Halting Bosnia’s eight-year downward trend and boosting the country’s momentum towards Europe is the main goal of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s proposal for Bosnia, in the wake of popular protests, economic downturn and elections that largely returned ethnic-based parties to power.
The importance of re-prioritising the Balkans
A year ago, at the beginning of a key meeting with Bosnian leaders to agree on constitutional reform, European Commissioner Štefan Füle announced to the amazement of the Bosnian delegation that he would have to cut short his participation in order to rush to Ukraine. Hard-pressed for time, the European Union-facilitated meeting predictably yielded no result and soon afterwards, the EU called off its “intensive facilitation efforts”.
The Balkans represent the one region where the EU is officially in the lead, and Europeans have to mean business about democratisation and peace consolidation there.
This was indicative of an EU foreign policy agenda that nowadays prioritises macro geopolitics, whether it be war in Ukraine or the so-called Islamic State, over nitty-gritty micro dilemmas of state-building and peace consolidation in countries that have become old news. Rotating international officials want quick and dramatic results, at the pace of twitter – a bad recipe for the transformational diplomacy that the EU sees as part of its foreign policy.
However, the Balkans represent the one region where the EU is officially in the lead, and Europeans have to mean business about democratisation and peace consolidation there. Geopolitics are at play too: unfinished business at the heart of Europe is increasingly becoming intertwined with post-Crimea geopolitical balancing and with the emergence of political models that test liberal democracy. Europeans would be foolish to wait for a clear conflict threshold or other visible forms of deterioration to reassess policies launched in a very different context. Challenges to European interests and stability take subtler forms than simply newsy wars.
The new proposal’s grand policy assumptions
In this context, Germany and the UK now advocate for a “readjusted sequencing” of the EU’s approach, deferring the constitutional reform required by the European Court of Human Rights’ Sejdić and Finci ruling in 2009, which said that institutional posts in the collective Presidency and House of Peoples must not be restricted to members of Bosnia’s three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs).
Unfinished business at the heart of Europe is increasingly becoming intertwined with post-Crimea geopolitical balancing and with the emergence of political models that test liberal democracy.
Instead, the German and UK foreign ministers argue, a broader reform agenda is needed, which is to be essentially defined by Bosnian leaders and which should encompass socio-economic issues, good governance, rule of law, and “selected” institutional questions. Bosnian leaders will sign a “long-term, irrevocable written commitment” to establish functionality at all state levels and to implement the reforms, with the EU then unblocking the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) and the next stages generally following established accession procedures.
The proposal is based on a number of grand policy assumptions, several of which also shape the EU’s foreign policy approach to the neighbourhood, to peace consolidation and European integration in general.
Assumption 1: Enlargement process, through conditionality, brings about deep democratic transformation
The proposal’s main assumption (and hope) is that the enlargement process and its conditionality are a major “driver for true reform and stability in the region”, with the ministers’ joint letter citing Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania as examples. Bosnia’s problem is that this tool never had the chance to perform. The EU’s emphasis on Sejdić-Finci’s implementation meant tackling “intractable issues too early in the process”, leading to an impasse that prevented other necessary reforms, especially socio-economic ones. As it does elsewhere across the globe, the EU should pursue a bottom-up, incremental approach to transformation, with a particular focus on economics.
Assumption 2: Committed elites and a civic constituency for change can be found
The proposal’s main assumption (and hope) is that the enlargement process and its conditionality are a major “driver for true reform and stability in the region”.
This normative approach to illiberal, post-conflict societies is typical of the EU and also reflects Germany’s leading stance for the Balkans. It presumes the pre-existence of two basic factors. The first is that key leaders will assume ownership for change, if the right mix of incentives is provided, and honour commitments. Specifically in Bosnia, this would require a critical mass of leaders with certain ethics of responsibility and statesmanship, subscribing to a culture of compromise that has been fundamental for European integration. The second is that there is an untapped constituency for change within Bosnian society that will eventually rally behind this agenda and exert internal pressure to transform the system.
