Bosnia-Herzegovina’s EU Candidacy: Symbolic or Substantive?

For most ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians, the announcement, much as its apparent execution, has been a genuine surprise—and not an altogether pleasant one either. 

Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) has officially submitted an application for membership to the European Union (EU). The move marks the culmination of a two decades long process of transition for the country, beginning with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, through to the initialing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2007, and its “entry into force” in 2015. Along the way, BiH has enacted a host of reforms—from the adoption of a single currency regime, to the unification of its armed forces through adoption of (significant segments) of the aptly named “Reform Agenda”—that have collectively lent “credibility” to its application for membership in the Union.

This, at least, has been the narrative of most of the Bosnian leadership in the weeks since the application was announced in January. For most ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians though, the announcement, much as its apparent execution, has been a genuine surprise—and not an altogether pleasant one either.

A February surprise

Just days before BiH was to formally submit its application, arguably the most significant precondition for such a move had still not been met: the adoption of a so-called “coordination mechanism” that would streamline the country’s complex administrative structures and allow BiH to speak with a “single voice” in its negotiations with Brussels. BiH’s assorted political blocs had failed and otherwise obstructed the adoption this mechanism for years, and few believed that a breakthrough was imminent. Less than a week before the February 15 application ceremony, news broke that the coordination mechanism had been adopted by the country’s Council of Ministers—its state-level quasi-government—at a session on January 26.

There were only two problems: the Council of Ministers failed to inform anyone of its decision, and according to official records, no ministerial session took place on the date in question. Unfortunately, this absurd spectacle was par for the course for BiH’s leaders. After all, the reason no one in the country expected Sarajevo to apply for membership was that there are virtually no grounds to consider BiH a serious candidate at this point.

The same week news of the Council’s “secret decision” leaked to the local media we learned that millions of dollars of international aid for reconstruction efforts following the devastating 2014 floods were unaccounted for; that the country’s state judiciary was still in shambles; and that state officials had once again voted in favour of giving themselves a hike in benefits and pay, while simultaneously slashing already meager social welfare provisions for BiH’s most vulnerable citizens.

Meanwhile, controversial labor reform laws adopted in the last year led to near riots in both Sarajevo and Banja Luka. The largest city in the Herzegovina region, Mostar, has not held elections in more than seven years, leading to the collapse of municipal governance and an accompanying public health crisis. We still do not know the full results of the first post-war census, the release of which was supposed to be a precondition for application to the EU; the European Court of Human Rights’ 2009 Sejdić-Finci decision concerning constitutional discrimination of minorities in BiH remains unimplemented, despite this also having (once) been a precondition for any membership ambitions. The government in Republika Srpska(RS) continuously threatens to obstruct state institutions or secede entirely from the country, with only half-hearted reaction from the international community. And while a string of recent arrests of high profile officials suggests a nascent (though long overdue) “anti-corruption campaign”, subsequent partisan attacks on the country’s judicial and police authorities demonstrate that accountability and the rule of law are still fleeting concepts in BiH.

This is but a general overview of some of the more pressing and unresolved political issues in the country. Many more exist, the consequences of which impede the lives of BiH’s citizens on a near daily basis. Given this context then, what does this application realistically mean for BiH—and for the EU?

Three concrete points need to be stressed.

Troubling precedents

First, we cannot forget that the significance of a formal application for EU membership is largely symbolic. Despite Slovenia and Croatia’s successful membership campaigns, the EU integration process in southeastern Europe has been a mixed bag. Macedonia has been an official candidate country since 2004, a period during which the country’s democratic, political, and economic prospects have demonstrably dimmed. Indeed, Macedonia is today in the worst crisis since the conclusion of its own conflict in 2001, and the future looks bleaker still. 

Turkey, meanwhile, has technically been waiting since 1987 for membership in what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Turkey’s slide towards instability and authoritarianism has been even more dramatic and pronounced than Macedonia’s. Along the way, the relationship with the EU has deteriorated to the point that war between Ankara and Moscow now seems more likely than Turkey’s entry into the concert of Brussels.

Significant concerns should also exist about the stability and vibrancy of democratic institutions in the other candidate countries in the region; Serbia, especially, but also Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. While many celebrate the great transformative power of the EU, the emerging “illiberal” bloc within the Union suggests that far too much has been made of this promise. Or, at the very least, that for too long, too many have believed that this promise could exist without continuous (re)affirmation of the EU’s founding principles.

