EU-Bosnia and Herzegovina relations


Although Bosnia and Herzegovina hopes to join the EU one day, political infighting between Serb, Muslim and Croat communities is threatening to derail the country from its path towards European integration.

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Situated at the heart of the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) experienced the worst of the ethno-nationalist fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, suffering large-scale death and destruction in a complex war, the implications of which still very much resonate today.

Following BiH's declaration of independence in 1992, a bitter conflict ensued between Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, claiming 100,000 lives. Eventual international military intervention under UN auspices culminated in a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, which led to the Dayton Agreement that created the current constitution and geopolitical structure of BiH.

The conflict involved ethnic cleansing and a number of atrocities were committed – worst of all the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the army of the Republika Srpska and other paramilitary units, despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers in the area.

BiH is officially a federation, divided into two partner entities with considerable independence: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Each has its own government, legislature and police force, but the two come together to form a central, federal government with an eight-month rotating presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb.

Responsibility for the civilian maintenance of the Dayton Agreement lies with the High Representative (HR), who has also served as the EU's Special Representative since 2002. Security and stability is maintained by an international military peacekeeping force, which transferred from NATO to the EU in 2004.

BiH borders Croatia to the north, Serbia to the east and Montenegro to the south. It has a short stretch of Adriatic coastline. Home to Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats, it has a population of 4.6 million, with Bosniaks constituting around 48%, Serbs 37% and Croats 14% of the population.

BiH's formal EU relations began in 1999, when the country was included in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for the Western Balkans. The 2000 Feira European Council confirmed the EU membership perspective of BiH, declaring that all SAP countries are ''potential candidates'' for membership.

A Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) was signed in June 2008, paving the way for eventual EU accession. Yet the process was extremely slow and arduous owing to lack of agreement between BiH's political leaders. The SAA was only reached after a three-year stalemate over key police reforms was finally resolved in the parliament in April 2008 (EurActiv 18/06/08).

The EU has expressed serious concern about the political atmosphere in the country and is appearing to lose patience. EU leaders have repeatedly warned BiH that continued infighting between Serb, Bosniak and Croat nationalists is driving the country away from the closer relationship with the Union to which its citizens aspire (EurActiv 23/10/08).

The apparent lack of will for a common future has led to concerns that the situation is turning into a frozen conflict. Through the SAP framework, the EU has firmly stated that the future of the Western Balkans lies within the Union, yet it representatives warn that the situation in BiH is threatening to create a ''black hole'' at the very heart of the region.

In May 2008, the European Commission established a visa liberalisation roadmap for citizens of BiH, as part of a wider scheme for the Western Balkans. In December 2009, BiH was excluded from the first phase of the process, along with Albania and Kosovo.

Yet on 27 May 2010, the Commission adopted proposals to lift the requirements for citizens of BiH once the country satisfies its remaining criteria – meaning that visas could be lifted by autumn this year (EurActiv 27/05/10).