Big news for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) comes from the just-released European Commission Enlargement Package 2022. The Commission recommended that BiH should be granted candidate status by the Council, emphasising positive steps taken towards strengthening the democratic process. This is a major positive development for a country that has lagged well behind its Western Balkans neighbours when it comes to the European integration process.
However, the key points in a detailed, 132 pages long report are not very different from the last few years, stating that very little, limited or no progress has been achieved in most of the screened areas. It also noted that the Council of Ministers took no steps to develop a national programme for the adoption of the EU acquis.
In this constellation, the decision to recommend BiH for candidate status appears to be a political rather than merit based one, instigated by two political developments. First, and highlighted in the report, in the past year political parties in the Republic of Srpska Parliament almost completely blocked state level legislative and executive institutions and initiated withdrawal from the Bosnian army, security services, tax system, and judiciary in a de-facto secessionist act. Second, Republic of Srpska Russian ties lead to a concern about spill-over of the war against Ukraine and causing a serious security crisis and destabilisation of BiH.
As with Ukraine, candidate status would be granted on the understanding that the outlined eight steps are taken. The 2022 country report also features clear and visually highlighted recommendation areas for the concrete steps to be taken in the next 12 months, which wasn’t the case two years ago.
The Commission focuses its annual report on the implementation of 14 priorities set out in the December 2019 conclusions of the EU Council. Political criteria remain a subject of major concern. The section also highlights that no agreement was reached on a solution for constitutional and electoral reforms to bring the Constitution in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Amendments to improve electoral standards were rejected in Parliament.
Some or limited progress has been made in the following clusters: areas of Public Administration Reform (PAR), public procurement area, internal market, competitiveness and inclusive growth, green agenda and sustainable connectivity, external relations. No progress made in the area of judiciary and fundamental rights is a serious concern. Some limited action by the judiciary and the authorities has been taken to address Priebe Report (2019), while the corruption indicators deteriorated further and the capture of institutions deepened.
All other areas addressed in the report cannot make progress without the rule of law and fundamental rights. There is a recommendation for concrete steps towards strengthening freedom of expression where no progress has been made, and a renewed request to eliminate discrimination policies.
Limited progress has been made in the cluster of justice, freedom and security with a recommendation for urgent action regarding combating terrorism and violent extremism, adopting an action plan on migration, and combating organised crime, three areas that are of serious concern for BiH.
External relations (no progress) as well as the Foreign, Security and Defence policy (some progress) are other areas that require immediate action, being integrative frameworks under state level competence. They set the position of BiH on the global scene, its membership in international organisations and of course EU membership and the NATO Membership Action Plan, crucial for the country at present.
Candidate status is a positive development for BiH, one that has the potential for steering the actions of nationalist political parties and their leaders away from identity discourses and uniting them around concrete actions that must be taken to fulfil the EU accession criteria. This sets an agenda for the incoming government as well as for negotiating the governing coalitions following elections that took place earlier this month.