Bosnia and Herzegovina today (15 February) formally submitted an application to join the EU, hoping to catch up with its Balkan neighbours after years lost following the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said the application was “good news” and said this was an important moment both for the citizens of this country and for the Union.
“At the moment the union is questioned from within, it is still very attractive from the outside, and this is a sense of energy and a positive sign we welcome very much,” she said.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was discouraged for lodging the EU membership application for several years now, because the EU doesn’t believe the country meets the necessary criteria.
In the early 2000s, Bosnia appeared set to join the now 28-nation European Union, but deep divisions between its Serb, Croat and Muslim communities blocked the political and civil society reforms demanded by Brussels for membership until last year.
Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, whose country holds the six-month EU rotating presidency, said at today’s meeting of the Union foreign ministers that the EU was happy to see “Bosnia back on the reform path.”
“It is urgent to maintain the positive momentum by continuing to implement reforms,” Koenders said, stressing that the EU would look carefully at what is would likely take some years.
Dragan Čović, the chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, said: “It is a great pleasure to be able to (submit this application) on behalf of the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina … Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks.”
Čović noted how Croatia had joined the bloc in 2013, while Serbia and Montenegro were now making progress towards membership too.
Facing “years of many challenges ahead,” Bosnia needed to improve its economy and show that it could be a “credible” member of the EU, he said.
Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s “were one of the most awful pages of European history.”
The fact that Bosnia now wanted to join the EU, even when the European project was being tested to the limits, showed how important it was to the future, they said in a joint statement.
“Today we celebrate another step towards a united and peaceful continent. And we need unity in challenging times,” it said.
“As some forces across our continent are questioning the very existence of our Union, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application shows that the need of a united European continent is still strong among our peoples.”
Bosnia has been deeply divided along ethnic lines since the bitter 1992-1995 war following the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced the worst of the ethnic-nationalist fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia's declaration of independence in 1992 triggered a bitter conflict between Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, claiming 100,000 lives. Eventual international intervention under the auspices of the UN 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.
The conflict involved ethnic cleansing and atrocities. Worst of all was 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.
The country is officially a federation, divided into two partner entities with considerable independence: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Each has its own government, legislature and police force, but the two come together in a central government with an eight-month rotating presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb.