Britain and Germany put forward a plan on Wednesday (5 November) to revive Bosnia’s stalled bid to join the European Union, offering to unlock EU funds in exchange for commitments to institutional reform from the country’s yet-to-be-formed new government.
Bosnia is stuck at the bottom of the pack of Western Balkan states seeking EU membership, hampered by an unwieldy system of ethnic power-sharing set out in the Dayton Agreement, which ended the 1992-95 civil war, and divided the former Yugoslav republic into two autonomous regions.
Nationalist parties triumphed in elections in October, but a complex political system, based on ethnic and regional quotas, has hampered the formation of a stable national government and dimmed prospects of a breakthrough with the EU.
The framework set out by the British and German foreign ministers at a conference in Berlin looks to use the elections as an opportunity to drive momentum for reform by dangling the carrot of EU cash, and putting economics before political reforms.
“We want you to succeed – and we want you as members of the European Union, of the European family,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an open letter to be published in Bosnian newspapers on Thursday.
“However, there is only one path into the European Union – through reforms that help Bosnia and Herzegovina reach the standard of governance and economic development of EU Member States.”
The reforms require the agreement of all parties, and newly re-elected Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who advocates a loose confederation between his Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation, is strongly opposed to a more unitary state. Dodik looks to Russia rather than the EU for support.
But with Bosnia’s economy in a fragile state and reliant on International Monetary Fund handouts to meet a growing budget deficit, Britain and Germany are hoping the attraction of access to EU funds and eventually its 500-million person single market could help push institutional change.
“We believe that there is no time to waste. The economic situation in your country is deeply serious,” the letter said. The reforms sought by the EU were aimed at creating private sector jobs and stopping workers from moving abroad.
In Sarajevo, a senior Western official close to the initiative said the West was looking at also involving the IMF and the World Bank to encourage economic reform.
“The hope is that with a critical mass of reforms, when the economy grows and when reforms have been implemented, that will bring a positive spin and a positive momentum there, and it gives the feel that this bigger project of Bosnia and Herzegovina might work,” the official said.
Steinmeier spokesman Martin Schaefer stated that “Both ministers are very worried that before the elections, reforms appeared to have come to a standstill, as had Bosnia Herzegovina’s path of convergence with the European Union.”
Political inertia, unemployment and corruption sparked a spasm of civil unrest in February, when protesters torched government buildings across the country in the worst violence since the war.
Economics before institutions
The proposed framework asks Bosnia to make a written commitment to institutional reforms at all levels of government, making it more compatible with the EU, and also to agree an agenda for broader political and economic reforms that would bring it into line with the bloc’s accession criteria.
In return for those commitments, Britain and Germany will seek to win support from European countries to endorse Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement – a pre-accession compact that unlocks EU cash to help fund further reforms, with a view to eventually making Bosnia an official candidate member.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it hoped that endorsement would come at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting on 12 December.
Anticipating resistance from some member states about the prospect of further enlargement to the 28-country bloc, both foreign ministers stressed that the new plan did not amount to a watering down of the entry requirements.
“If Bosnia and Herzegovina is to join the European Union, and to enjoy the benefits of membership, then it will have to fulfill the conditions of membership that apply to all future members,” their letter said.
The proposal did not offer a solution to sticking points on minority rights highlighted by a 2009 European Court of Human Rights ruling that demanded the removal of ethnic eligibility criteria for official posts, which has yet to be implemented.
The case has derailed previous EU initiatives to accelerate Bosnia’s accession process.
The ministers said the issues raised by that case still needed to be addressed, but that other political, social and economic reforms could be brought about sooner, generating momentum for Bosnia’s EU entry bid.