BiEPAG's experts react to Bosnia and Herzegovina receiving candidate status
On December 15, Bosnia and Herzegovina became an EU membership candidate, more than six years after the country applied to join the bloc and almost twenty years since the start of the Western Balkan accession process to the Union. Below are reactions of four BiEPAG members to the news.rnrn rn
rnGranting Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status is undeserved and yet the right decision. There is little doubt that the governments of Bosnia have not delivered on all the conditions set by the EU to receive candidate status.rnrnNevertheless, it was right to give the country candidate status, as attaching such high barriers to candidate status was a strategic blunder by the EU. The granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova implicitly acknowledged that burdening this first step towards accession with excessive conditions was a costly mistake in the Western Balkans.rnrnIt has long been understood that frontloading conditions helps little in achieving them and ends up just keeping the country further from the transformative dynamics of integration. Ideally all open questions and conditions should be resolved during accession talks, the talks provide for the structure and sustained dialogue—at least in theory—to tackle the issues and to show that resolving them has tangible benefits.rnrnToday, nobody gets excited about candidate status anymore. After all, North Macedonia was kept waiting at this stage for nearly 17 years, so the hope that this provides for an incentive is naïve. Of course, making Bosnia a candidate does not resolve anything and can only work positively if there is a more sustained attempt to address unresolved issues and to start accession talks as soon as possible.rnrnFrom a regional perspective, it is equally important to respond positively to Kosovo’s membership application. At this point, it is clear that Kosovo is only lagging behind because of the 5 non-recognizers. Thus, everyone in the region should move up together.rn
rnBosnia and Herzegovina has finally received EU candidate status. The big question now is whether this represents a turning point in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s relationship with the EU and whether the country will now irreversibly make its way towards the membership in the Union.rnrnLooking strictly at the implementation of reforms, Bosnia did not earn this candidate status. Still, the decision on EU candidate status was long overdue. The list of reforms originally needed to be implemented for the EU candidacy status was an extensive and a far-reaching one, probably the most extensive among all other Western Balkans states that became EU candidate countries long before. Still, even with the latest decision 14 points from 2019 remain on the table. The decision itself is clearly a political signal in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine and against the background of the bold political step by the Union to offer EU candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova.rnrnThe new geopolitical situation since the Russian war against Ukraine has pushed the West to take a strong symbolic step towards marking and protecting its zone of interests including the Western Balkans.rnrnThe EU candidacy status for Bosnia carries also a massage to Moscow that the West and the EU remain committed to the region.rnrnFollowing the decision of the EU there was no euphoria among the Bosnian public. Bosnians have been waiting too long for anything meaningful to happen in terms of EU-integration, thus a sober sentiment towards the process and the new symbolism by the EU prevails.rnrnThe sense of disillusionment with the sluggish development of their own country and endless ethnopolitical and clientelist political games of local politicians arepaired with the loss of hope that the EU integration of Bosnia will happen any time soon. The most pragmatic Bosnian Europeans do not wait; they simply emigrate to the EU leaving a country robbed of its potential behind.rnrnThe decisive question lying in front of us is whether the new political constellation, which has changed somewhat in some areas after the elections in October 2022, opens up breathing room for a more offensive EU reform policy.rnrnWith the formation of the new coalition at the state level it looks as if there could be some new momentum in Bosnian politics. It is already positive that this time Bosnia did not break the negative world record in terms of time needed to form a new government. The new “Osmorka” bound to the old ethnonationalist godfathers of Bosnian Croats, Dragan Covic, and Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, agreed to act programmatically and pragmatically. They repeatedly underline the need for the new coalition to be strongly committed to EU integration as one of its major priorities.rnrnThe rhetoric in the first few days of the new coalition looks quite good. Structurally, however, the HDZ and SNSD are strongly in the game again, which poses the question whether the metamorphosis from ethnopolitical agitation against the state would eventually see a sudden change towards new pragmatism.rnrnTo put it more bluntly – will Milorad Dodik, the anti-European par excellence of recent years, go back to his alter ego as pragmatic politician and democrat that he used to be back in the late 1990s and early 2000s?rnrnThe central reform questions will probably soon be on the agenda again. The issues of central coordination and cooperation mechanisms for EU integration is probably the most important question.rnrnThe second most important point will be the further course of justice and rule of law reforms. It also remains to be seen whether the new coalition might be able to come up with a compromise regarding further changes of electoral legislation and implementation of the judgments by the European Court of Human Rights.rnrnBesides Bosnia, the EU’s internal horizons in terms of enlargement policy also includes big question marks.rnrnHow will the future EU enlargement policy look like in the years to come with Ukrainian question as the dominant one? Would we need to open up the debate on internal EU reforms (incl. majority voting) before any major next steps can be taken?rnrnFinally, what can the EU put on the table in terms of concrete incentives (staged accession?) and rewards for reforms (internal EU market?) in order to speed up the process and make it more effective? The old logic of the enlargement process has not delivered upon its promises. Is there a new logic on the horizon?rnrnLooking both at the dynamics in Bosnia right now as well as in the EU in times of new geopolitical challenges perhaps a new form of optimism is still appropriate in the end, but it is a “restrained and wait-and-see” kind of optimism, which unfortunately can quickly turn on its head at any time.
rnBosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) breathes a collective sigh of relief, “we are not getting left behind”. After the European Union granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June this year, citizens living in the country felt that they were (again) unjustly being made an example of.rnrnTo make it clear, Bosnia and Herzegovina did not deserve being granted candidacy, at least against the criteria set out by the Commission; it did not even come close or make a concentrated effort.rnrnPolitical leaders of the main (ethnic) parties in the country could not agree on any major reforms in the past four years, and the key issues of electoral and constitutional reform went unaddressed, yet again. The October 2022 elections were held under the same discriminatory rules for the fourth time since the judgement in the Sejdić and Finci case by the European Court of Human Rights.rnrnDecision makers in Bosnia and Herzegovina understand very well that the Commission’s decisions on candidacy, starting negotiations, and membership are political and not merit based. If they learned anything in the past 15 years by observing Croatian accession, the plight of Northern Macedonia and Kosovo, and the slow progress of the remaining Western Balkan countries, then it is as follows.rnrnRewards do not always follow merit. Instead, political decisions follow opportunity and the War in Ukraine has created such an opportunity after almost two decades of enlargement fatigue. However, the rewards of this opportunity will come to those who know how to make use of them and Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to move fast. Coalition agreements on forming governments at different levels just over two months after the elections, albeit with vague framework programs, are an encouraging sign.rnrnTo be fair, the new government will largely consist of parties that have used the previous years to block any meaningful reforms. Therefore, strong incentives, both from the EU and Western partners, coupled with domestic and international pressure on decision makers will be necessary to keep any reforms on track.rnrnThe euphoria of being granted candidate status was short-lived, simply because it came far too late. Now the real work of engaging with institutions and policymakers of Bosnia and Herzegovina can start.rnrn rn
rnKosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, albeit not coupled as in the case of North Macedonia and Albania, have navigated the ‘potential candidate’ EU path alongside each other.rnrnDifferently from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which despite the internal challenges has had a legal basis to apply for membership in 2016, in Kosovo until December 15 the topic of EU membership application has been almost a forbidden ambition, barely occupying the daily political discourse in the country and its relations with the EU.rnrnThe EU paths of both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have crossed once again on the 15th of December. Clearly standing at different stages of the EU integration, Bosnia was formally given candidate status, meaning Kosovo became the last country in the Western Balkans to formally apply for EU membership by lodging the formal application to join.rnrnThe decision to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina was considered a ray of hope in the enlargement process in the Western Balkans, albeit prompted by the geopolitical decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.rnrnIn Kosovo, the positive narrative built around the case of Bosnia has driven the political elite to pursue their EU application agenda which was clearly discouraged by the member states fearing the lack of political capital to process Kosovo mainly due to the five non-recognizers and the ongoing Brussels Dialogue.rnrnThe positive decision sent messages that the EU and member states are making efforts to rekindle the enlargement process in the Western Balkans.rnrnNevertheless, it is rather difficult to stomach the fact that Kosovo remains the last laggard in the process. With its application submitted and several EU member states supporting it, it is unclear what scenario will play out for Kosovo’s fate on the EU integration path.rnrnWhat will be Kosovo’s path? That of Ukraine and Moldova, which marks a rather short waiting time? Perhaps the Bosnian scenario, of being stuck in the waiting room and not making it on the agenda for handful of years? Or will the legal battle with the non-recognizers, unwilling to soften their approach toward Kosovo, hinder it’s EU path?rnrnEvidently, the war in Ukraine has challenged the EU processes and made the union work on a different enlargement speed. It is also very clear that the status of the candidate does not necessarily mean integration.rnrnLessons learned from the region not only from those enjoying candidate status, but also those with accession negotiations open, show that the journey between formalized candidate status to actual membership can take decades.rnrnHowever, showing progress by confirming the candidate status for Kosovo might not only steer the reforms, but also increase the EU leverage in the Brussels Dialogue.
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