Eight inconvenient truths on Bosnia and EU policy in the Western Balkans

The EU’s policy in Bosnia is failing, and as the country heads for implosion, Europe must change course.

Predictably, Bosnia’s October general elections have so far failed to deliver the change hoped for in the wake of the protests and participatory democracy movements of earlier this year – dubbed, perhaps prematurely, the Bosnian Spring.

It is hard to set in motion a fundamental democratic transformation of the sort that Bosnia needs without a real democratic constituency and political culture. This was the inevitable impression produced in February, to the despair of grass-root activists, when they compared the throngs of people (many of them unemployed) crowding Sarajevo’s cafés and terraces from Baščaršija to Marshala Tita with the few hundreds who mobilised for “revolucija” near Ali Pasha’s mosque. As some analysts have aptly said, the disappointing results of the elections make rational sense in a rotten system defined by – with or without Dayton – contactocracy (stela) and patronage networks.

But business as usual in Bosnia – if by that we are to understand its continued path towards implosion – is bad news for Europe. The European Union and the West have to come to terms with a number of inconvenient truths regarding their policy in Bosnia (and in the broader region). These inconvenient truths stem from the recognition of two deeply related facts, which are obvious to those on the ground.

Firstly, Bosnia (and much of the region) remains stuck in a frozen or latent conflict that resulted from a genocidal war. The same claims that set off the violence are largely still there, including Bosnia’s claim to statehood. And there has been no meaningful reconciliation. The EU’s current policy, mainly based on a watered-down integration track and the perspective of enlargement, attempts to dodge or neutralise this basic factor. But Bosnia’s challenges, and those of the region, are about foreign and security policy, post-conflict consolidation, and geopolitics.

Secondly, it is tempting for the EU to simply continue on its current course of action, maintaining the same diplomatic inertias. But this would be detrimental to Europe’s goals and regional stability, at a time of revived geopolitics and simmering social frustrations.


1. EU conditionality is failing and the Dayton institutions are spent

Bosnia is trapped between two conflicting Western approaches to post-conflict peace consolidation: EU enlargement through conditionality and incentives, and the executive structures, with quasi-colonial powers, set up by the Dayton Peace Agreement two decades ago. Bosnia has become a casualty of the limits and contradictions of both approaches – deftly leveraged by local elites. Europeans officially endorse both the EU’s soft power – exercised through the tools of integration – and the executive structures set up by Dayton.

The West assumes that Bosnia cannot completely govern itself without heading for conflict.

On the one hand, the West encourages domestic ownership and institution-led transformation towards Europe. On the other, it assumes that Bosnia cannot completely govern itself without heading for conflict. Implicitly, that means accepting that enlargement on its own is not a sufficiently strong game changer (hence the need for security back-up).

However, and for various reasons (not least the international community’s divisions), the institutions overseeing Dayton (or at least the Bonn Powers, which enable the dismissal of intransigent officials, etc.) are arguably spent, at least from an effectiveness perspective. The elites who are targeted simply ignore their decisions. In any event, beyond their merits, neither of these two approaches, on their own, work to solve Bosnia’s structural problems.

2. Worse than a “standstill” – the EU has allowed policy creep

Bosnia needs more than just the EU’s enlargement approach. The structural cleavages that drove the conflict have been largely unaffected by international rule and European mentoring. The 2014 European Commission Progress Report said that Bosnian European progress is at a standstill. But the problem goes beyond the need for implementation of the European Court of Human Rights’ Sejdić and Finci case, which challenged the power-sharing provisions that limited some institutional posts to members of the three constituent peoples. The present issue is not just a temporary policy setback. It is a case of structural policy creep: the underlying conditions for European success do not exist. At best, bar several game-changers, the policy will lead to fitful progress in the margins, while being powerless to stem the country’s implosion.

3. Holbrooke-style forceful diplomacy might not be a panacea either

It is also unclear that the Holbrooke-style interventionist, forceful diplomacy of the 1990s would provide a panacea for the current challenges either. Bosnia is a victim of the deepening crisis of the European security order. The world in which Dayton was created is gone, as is the Pax Americana that guaranteed the might necessary to sustain that order in Bosnia and elsewhere. Dayton and its power-sharing arrangements have atrophied.