Assumption 3: Bosnia can be Switzerland
For the advocates of Steinmeier and Hammond’s approach, Bosnia, through enlargement, can, should, and eventually will become like Switzerland or Belgium, with a decentralised but functional state. The ethnic foundations of the Dayton state and its labyrinthine system are no problem, as they resemble some EU member states’ constitutions. In their view, Republika Srpska leaders want European integration, as long as the process does not hinder the entities’ prerogatives. Hence Bosnia must be treated like any other country in the throes of EU accession, without “special conditions”, and put firmly into a post-Dayton phase.
The devil lies in the (Bosnian) details
Some of these grand policy assumptions are shaky when viewed in terms of the actual experience of current and previous enlargement rounds, as well as of the Bosnian context itself.
Overstating the transformative power of enlargement?
Some of these grand policy assumptions are shaky when viewed in terms of the actual experience.
It is one thing to argue that the enlargement process can be a catalyst for reforms and a source of leverage. It is a very different thing to trumpet enlargement and EU integration – which EU leaders and institutions invariably do – as synonymous with linear, deep democratic transformation and as a panacea for conflict resolution. Transformative power through conditionality has acquired a quasi-theological status in EU policymaking, in spite of evidence that shows the limits of the policy – not only in the Western Balkans.
Alongside the accession path, other political narratives, inspired by Viktor Orbán-style illiberal democracy and Putinism, challenge the European model in areas where its leverage should be greater. It is sometimes unclear whether the EU is empowering societies and individuals, or whether a mostly ceremonial adaptation is at work. Tellingly, monitors such as Bertelsmann Transformation Index or Freedom House classify most EU candidate countries as “semi-consolidated democracies” or “hybrid regimes”. Rollbacks on freedom of media and other criteria show that “progress” can be superficial and easily reversible.
Entrenched cleavages and interests and frozen conflicts do not per se vanish inside the EU, although they might be loosely neutralised. They can actually reassert themselves – but then ruling elites have fewer incentives to reform, and the EU has fewer tools to stem such rollbacks. The path advocated for Bosnia is therefore not unassailable. And it hinges on the attractiveness of a model that has lost much leverage due to the EU’s weakened reputation and contradictions (including the backsliding of both “old” and “new” member states), as well as on the credibility of the promise of enlargement, which looks too distant for the urgency of the Balkans’ current situation –and for influencing power struggles in the region.
Entrenched cleavages and interests and frozen conflicts do not per se vanish inside the EU, although they might be loosely neutralised.
The re-sequencing of Sejdić-Finci’s implementation (postponing constitutional reform to abolish ethnic discrimination in the collective Presidency and House of Peoples) might be justified from the pragmatic perspective of diplomacy and negotiation. But this should not mean scapegoating Sejdić-Finci as the main factor for the current stalemate of the EU path (the new conventional wisdom). To do so misrepresents a culture of blockage that pervades almost everything – not just constitutional reform – in a country where the silliest item can be political and thus paralyzed, even when benefits of common action should be obvious (i.e. agriculture). Moreover, this narrative overlooks the responsibilities of the international community in failing to stem obstruction and state erosion, as well as open questions on some aspects of the EU’s approach to negotiation and mediation.
Even if Germany and Britain are genuine about conditionality, this re-adjustment follows previous re-adjustments of the EU’s conditionality (Sejdić-Finci’s implementation was itself a Plan B). On the ground, many interpret this as yet more evidence that the EU’s red lines are not that red and can be circumvented, as can Bosnia’s international obligations. This might come back to haunt the EU when a more assertive approach is warranted.
Lastly, the ruling was no minor point, as some contend, but inherent in the same rule of law that the proposal wants for the new reform agenda. Sejdić-Finci was a victory for Bosnians’ individual rights, redressing the disenfranchisement not just of minorities, but also of every Bosnian keen on scrapping ethnic self-identification. The ministers’ proposal is rightly intended to move Bosnia past Dayton. Sejdić-Finci could contribute to this, through a relatively modest constitutional reform. The fact that few other EU countries may have somewhat similar restrictions is a case for change inside the Union too – not for accepting more exceptions to the civic citizenship on which it was once based.
Is there a constituency for change?
The proposal’s focus on socio-economic issues is welcome, since these issues were also driving factors behind February’s protests.
The proposal’s focus on socio-economic issues is welcome, since these issues were also driving factors behind February’s protests and are a source of instability. But such reforms will also affect the system of power and patronage preventing change. And evidence disputes that in illiberal, kleptocratic systems, economic reform leads to political reform.
