After years of standstill, Russia’s war on Ukraine has breathed fresh life into the EU’s willingness to consider welcoming more of its eastern neighbors to its ranks. The Member States agreed on December 15 to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) “candidate status” to join the union, putting the volatile Balkan nation at the start of a long road to membership. A recommendation to this effect was made by the European ministers of the EU states in Brussels on Tuesday. One of the reasons for this move are concerns that the country, which has a population of around 3.3 million, could otherwise increasingly orient itself towards Russia or China.
In the wake of the decisions to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022, EU member states such as Austria and Slovenia in particular had urged the EU to also grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact that BiH was once again ignored in this process caused great disappointment in the country. It was offered the prospect of EU accession as early as 2003, and in 2016 officially submitted an application for membership.
European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi said that the Council’s decision was sending a very clear message to the citizens of BiH that the EU stands by the country. He added that it was now necessary for BiH to show its readiness to fulfill the conditions set earlier, “Europe delivers and now we want to see Bosnia and Herzegovina deliver as well.” The conditions mentioned by Commissioner Várhelyi are 14 key reforms that the European Commission put before BiH back in May 2019. They concern reforms in several areas, including democracy, the rule of law and public administration.
Political commentators in Bosnia and Herzegovina believe that the EU should have granted Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status at the same time as the majority of other countries in the Western Balkans. This could have helped to facilitate the resolution of numerous internal problems in the country. For example, the government of the Republika Srpska entity maintains close economic and political ties with Moscow, and the absence of candidate status for EU membership only favored the growth of Russian influence.
EU candidate status for BiH benefits both parties
Ahead of the vote at an EU summit on December 15, Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said the decision was “mutually beneficial to both the Western Balkans and the European Union as a whole.” “The European Union has a geopolitical interest in the Balkans,” he added.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said on the sidelines of the EU summit, “It is a good occasion for the leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina to push for the reforms. This is the occasion for the country to really embark on the European path. It’s a very important step for Bosnia Herzegovina and for the whole region.”
Due to the ongoing political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, little has been done so far to implement the set conditions. All public opinion surveys show that membership in the EU is one of the rare goals strongly supported by all three nationalities and throughout BiH. All the parliamentary parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are participating in the negotiations on forming a government after the elections in October have put the continuation of the European path high on their list of priorities, regardless of the fact that no one knows how long the journey will take.
Slovenia has dedicated a lot of effort to explain to its partners why, given the geopolitical situation, BiH should receive candidate status. The decision to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina EU candidate status was described in Ljubljana as “a great success of Slovenian foreign policy.” At the same time, Ljubljana stresses that Slovenia is committed to bringing the entire Western Balkans into the EU as soon as possible.
Prime Minister Robert Golob said at the time of the EU Council decision on 13 December that BiH had been waiting for this decision for twenty years. In the EU, he said, trust needs to be built towards the people of BiH.
Slovenian top officials have put advocacy of BiH high on their foreign policy agenda, and Slovenian calls were further amplified by the developments in BIH at the beginning of the year. President Borut Pahor has repeatedly warned that the process of EU enlargement to the Western Balkan countries is too slow and that BiH should be granted candidate status immediately.
Candidate status is also a clear signal to the political structures in BiH, which now have a full mandate to carry out as many reforms as possible and to show their voters that they share their vision of the country’s future in the EU. “There were many doubts about this from member states as well as the European Commission, but I think that in the end we were able to prove with arguments that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made significant progress over time,” said Foreign Ministry State Secretary Marko Štucin.
Faris Kočan, a researcher at the Centre for International Relations at the Ljubljana School of Business and Economics, believes that Slovenia played an important role in the decision, as it is perceived – alongside Croatia and Austria – as an EU member state that represents a kind of bridge between the EU and the Western Balkans because of its own history. “In this context, it was important that Slovenia, together with its partners – Austria in particular, but also Croatia – put BiH high on the EU agenda,” he added.
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