Perspectives | Politics

Opening EU Accession Negotiations Will Not Solve Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Problems

By - 08.05.2024

Basic political agreement among the country’s constituent peoples is needed.

On March 21, 2024, leaders of EU member states opened accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Previously, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament that BiH made more progress in the past year than it had in the previous 10. The European Commission also praised BiH’s “full alignment” with EU foreign and security policy, stating that such alignment is “crucial in these times of geopolitical turmoil.” 

The European Commission is now preparing the negotiating framework, creating deliverables  that politicians in BiH will have to fulfill. Bosnian lawmakers have already started enacting necessary reforms, such as the Law on Preventing the Conflict of Interest in the Institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been stalled for seven years, and the Law on Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. 

These laws were passed after negotiations between BiH’s ruling parties over the past year. However, the numerous political disputes that BiH has been unable to resolve in the almost three decades since the war threatened to overshadow them.

BiH still struggles to overcome its structural problems and the turmoil that surfaces in every debate about the country’s future. The problem lies in the different visions of the future and the past of a country with deeply contested historical narratives. This raises the question of whether the EU has greenlighted opening accession negotiations simply because it doesn’t want tensions from BiH to overflow into the region and the continent. 

Structural Problems

BiH’s complicated political structure presents a unique challenge. The country was divided into two entities Republika Srpska and the Federation of BiH by the Dayton Accords, a peace agreement concluded in 1995 at a U.S. Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Republika Srpska has a highly centralized government structure, while the Federation of BiH is divided into 10 cantons. Thus, BiH is overcrowded with governments and assemblies even though it has a rapidly shrinking population.

The international community maintains a presence through the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The high representative oversees implementation of the Dayton Agreement’s civilian aspects and holds the power to impose laws in BiH. High representatives have imposed laws on topics ranging from introducing prison sentences for genocide denial to electoral law, fueling the sense that BiH’s political institutions cannot be depended on to effectively handle domestic affairs. Only the Bosniak political parties and the majority of Bosniak citizens support the OHR, while the Croat and Serb political actors say that decisions in BiH must be made autonomously.

Serbs are the demographic majority in Republika Srpska, where the Bosniak and Croat minorities raise concerns about discrimination. Conversely, political struggle between Croats and Bosniaks pervades in the Federation, as both worry about discrimination in areas where they are in the minority

One glaring example of inequality is BiH’s three-member presidency, which reserves seats for one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb. This means that “others,” members of the Roma or Jewish communities, for instance, cannot run for top office in their own country. Furthermore, for several mandates, the Croat representative has been elected with Bosniak votes. Croats are outnumbered in the Federation and thus the Croat representative can be elected without Croat support. This leads many Croats to see that representative as illegitimate.

Yet, the biggest, or rather the loudest, problem, is the Bosnian Serbs’ leader, Milorad Dodik. Dodik openly supports Russian policies, denies genocide and threatens to destroy the state of BiH. Dodik and his associates are under numerous U.S. sanctions for corrupt practices and violations of the Dayton Accords. Therefore, the EU’s green light may be one way to appease Dodik and quell his uproar, potentially making him less disruptive by offering a clearer path to EU membership. 

Opening accession talks will not change Bosnians’ perceptions of their country

Politically, and consequently economically, the country’s progress is slowed down by inability to agree on key issues, threats of separatism from Republika Srpska and unitarism from Bosniaks. Bosniaks are the largest group, meaning that in this zero-sum nationalist political context dominated by ethnic parties, they would stand the most to gain from a more unified central state. 

The weak reforms implemented thus far are insufficient to improve Bosnia’s overall political and social situation. The current political structures, which are filled with people who have not left their positions over the past two decades, are not up to coordinating the new policies and rules required for EU accession. 

For example, the Law on the Court has stalled due to discussions about whether the appeals court should be in East Sarajevo or Banja Luka, Republika Srpska’s administrative center. The months of political struggle about this issue show that no item is too small to bicker over when it comes to maintaining influence over the court in any way possible.

Moreover, corruption remains endemic in BiH’s political structures. A day after the EU approved opening accession negotiations, the former prime minister of the Federation of BiH began serving a sentence for corruption. Concurrently, the president of the Court of BiH and the head of the intelligence service are in custody and awaiting trial for illegally wiretapping political opponents, among other things.

It is difficult for the population to be satisfied and content when pre-election campaigns almost never stop and convicted war criminals are glorified. Citizens are aware that opening negotiations does not directly lead to higher salaries. Currently, these salaries are good and safe only if they are linked to one of the countless budgets draining the state treasury. 

Unfortunately, many Bosnians want to leave the country. Some studies suggest that their reasons are not purely economic, as cost of living has risen and economic challenges abound in EU countries too. Rather, citizens increasingly do not see a future in a country where everyday rhetoric is dominated by hate speech, basic rights are considered unattainable dreams and the same key figures tell the same stories for years on end, while improving life only for political elites.

BiH’s various political interests must work together

BiH’s autonomous decision-making is not going very smoothly. This can be seen also in its handling of the conditions imposed by the EU. Initially, there were 14 conditions for opening negotiations, but that number was reduced to move the process along and prevent regional tensions from escalating and possibly igniting. BiH still needs to fulfill five of the 14 conditions. 

Bosnian parties on all sides insist that the EU gave BiH the green light solely due to their efforts. Even the largest Bosniak party, which was ousted from power in the last elections and was a hindrance in negotiations, boasts of its contribution. 

However, what few will openly admit is that Croatia played a significant role as BiH’s advocate in the EU. Zagreb is keen on seeing the country with which it shares its longest border become more stable and peaceful. Of course, this was also exploited for parliamentary elections in Croatia; according to Croatia’s constitution, the country must also take care of Croats in BiH. It could also benefit Croatian parliamentarians ahead of the European Parliament elections in June 2024.

BiH now faces even greater tasks. The EU will draft new conditions, domestic forces will convene to address them, while accession negotiations may be fodder for further disagreements. 

The key question remains: how will the country join the EU and coexist with others if, three decades after the war, it still struggles to find internal harmony, let alone foster unity among its people? Nobody has outlined a blueprint for executing the most significant task, which still seems unattainable in BiH, and nor are they likely to. 

No EU path or green light can solve this problem if it is not resolved through genuine agreement without any hidden agendas. Sadly, BiH is brimming with politicians ready to deceive, who have filled their pockets with money and intend to perpetuate a flawed coexistence.

Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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