The proposal is based on the same policy of ownership that the EU has pursued since 2006. The same leaders who benefit from the Bosnian system are called on to define the specifics of a reform agenda that would alter that system (and its perks), and achieve compromises for the common good. Such a hands-off approach is thus problematic. In the Western Balkans, compromise is still often seen as a sign of weakness and defeat, not as a virtue.
In a way, the proposal mirrors the German perspective for the eurozone, based on commitments and rules – but with none of its sticks and benchmarks to police implementation. If this approach is challenged in the close-knit environment of the eurozone, in which stakeholders share interests in the success of the project, can it deliver in a wholly different context lacking any such factors?
Ultimately, if Bosnia is ever to become like Switzerland or Belgium, all its constituent parts and political leaders must accept Bosnian statehood –and wish for “normalcy”. This is not yet the case, and thus the systematic policy pursued by some leaders of hollowing out the very functionality to which the EU would ask them to commit. That institutional normalcy called for in the Ministers’ proposal goes against these elites’ perceived existential interests. There is a fine line between intractable and “easily resolvable institutional questions”, as anyone involved in institution-building can confirm.
Ultimately, if Bosnia is ever to become like Switzerland or Belgium, all its constituent parts and political leaders must accept Bosnian statehood – and wish for “normalcy”.
Ideally, the proposal could enhance accountability and facilitate the naming and shaming of those who would spoil Bosnia’s EU path. At that point, an active civic constituency could be a game-changer. Whether there is or could be such constituency for change is anyone’s guess. Examples exist of non-ethnic civic mobilisation, but the rottenness of the system is pervasive, and the constituency for the status quo is strong.
A more far-reaching strategy
Steinmeier and Hammond’s initiative will probably become EU policy, even if there is profound scepticism about its fundamentals. That Europeans show signs of willingness to re-engage with Bosnia is good, though. A determined re-engagement with the region is in their interest; it would help to shore up European power, given Russian re-balancing and the end of Pax Americana of the 1990s. It is an opportunity for High Representative Federica Mogherini’s untested diplomacy.
No single track will do, though. This initiative must thus be part of a broader and regional European strategy, employing diplomacy and some smart forms of balancing too. Firstly, Europeans should use their levers with regional actors, chiefly EU member Croatia and EU candidate Serbia, to support different political dynamics in Bosnia – including by cajoling their own protégés and spoilers.
Secondly, a Big Bang through re-opening Dayton and rebuilding the system from the ground up, though desirable, might not be feasible now (and might not change other damaging patterns, such as contactocracy or stela). But other measures (or smaller Big Bangs) should be on the table, parallel to the main EU reform agenda. Constitutional reform of the Federation is a case in point, even if previous efforts have failed. And Europeans should be firm in stemming the erosion of common institutions.
Steinmeier and Hammond’s initiative will probably become EU policy, even if there is profound scepticism about its fundamentals.
Thirdly, the country needs a fundamentally different political discourse. This is more than EU funds, projects and statements of “concern”. It requires a dynamic, but consistent blend of political engagement and tough diplomacy, including measures against the poisonous hate speech used by media and leading actors, which is a source of division – and which many EU countries (certainly Germany) would never tolerate domestically. By the same token, and following its own Enlargement Strategy, the EU and its Member States should also increase their encouragement of top-to-bottom and bottom-up reconciliation, uphill as this is. The prevailing bilo pa prošlo(let bygones be bygones) approach bodes ill for the future.
Fourthly, Europe needs sticks, not just carrots. Europeans and Americans should at the very least agree on leveraging financial conditionality, tying progress in EU structural reforms to the IMF’s programmes.
Bosnians have seen it all and have little trust in internationals that come and go. And a certain scepticism to their leverage (in Bosnia and other troubled contexts) is healthy. Ultimately, it is up for Bosnians themselves to try change things. But if Europeans really mean business, they will have to truly engage and unite behind a common agenda. Otherwise, Bosnia’s spoilers will just wait them out, biding their time until the initiative flounders, as others before. If this happens, in a few years, while Ministers Hammond and Steinmeier write books about their international stint, the same clans will continue to rule a rump state, maybe within the EU, prone to outbursts of instability, with massive human capital flight and sustained by dwindling international care.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.