Europeans, focused on other international fronts, have had neither the appetite nor the shared vision to launch any bold diplomatic initiatives towards a sort of Dayton II.

But, so far, Europeans, focused on other international fronts, have had neither the appetite nor the shared vision to launch any bold diplomatic initiatives towards a sort of Dayton II. This would require sustained pressure on local actors and bringing along regional actors (including Serbia, but also others) – a different kind of diplomacy to that generally favoured by the EU. It would have to include measures such as possible sanctions on spoilers, and so on.

Yet the trouble is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, a Dayton II (unlikely any time soon) might not be by itself a solution to Bosnia’s ills such as contactocracy – even if it might limit their pervasive impact.

4. EU soft power often results in ceremonial adaptation

EU politics and diplomacy around enlargement often hinge on the idea of the transformative power of Europe. Democratisation, good governance, rule of law, and overall societal empowerment will eventually materialise through the incentives that EU integration entails. This explains the EU’s tendency to use carrots (for example, 2014 candidate status to Albania) or to lower standards in order to boost the accession process. The underlying assumption is that change will come, if not at the pre-EU stage, then within the EU.

In practice, this is often not what happens, particularly in illiberal societies, new states, and/or post-totalitarian systems. Old cleavages and old ruling elites adapt to new forms and reassert themselves. Democratic politics in EU member states such as Hungary or Bulgaria challenge this fundamental tenet of EU policy. The EU might contribute to fostering liberal reformists elsewhere, even in Eastern Partnership countries. But, in the Western Balkans, this effect is at least unclear, and civil society activists say the truth is otherwise.

Instead, what often takes place is ceremonial adaptation: elites adapt to the language and frames of “Europe” and “reformists”, while failing to tackle underlying networks of power, patronage, and bad governance. The EU retains some transformative power in South-Eastern Europe, but it is shakier than is usually asserted. European officials should not delude themselves that these illiberal cleavages will change just by having unreformed elites join Brussels’ Rue de la Loi club with its perks and cocktail parties.

5. Open-ended EU mentoring poses risks

In view of these challenges, EU officials and engaged member states tend to redouble their involvement and mentoring efforts, leveraging more institution-building initiatives and resources. Rather than relying on the soft power of attraction, the EU actually works on “hard mentoring” at ground-breaking speed so that countries follow will its model and not lose momentum – although the EU tries to force a pace that is not standard in Western Europe either. Many of these initiatives are laudable, within an overall process of standard assimilation.

Intensive European mentoring sometimes ends up empowering spoilers.

But this kind of mentoring or coaching risks fostering the dependency on international assistance that, in Bosnia, has often become an excuse for paralysis. Worse, intensive European mentoring sometimes ends up empowering spoilers, instead of increasing their accountability to the public (a key demand in the Bosnian protests) or building a culture of political responsibility. And some obdurate local politicians, counselled by Western firms familiar with European structures, skilfully maximise the EU’s inconsistencies (for example, insisting on some standards not met by member states themselves).

Moreover, this intensive European mentoring risks substituting for domestic processes, for instance, by having EU officials drafting laws by default, which are then rubberstamped in the assemblies. This is not only problematic from a democratic perspective – it also bodes ill for the future governance of the countries involved.

6. EU enlargement is not necessarily the “most successful” security policy

Another mantra of European policy is that EU enlargement is, without caveats, the best security policy for the region and a surefire recipe for stability. But the sad truth is that the current stability in the Western Balkans is largely attributable to the balance of forces on the ground resulting from the conflicts in the 1990s. This balance of forces was enshrined in the relevant peace frameworks, as in Bosnia.

The EU enlargement perspective does contribute to that stability, providing a shared perspective for the future. As such, it remains a worthy goal. However, that stability is frail, as can be seen whenever a politician goes nationalistic, in the context of a depressed economy, gigantic social needs, and simmering frustration. The recent violence triggered by the Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 classifying soccer match is but the tip of the iceberg.

