Ambassador: Bosnia and Herzegovina will apply for EU membership this year

By the end of this year, the conditions will have been met for Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply for EU membership, Almir Šahovi?, the country's ambassador to France, told euractiv.fr in an interview.

Šahovi? discussed his country’s internal political crisis and EU accession bid.

He was speaking to EURACTIV France's Marek Kubista.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's EU accession process is the least advanced in the Western Balkan countries. In your view, what are the main reforms that need to be made to speed up this process?

The EU and NATO are the two priorities of our external policy. We have not yet submitted our EU membership application because of reasons that originate from the difficult starting position of Bosnia and Herzegovina ten or fifteen years ago, compared to the other countries of the region. Since 1995, we have made numerous reforms in the areas of defence, taxation and justice.

But we still haven't managed to complete this process and some issues remain unresolved, such as the redistribution of state property between the central state and the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Moreover, the closure of the Office of the High Representative requires a reform of the constitution. All political players agree on the need for constitutional change, but there is disagreement on how to change it. This is why our membership application process has slowed recently.

However, we signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) two years ago and the authorities are continuing to make progress in the adoption of the acquis communautaire without waiting for the official membership application, as we do not want to be behind our neighbours who have already submitted theirs. I think that by the end of this year, the conditions will be sufficient for Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply for membership. I am very optimistic about our ability to make up this small delay.

Out of all the countries in South East Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the one with the highest level of support for accession – more than 70%.

If the country does not align its constitution and electoral law with the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the 'Sejdic and Finci' case before the legislative elections in October 2010, the Council of Europe could declare the results invalid. The country would therefore risk being isolated by the European institutions. What is your view on this? What are the obstacles to this reform?

We are well aware of the importance of this ruling. All of the key political players in Bosnia and Herzegovina agree that the constitution must be changed. To do this, a working group should soon make a proposal on how to accommodate this ruling.

The lack of agreement among the parties guides the approach to take. There are two schools of thought: one group of parties is insisting on minimal alterations that would only affect this particular part of the constitution, while the other group wants a slightly wider package of reforms.

What political and ethnic affiliations do these two schools of thought have?

The coalitions are somewhat trans-partisan but you could say that the first, more restrictive approach is closer to the Republika Srpska and the second, wider approach is closer to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But you cannot generalise.

For this second approach, what would be the content of this 'package'?

For now, there is no official proposal. However, two things being discussed are an increase in the number of parliamentarians or the creation of a non-constituent group in the House of Peoples. The issue of voting in the House of Representatives and the question of redistributing powers are also being mentioned.

The general and presidential elections will take place at the beginning of October. For the constitutional change to be applied during the elections, it must be adopted within the next one or two months.

Closing the Office of the High Representative has been discussed for a long time. What are your feelings on this?

The redistribution of state property between the central state and the entities depends on the closure of the office. A balance must be found between the two, as it is a technical question that has become political.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are two opinions on the closure: those who think that the office must be closed quickly and those who want a more gradual closure, as it brings the risk of a judicial void if we get rid of the office without constitutional reforms. The High Representative has the power to unblock certain political situations.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Bosnia and Herzegovina was excluded from the EU's visa liberalisation process in December. Although at the time the Commission said that the country had not implemented the necessary reforms, the Spanish Presidency recently indicated that the Commission could propose lifting the obligation in June. How do you explain this change?

We were very shocked by the EU's decision to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina out of the beginning of the visa liberalisation process last year. We thought that we were at the same level in terms of fulfilling the conditions in the roadmap. The population was also very disappointed by such a decision. This shock made Bosnia and Herzegovina mobilise all its resources to fulfil the conditions, which is now the case. A number of sacrifices have been made in the name of a European future, but until now there has been no visible improvement in the daily lives of the citizens.

Do you find the EU's enlargement policy towards the Balkans coherent, considering that the Croats and Serbs can now travel without a visa but the rest of the population, including Muslims, cannot?

There has not been much of a strategy from the EU. The member states have entrusted the Commission [with this] and have thus adopted a technical approach.

So it is a lack of political vision by the EU?

I cannot allow myself to say that there has been a lack of political vision. The EU has adopted a technical approach, so we have done the same. The EU could have had a slightly more political approach to this issue, but we prefer now to look towards the future. The fact that one part of our population can travel was disappointing for the citizens who cannot. We hope that the EU-Balkans summit in Sarajevo in June will bring us good news on this subject.

What does Bosnia and Herzegovina expect from the summit?

We are hoping for a positive decision on the visa issue. It would relax the political atmosphere in the country and provide an excellent incentive for new reforms.

Ten years after the first summit in Zagreb in 2000, the expectation is also symbolic. Sarajevo is a very good choice: it is a symbolic place, a kind of non-official capital of South East Europe, given the mix of peoples and the tragedy that the city has experienced. The summit should also be a strong driver for the European future of the countries in the region. It is in our interest, as well as that of the EU, that the region is integrated into the EU and NATO. Stability on the continent will be achieved. The sooner, the better.

What particular links do Bosnia and Herzegovina and France have? What is the position of France towards the integration of your country?

France and Bosnia and Herzegovina have very good political and amicable relations. France supports the Euro-Atlantic path of Bosnia and Herzegovina. France is also one of the most supportive countries for the liberalisation of visas.

The links are also very strong in cultural terms as they go beyond the institutional framework. A number of high-level intellectuals and sporting figures, such as Miralem Pjanic, Enki Bilal and Danis Tanovic, live in France and are in a way themselves ambassadors of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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