Will the new initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina succeed?

Recently, a conference of Southeastern European foreign ministers took place in Berlin, organized by the Aspen Institute at the British Embassy. Philip Hammond and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the British and German foreign ministers respectively, presented a new initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). They concluded that the country does not function and the situation is not sustainable. The future of BiH lies in the EU, provided it fulfils the necessary criteria for membership. However, taking into account the specific nature of the country’s situation, they have suggested making certain adjustments to the accession process.

The novelty is that the implementation of the decision in the Sejdić-Finci case by the European Court for Human Rights will no longer be a precondition for the coming into effect of the Stabilization and Association Agreement. This question will be temporarily postponed, while the focus must now be on the economic and social reforms essential for solving the problems of high unemployment, economic stagnation and poverty. Henceforth, reforms in the domain of the rule of law – the strengthening of institutional capacity and efficient coordination of administrative bodies at all levels of government – should take precedence. To demonstrate local commitment, Britain and Germany suggest that all relevant political parties sign, and adopt, a written statement.

For now, no one has condemned this initiative. It is welcome and needed. It was unanimously supported by the regional foreign ministers present in Berlin, and was endorsed by the US government.

However, it is met with significant reservation by those who know the depth of the problems facing BiH. These skeptics desire stronger guarantees that this is not just another episode in a series of loudly announced initiatives that quietly wither away. It is difficult to convince them, who have been disappointed time after time, that this time we might witness a real change.

A day after the initiative was revealed, Radio Sarajevo conducted a poll among its listeners; 72% of them do not believe that their politicians will be cooperative.

Will the international community, most importantly the EU, punish non-compliance? To date, written commitments have not amounted to much in the political reality of Bosnia and Herzegovina. What could be different this time?

A short answer is the context. The economic situation in BiH deteriorates, the crisis forces the EU to prioritize its own reform agenda, and the neighborhood has changed – Croatia is an EU member, Serbia has started negotiations, Montenegro is negotiating, and Albania has received candidate status. In addition, other potential players, like Russia, China and Turkey, will not ignore the possibility to strengthen their presence, if the presence of the EU decreases. Yet, the most important factor is the fact that Germany has stood behind this initiative. The influence of Germany in this region is huge, just like its strength within EU structures. Germany has announced a break with its politics of “strategic patience” towards BiH and has joined Britain in leading this new approach.

However, for the time being, we see a framework of an unelaborated plan. The next step is operationalization – highlight key, immediate reforms, and agree on sticks to be used against spoilers. Avoiding sanctions not only rewards political incompliance and irresponsibility in BiH, it also punishes the citizens – who took to the streets at the beginning of this year demanding change. These protests were one of the motives for the initiative itself. Since then, the country was struck by a strong flood, which caused damage that will not be easily mended. New protests are likely in the worsening economic situation. The last protests, though violent, ended without human casualties. What if the next ones take human lives? In a tense Bosnian and Herzegovinian reality, this could spark far-more dangerous events.

Acknowledging the specific circumstances of BiH, this initiative must not lower accession criteria. On the contrary, this would be the worst message the EU could send to its citizens and citizens of BiH. The EU should insist on full compliance, because its credibility is maintained only if it does not derogate its own values and principles. 

The EU and BiH are not equals, the power asymmetry is clear. The EU will not carry out reforms in BiH, but it can define objectives and control the dynamics of their implementation. The new Commission, the new High Representative, the new Commissioner for enlargement negotiations, the new EU Special Representative in BiH, and the newly elected government in BiH face a challenge. The initiative can succeed. Provided we are bold and determined. 

Senada Šelo Šabić

Senada Šelo Šabić is a scientific associate in the Institute for Development and International Relations in Zagreb. Her research interests include Croatian foreign policy, Southeast Europe, EU enlargement, development cooperation and migration. Senada holds a Ph.D. in political science from the European University Institute in Florence (2003) and has earned two Masters degrees – in international relations from the University of Zagreb (1999) and in peace studies the University of Notre Dame, USA (1996). She is editor-in-chief of the Croatian International Relations Review and teaches at the University of Zagreb.

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