Security, strictly speaking, does not exclusively hinge on enlargement, but on a broader set of factors, such as the uneven deterrent role played by international presences and the tactical calculations of ruling elites. But, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, the increasing perception that the EU perspective is narrowing represents a potential factor of insecurity. It increases the incentive for free-riding, irresponsible nationalism, or pivoting to other actors such as Russia or Turkey.

7. EU membership may not be a solution to frozen conflicts

Another debatable premise – applied to Bosnia too – is the idea that “Europe” and the “common European home” is so powerful a shared goal that it will neutralise or even solve the region’s perennial frozen conflicts.

Without sustained diplomatic efforts to tackle the root causes of conflict, business as usual tends to reassert itself.

The circumstances of France and Germany are not easily exportable to other cases. EU member state Cyprus shows the inadequacy of this equation of EU membership with the end of frozen conflicts and their negative dynamics. Yes, EU integration, backed by other factors (for example, high-level mediation), can be a peace-building tool in some cases and can deliver breakthroughs, such as the 2013 Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. But without sustained diplomatic efforts to tackle the root causes of conflict, business as usual tends to reassert itself. The frozen state of the implementation of the Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo confirms this. In any case, this approach is becoming untenable, as the EU has officially frozen enlargement for the near future.

Even if the EU decided on a leap forward to enlargement, proposed by some as the only way forward, it is unclear that Bosnia or Kosovo would sort themselves out inside of the EU. Rather, at the current rate, the EU would be bringing into its midst illiberal systems and latent conflicts – to the detriment of the EU’s aspirations to strategic depth and power.

8. Geopolitics cannot be ignored

The EU’s main policy towards Bosnia, the region, and Eastern Europe in general is mostly normative. In liberal contexts, with enabling factors, this could make sense and work over time. But at the present moment, as Russia (along with other actors) enhances its levers of power across the region and balances European interests, the normative approach is not sufficient. The subtle spill-over effects of the Ukraine crisis into the Balkans are becoming increasingly clear. Indeed, while the EU is absorbed with other international crises (and its own), Russia is deftly spreading its web of influence across a region in which it wields significant levers (such as personal allegiances, energy, loans, etc.). Vladimir Putin’s recent high-level trip to Belgrade is indicative of this strategy. In Bosnia, his personal endorsement of Milorad Dodik (who toys with a Crimea-style scenario in Bosnia) and the Russian rejection of the Peace Implementation Council’s standard language on Bosnia’s territorial integrity and European aspirations offer reasons for concern.

Like it or not, Europeans will also have to engage in some smart forms of balancing and come up – very soon – with a strategy to fill the present power vacuum that defines the Western Balkans.


Much of the current European approach to the Western Balkans can be summarised as a sort of “please-no-problems policy”. Moreover, this policy is based on assumptions that are, at the least, shaky. However, circumstances are changing for the worse, putting at risk the progress achieved in earlier years. Incoming Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the right things before the European Parliament about rule of law, the fight against corruption, and so on. But this approach will not be enough.

Europeans should adapt their policy to shifting circumstances instead of staying the course, Titanic-style.

For a start, Europeans, honouring their own security strategy, should adapt their policy to shifting circumstances instead of staying the course, Titanic-style. The new EU leadership, with the High Representative at the helm and with engagement from core member states such as Germany, should set in motion a bold policy reset for the EU’s engagement in the Western Balkans. This policy reset would need to address coherently all the angles involved: geopolitics, peace consolidation, security policy, diplomacy, and enlargement. And, given the challenges across the world, from Ukraine to the Islamic State to the tensions in Asia, this kind of policy shift would contribute to a much-needed discussion in 2015 towards an EU Global Strategy.

Lastly, such a policy reassessment should run parallel to a discussion on the future shape of the European project, options for its reinvention, and the benefits of further enlargement – instead of enabling anti-immigration forces to mainstream their vision. Europe’s power and clout abroad is profoundly dependent on its ability to renovate at home its political model of liberal democracies and open societies – it must prove by its example what it preaches abroad.

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


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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