A political union

Accordingly, much of the region’s backsliding can be pinned on one particularly pernicious conviction within the Brussels establishment; that the EU ought to be a union of all the countries located on the European continent rather than a compact of European democracies. This logic has led contemporary EU officials to insist on the “inevitability” of BiH’s accession to the Union, rather than the ideological convictions of the famed dictum, “Europe whole and free”.   

This about-face is not merely a question of rhetoric; it has coincided with a dramatic retreat from virtually all core European values and objectives. From largely passively observing the dismemberment of Ukraine, to the seemingly voluntary dismantling of the Schengen Area, to the cynical brinkmanship of Westminster, few seem to recall today why the EU exists in the first place.

The century and a half that preceded the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952 was undoubtedly one of the darkest in the continent’s often bloody history. From Austerlitz to Auschwitz, Europe time and again tore itself apart along petty sectarian lines, and concerned itself almost exclusively with destructive provincial intrigues. Though founded as an economic compact, the ECSC – like each of its subsequent reincarnations – was at heart a political project meant to reverse and check these reactionary tendencies.

As a project, it was rooted in the realisation that Europe’s future depended on the formation of a tight-knit union of stable, democratic regimes, whose individual contributions would create an association that was more than the mere sum of its parts. This realisation of shared values and shared security produced the most prosperous economic zone in the world, but more importantly, it brought peace to most of Europe; a Pax Europaea extended to most of the Eastern Bloc after the end of Cold War.

Too often since then, however, the EU has struggled to be a catalyst for genuine democratisation. Its members have largely returned to form; today, they appear as little more than a collection of squabbling and inward-looking nation-states. As a whole, the Union has fetishised a narrow conception of stability at the expense of its now rarely mentioned core values; it has faltered in its relations with strongmen from Moscow to Skopje, Ankara to Belgrade, and its timidity in confronting the third-tier “big men” of BiH, has caused it to become complicit in their rule, betraying the democratic aspirations of the country’s ordinary citizens

Towards democracy and revolt

This context is imperative for understanding why BiH’s leaders chose this precise moment to submit their application. Their timing is conspicuous; two years ago, almost to the day, BiH was a hotbed of discontent, as thousands clashed with police and torched government buildings all over the country. The crowds were protesting the disastrous socio-economic situation in BiH, and the decades of corruption and misrule that had led to it. Matters grew so serious that the international community’s highest representative in BiH, Valentin Inzko, suggested that renewed military interventionon the part of the EU might soon become necessary.

Inzko’s comments were a bitter pill. To many in BiH they were once again proof of Brussels’ duplicitous policy towards the country’s citizens; though incessantly preaching of the need for accountability and reform, at the first sign of genuine democratic revolt, the Europeans threatened boots on the ground. Emboldened by the international response, BiH’s authorities went on to spend a dizzying 23 million KM (approximately €12 million) on riot gear and crowd control equipment. Rather than respond to the clearly articulated demands of the country’s citizens, BiH’s leaders, backed by the EU, fortified their positions.

The secrecy and misdirection that has accompanied BiH’s formal application for EU membership is the natural consequence of a policy of accommodation and acquiescence on the part of the EU. Burdened by its likewise wretched response to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the bloodletting in BiH in particular, Brussels appears convinced of the “historic necessity” of EU membership for the country. Unless it is accompanied by serious engagement with and response to actually existingconditions in the country, however, the EU’s engagement will not bear the fruits the citizens of BiH so desperately want: a genuinely democratic society, founded on the rule of law, with economic opportunities and social protections for all.

Those genuinely committed to the country’s welfare must insist that candidate status for BiH mean substantive enforcement of European norms, standards, and laws by the EU in the coming years. As it is, however, and like so often before, with this ceremonial application, BiH’s leaders have only bought themselves a little bit more time. The essential dynamics and contradictions of the country’s political system and political economy, however, remain unresolved. Rather than an aberration, the protests in February 2014 were a warning. It remains to be seen whether Brussels will heed the message still scrawled on the flame-licked walls of the seat of the Sarajevo canton: “sow hunger, reap fury”.

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD candidate in Political Science at York University. A southeast European and international affairs commentator and consultant, he currently lives in Sarajevo.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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