Resilient but shaky Bosnia marks a year since EU application

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No-one expects BiH to join the EU anytime soon but Brussels could do more to support the country's ambitions. [Shutterstock]

In the year since Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) submitted its formal application to join the European Union, little has gone according to plan for the fragile country, writes Sanford Henry.

Sanford Henry is a partner at Dr Schwartz-Schilling & Partners, the advisory firm of Christian Schwartz-Schilling, the former BiH High Representative. He writes in a personal capacity.

BiH’s case for membership is hardly helped by the EU’s own introspection and absence of strategic vision, especially post-Brexit. The migration crisis, one of many headaches for Brussels, has strained BiH’s already brittle social cohesion and potentially facilitated the radicalisation of some of Bosnia’s disaffected and unemployed Muslim youngsters.

Meanwhile, illegal moves by Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia – with the obvious intent to then be absorbed by an increasingly bellicose Serbia – have exposed once more the paper-thin veneer of BiH statehood that could shatter at any moment.

Furthermore, growing tensions between Serbia and its neighbours Kosovo and Croatia threaten to reignite ethnic tensions across the Balkans. Brussels should be asking afresh whether Serbia, backed by a meddling and malevolent Russia, should be so openly favoured for EU accession.

It is therefore encouraging that the presidency of BiH, supported by a small but courageous corps of optimistic diplomats, has persisted with its efforts to join the EU.

While the British might have chosen to shun Europe’s most successful peace project, most Bosnians know that their own peace can only be assured by the EU’s constant and hard-headed engagement.

What is increasingly clear is that an isolationist United States, led by an America First doctrine, is not going to match the diplomatic and military commitment to the Balkans that it showed in the bloody 1990s. The Dayton accords were a triumph, albeit perhaps a Pyrrhic one, of Clintonian diplomacy and post-Cold War leadership.

Now, BiH can only hope for the EU’s support to prevent its disintegration, but the EU cannot hope for Washington’s support.

Even in the relatively enlightened Obama administration, the State Department showed scant interest in developing an enterprise fund along the lines of those deployed to such dramatic effect post-1989 in Eastern Europe by the Support for Eastern European Democracy (SEED) Act of 1989.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is adamant that there will be no EU enlargement under his watch. But his watch, we now know, will end in 2019, and he may soon find his honesty makes him a lame-duck leader.

No-one expects BiH to join the EU any time soon but the Commission could do far more to show a greater commitment to the country’s ambitions to bind itself to Euro-Atlantic political and security structures.

Indeed, this is what BiH’s overwhelmingly young population is hoping for. Most students in BiH today have no memories of the war, although many of course live in its shadow. They travel freely and understand the critical value of the EU, imperfect as it may be, as a model for economic integration and peaceful coexistence.

Jobs are the priority in BiH: the country can ill afford a brain drain of talented young men and women. Conservative estimates put the unemployment rate at 44%, and up to two thirds of young people are jobless, with few prospects.

Developing entrepreneurial skills and fostering the creation of small businesses will in time have a substantially positive effect on BiH’s long-term economic prospects.

It’s also encouraging to see the BiH government pushing economic reforms and integration within the country. Until now, the three ethnic groups in the country have essentially dealt among themselves, which has stalled progress and stymied innovation and investment.

However, Gulf Arab countries are profiting from the EU’s inertia in the Balkans, with billions of euros flowing from a UAE developer into the futuristic Buroj Ozone City in Sarajevo.

Inevitably this flow of money will have political consequences in a Muslim-majority country, and if the EU continues to vacillate over the Western Balkans the region will be prised away towards the Arab world, Turkey and Russia. This would be politically disastrous for the EU’s future, its cohesion and its credibility.

Every day that passes in Bosnia and Herzegovina without bloodshed takes the country closer to its ultimate destination: a peaceful, prosperous nation embedded in Europe and an example of strength in diversity.

The challenges are many but this past year has shown that Bosnia’s people, especially its young people, have turned the page on the divisions of the past and are committed to moving forward together.