In a report published in Brussels on October 12, the European Commission recommended that EU candidate status should be awarded to Bosnia and Herzegovina, subject to reforms and conditions. In his announcement statement, EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhely urged leaders in Bosnia “to make the most of this historic opportunity” and advance reforms.
The so-called Enlargement Package for 2022 includes the European Commission’s annual reports for the Western Balkans and Turkey. Bosnia and Herzegovina received the status of a potential candidate in 2003 and its application for membership in the EU was officially submitted in 2016.
The next step on the path to membership will now be the opening of formal accession talks, a step which again requires the approval of all EU member states and may take years. The commission’s conditional backing for Bosnia follows a similar approval for Ukraine and Moldova in June. Austria and Slovenia, among others, had urged the bloc to also consider Bosnia during the deliberations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: interethnic tensions after recent elections
On October 2, general elections were held in BiH, and although the political winners have different views on most strategic issues regarding the future of the country, one of the rare issues where there is a formal consensus is joining the EU. After the elections, the winners called for pro-European reforms. The EU Commission’s decision could give a new impetus to the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are to be formed after the recent elections.
BiH officials reckon that the decision of the EU Commission to recommend to the Council of the European Union the granting of candidate status for EU membership to Bosnia and Herzegovina comes at the right moment and is historic for the country and its citizens. BiH Foreign Minister Bisera Turković welcomed the Commission’s recommendation, saying on Facebook: “This is a strong message (…) that we hoped (for) earlier.” She added that it was a recognition of all the efforts BiH has undertaken, despite obstacles, to align its policy with the EU, notably on the Ukraine war.
The president of the Croat HDZ party in BiH, Dragan Čović, said on Twitter this was “a historic day for BiH”. Čović submitted BiH’s application for EU candidate status in 2016 in his then capacity as Chair of the BiH Presidency.
Željko Komšić, one of the three members of the presidency, said it was important for the commission to note that Bosnia and Herzegovina had aligned 80 percent of its foreign policy statements with the EU. He added, however, that the granting of candidate status remained uncertain.
Regarding the electoral reform, he criticized the recent decision of the High Representative of the International Community in BiH, Christian Schmidt, who had made use of his powers and imposed electoral law changes on election night on October 2. Ahead of the elections, negotiations between key political actors on electoral reform had failed, heightening political and interethnic tensions. The reform is mainly about the problem of proportional representation of Croats as the smallest of the three constituent peoples. Komšić has reported Schmidt to the Constitutional Court, claiming that the electoral law changes have deceived voters and further fueled ethnic divisions. “The High Representative for BiH, in making decisions, is completely disregarding rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the opinion of the European Commission, and thus jeopardizes BiH’s EU path,” he said. On Wednesday, EU Enlargement Commissioner Várhely appealed to the leaders of BiH to “proceed quickly to reform the constitution and the electoral law”.
Needed reforms and conditions
After the elections, the EU Commission called for a rapid formation of government and authorities at all levels, so that they could tackle the fulfillment of the conditions. The required reforms to advance entry into the bloc relate to building the rule of law, adopting measures to prevent conflicts of interest, and strengthening the prevention of and fight against corruption and organized crime. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina must promote measures to ensure effective coordination at all levels of border management and immigration, as well as the functioning of the asylum system. The conditions also include ensuring the prohibition of torture, freedom of expression and the media, and the protection of journalists. However, due to internal political divisions, the question is to what degree BiH will be able to fulfill the set conditions.
“Today’s choice is a political impulse. Certainly, Bosnia does not meet all conditions to be a country of the EU today. However, we believe that these conditions will become reality. It is an impulse, which I hope the new political authorities of Bosnia will understand and exploit. It is an incentive for action”,said EU Foreign Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell.
He also stressed that the recommendation comes at a time when “a battle of ideas is underway with Moscow. We cannot close our eyes to its growing influence, not only in the Balkans”.
Slovenia: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession is a “high-level geopolitical issue”
The President of the Republic of Slovenia, Borut Pahor, has welcomed the European Commission’s decision to recommend EU candidate status for BiH. He said it was a significant move for peace and stability in the Western Balkans. Pahor argued that BiH’s accession should not be viewed from a narrow administrative point of view. More important than meeting conditions was the fact that this was a “high-level geopolitical issue”, he was quoted as saying in a press release. Despite initial setbacks, Slovenia regards it as a success of their own initiative that the European Council ordered the Commission to draft a report on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the president’s office said. “Today’s decision by the European Union raises hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will be granted candidate status at the December EU Summit,” the press release said. It continued to say that this was a turning point, because it marked the actual beginning of Bosnia’s European future and the move was of great importance for peace and stability in the Western Balkans.
Welcoming the news, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Robert Golob was quoted as saying by his office on Wednesday that “Slovenia will endeavor to make sure the entire Western Balkan region joins the EU as soon as possible”. Golob also noted that the Commission’s decision was based on an initiative the Slovenian government put forward in June.
“This recommendation confirms that our position was right; our arguments were understood and then accepted.” Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon is hopeful the EU Commission’s decision will drive reform efforts. She said this was a strategic decision that sent the entire Western Balkans a clear signal that their future was in the EU, a message which was “particularly important in the light of the altered security and political situation in Europe following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”.
EU enlargement: What about North Macedonia?
North Macedonia began entry negotiations together with its neighbor Albania after years of delays. The countries received EU candidate status in 2005 and 2014, respectively. The yearly enlargement report for North Macedonia notes that the country has made progress in most key areas, with the exception of freedom of expression, where the European Commission highlighted that progress was “limited”.
On Wednesday, at the press conference, Enlargement Commissioner Varheyi said this was due to the lack of agreement between the government and the opposition on “outstanding legislative reforms”. Greater efforts were also required regarding the public administration reform, the fight against corruption, and the rule of law, the commissioner told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and urged the country to keep up the reform pace through the screening process, which started in July.
The head of the EU delegation in Skopje handed over the report to Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski, who said that the document would be “analyzed in detail” to identify the areas where more work was needed. He expressed his government’s commitment to keep fulfilling the necessary reforms and advance the harmonization of the legislation with the EU’s.
North Macedonia was also praised for its alignment with the EU’s foreign policy, most notably on Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.
This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.