Bosnia and Herzegovina must end discrimination to ensure its EU future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Dragan Čović, president of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ). [EPA-EFE/KOCA SULEJMANOVIC]

Bosnia and Herzegovina is at the crossroads between the success and failure of its European dream. War and secession are certainly not the way forward, but neither is maintaining the status quo, without implementing reforms agreed with the European Union, writes Dragan Čović.

Dragan Čović is the president of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ).

Although it has been twenty-five years since the end of the war, we have recently heard certain political representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina calling for war and secession. This is an irrational approach and must be strongly rejected.

Instead, we must start negotiating seriously within Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is no alternative for Bosnia and Herzegovina but the path to EU membership.

I am dedicated to pursuing the European path by addressing the 14 key priorities of the European Commission, eliminating discrimination against minorities in electoral legislation in the coming weeks, including limited constitutional change, and preserving fundamental constitutional arrangements which guarantee full equality and parity between the three main national communities – Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.

In 2016, as the chairperson of the three-member presidency, I submitted the country’s request for membership of the EU. I am aware that a difficult road lies before us, but it has been made easier due to the 14 priorities mapped out by the European Commission.

We committed ourselves in 2019 to implementing them by making difficult but necessary reforms in order to attain candidate status. I am sure that with the support of the EU and its diplomatic representatives, which we are witnessing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we can achieve this key objective.

On this path, we count on the support of the US as well. In his recent letter, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed a very clear stance in regard to what is rightly expected of us. This non-election year provides a chance we cannot afford to miss in the implementation of electoral, rule of law, and economic reforms necessary for a path forward to EU and NATO membership.

In this regard, the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which called for an end to discrimination toward candidates who do not identify as Bosniaks, Croats, or Serbs, must be implemented.

It is intolerable that a part of our citizenry, including Roma and Jews, cannot run as candidates for the top state institutions. Creating just and fair solutions to these challenges, including through limited constitutional change, is one of the HDZ’s major priorities in the election legislation alternatives we are proposing.

This should be a priority for all others as well. Without changes, there will be no European future, and this must be clear to all of us.

We are aware that the protection and promotion of human rights around the globe is one of the strengths that define European uniqueness in the world. We must strive to embody and share these fundamental values. I firmly believe Bosnia and Herzegovina can succeed and make its contribution in the near future.

Furthermore, the country’s Constitution and the Constitutional Court have often emphasised during the last two decades that full equality and parity of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs is a fundamental constitutional principle.

Eliminating this principle or devaluing it in any way would lead to the demise of the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This would also contravene its basic values and norms, and run contrary to the democratic will of our citizens. I doubt that anyone would support a country dominated exclusively by one ethnic group.

We, the representatives of the three communities, must therefore build mutual trust in the same way our EU partners did after World War II, pursuing the path of mutual reconciliation, recognition, and respect.

Our electoral legislation disenfranchised large parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens, including the Croat community in the country. The smallest community, by definition, depends the most on the rule of law and its trust in institutions.

It is unconstitutional that the most populous community selects and determines who will represent the smallest constituent community, yet this is what is happening to the Croats and others in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Constitutional Court ruled in 2016 that the principle of legitimate political representation of constituent peoples, as a direct expression of the democratic principle, must be guaranteed. It is up to each of the communities to decide who will represent them, as this is the standard in European political life.

We must adjust and reaffirm a power-sharing system in Bosnia Herzegovina that guarantees equal rights and does not discriminate against anyone. As political leaders, we must now negotiate on the basis of the Mostar Agreement signed in June 2020, respect the signed agreements, and rebuild mutual trust. We have no more time to lose.

All of these will bring us closer to EU membership and make us a fairer and more cohesive society.

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