EU leaders agreed on Thursday to open talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on joining the bloc, although negotiations will not begin until the Balkan country has passed more key reforms.

“Congratulations! Your place is in our European family. Today’s decision is a key step forward on your EU path”, European Council head Charles Michel wrote on X (formerly twitter), as leaders met at a summit in Brussels on March 22.

“Now the hard work needs to continue so Bosnia and Herzegovina steadily advances, as your people want,” Michel said.

More reforms

BiH has been an official candidate for membership since 2022, but had to implement a number of reforms before it was given the green light to move to the next stage. Last week, Brussels said the country had completed some of the steps required, but some judicial and electoral reforms remain outstanding.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has reinvigorated the EU’s drive to enlarge in eastern and central Europe, with member states agreeing in December to open talks with Ukraine and Moldova.

The drive for new members is part of an effort to push back against Russian and Chinese influence in the EU’s backyard.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Bosnia was now “fully aligned” with the EU’s foreign and security policy, had improved its management of migration flows and had adopted laws to combat both money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

She welcomed BiH’s agreement to include the judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in national criminal records.

Von der Leyen noted further steps towards dialogue and reconciliation in the aftermath of the country’s 1992-1995 war, with the creation of a new peace-building committee.

Starting negotiations is only the beginning of a long process of further painstaking reforms that usually last for many years before a country finally joins the EU. The president of the Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, who remains a Kremlin ally, has held enormous sway over the Serb entity for years and has frequently stoked ethnic tensions and thus jeopardising Bosnia’s path to the EU.

Bosnia’s regional neighbours, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania, are already ahead in their efforts to join, but all remain a long way from membership. 

Barriers to membership

The decision to open accession negotiations was met with strong opposition from a group of member states, including the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Estonia, which argued that BiH’s progress on the European path was still limited.

The Dutch parliament was pondering to block the start of accession talks, but didn’t tie Prime Minister Mark Rutte‘s hands in the end. Rutte warned that a veto would cause “enormous damage” to the Netherlands and convinced a majority to opt for a more lenient resolution. The parliament asked Rutte to block agreement on the negotiation framework, a procedural step before the real talks can start, until BiH has met the eight additional requirements set by the European Commission late last year. Thus, he was able to agree on the symbolic green light for the opening of the accession negotiations.

On the other hand, the “Friends of the Balkans” group, which includes several states such as Austria, Croatia, Italy, Hungary and Slovenia, has accelerated Sarajevo’s progress in the integration process. “It is a big step forward, in what we call reunification, the opening of negotiations for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to the EU”, said Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob described the European Council’s decision to open accession negotiations with the EU as an important step on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path towards the European family. The decision, he said, was also an important and encouraging message to the whole Western Balkans region, contributing to its stability, development and a better future. 

According to Juraj Blanár, Slovakia´s Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, Bosnia´s accession to the EU is also in Slovakia´s interest. He recalled that the Western Balkan countries have been waiting for EU membership for more than two decades. 

Calls for reforms, predictable accession timetables for Ukraine, Moldova 

The outgoing Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa was among those who took a more cautious approach to enlargement: Although he did not oppose EU membership, for Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans, for example, he said on many occasions that the EU cannot speed up the process and decide on the basis of emotions – specifically referring to Ukraine.

On October 6, after the informal European Council summit in Granada, Spain, Costa said that for “enlargement to be a success, it is fundamental to conclude the internal reforms”, advising against “making the reforms just for the sake of the enlargement”, adding that both processes “should advance in a synchronised way”. Costa also expressed concern that current fiscal architecture would not be able to cope with so many different economies, adding that this was why they were against setting a deadline for EU enlargement reforms were made.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called for a predictable accession timetable for Ukraine and Moldova, for the rapid adoption of the negotiation frameworks proposed by the Commission and for organising the first intergovernmental conferences with the two candidate countries. 

Croatia strongly advocating BiH’s accession

The European Council’s decision to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina is an incentive for the country to continue with reforms, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said, adding that changing the election law and ending the outvoting of Croats are key for that, as Croats believe not to be fairly represented in the institutions.

“This decision […] is a brilliant incentive for further reforms and catching up so BiH can enter the convoy which Ukraine and Moldova joined a little earlier”, Plenković said to Mostar-based Herceg-Bosna Radio-Television.

Plenković said that BiH can accelerate its progress towards the EU by implementing reforms, as he believes that the electoral reform is the key issue. “It’s key to resolve the issue of legitimate representation of Croats in the BiH Presidency because this anomaly has existed since 2006.[…]  It’s a message of disrespect for a constituent people and a distortion of the spirit, letter and agreement from Dayton [peace agreement].” BiH has an electoral system based on three constituent ethnicities. Bosniak political parties advocate that the ethnic principle be abandoned in the electoral process. The Croats, who are three times less numerous than the Bosniaks in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are afraid of being outvoted by the more numerous Bosniaks, which has already happened four times in the election of members of the collective presidency.

Bulgaria calls on North Macedonia to recognize its minority

Speaking at the Bucharest congress of the European People’s Party (EPP), Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Mariya Iwanowa Gabriel vowed Bulgaria’s support for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on their path towards EU accession. 

The process of EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans was the subject of a meeting between Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov and Slovenian President Nataša Pirc Musar on February 27. “Our region has a huge potential for development if we work together”, Denkov said, specifying that while Bulgaria supports EU enlargement, the candidate states must fulfil their commitments.

On March 6, Bulgaria´s Foreign Ministry called on North Macedonia to implement the political commitments made in the 2022 compromise, which proposed that North Macedonia’s constitution shall be amended to recognize the Bulgarian minority in the country, thus clearing the way to EU membership talks.

Enlargement for the remaining Western Balkans?

The EU’s Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, pointed out that the EU has opened the door for enlargement, including the Western Balkans region. “The atmosphere in Brussels and the member states has really changed. The members are now seriously interested in enlargement. The doors are opening. Now it’s about taking advantage of that opportunity. It’s a geopolitical issue for Europe. Without the Balkan region, there is no complete integration”, he said.

The European Council stated that internal reforms will be addressed at an upcoming meeting, aiming to adopt conclusions by summer 2024. 

Regarding North Macedonia, the US Special Representative to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar advocated for the country to become a full EU membership candidate. “North Macedonia has been a very solid partner, both bilaterally and in multilateral fora such as NATO and the OSCE.” he posted on X. 

He added that the US administration expected the new incoming government to be committed to NATO, EU accession and the fight against corruption.

This article is published weekly. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.