

Something similar, albeit it in form that is less destabilising for its neighbours, has been happening in Edi Rama's Albania.

Montenegro, the other 'frontrunner' in the negotiating process, advanced greatly under the leadership of Milo Djukanović, in power for 30 years though recently greatly diminished, even though there was no progress on democracy and the rule of law.

North Macedonia resolved its decades-old dispute with Greece over its name in 2018 — only to see Bulgaria impose retrograde nationalist demands concerning history and national identity on its accession process.

It is paradoxical that the region's main democratic hope and most open society, Kosovo, is also the furthest behind. Prime minister Albin Kurti has announced the country would lodge a membership application this month, but as long as five EU member states refuse to recognise its independence, there is little hope for meaningful progress toward membership.

The EU has failed to adapt the "enlargement toolbox" it used for the ten accession countries in 2004 to the very different realities of the Balkans. It has not activated the transformational potential of enlargement to push for democratisation and the rule of law. It took a transactional approach toward the issue of irregular migration along the Balkan route, which peaked in 2015-16; now that numbers are up again, the EU is again shifting into a similar gear.

As a result of these developments, the EU has lost its collective understanding why it is doing enlargement in the first place; no member state leader is effectively advocating with their domestic audience on the benefits of Balkan accession.

At the same time, the process has been discredited among the EU's natural constituencies in the WB6 thanks to the EU's support for autocrats.

The Ukraine war and the EU's offer of eventual membership present an opportunity to address what has gone wrong with EU enlargement.

Instead of engaging in unproductive debates about staged enlargement, the EU and its member states should take a hard look at why 20 years after the membership offer for the Western Balkans at the Thessaloniki summit, the region remains stuck.

The EU has to recommit to liberal-democratic values and turn them — again — into a cornerstone of its approach to the region if it wants to have any meaningful influence there, and actually help the citizens of these countries.

Author bio

Toby Vogel is a Brussels-based co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank in Berlin.


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

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