The untold story behind Bosnia’s EU membership application

More than seven years ago, Bosnia’s neighbors, Montenegro and Serbia, applied for EU membership. Since then, Bosnian politicians have openly considered doing the same on several occasions: first in 2009, and then again in 2010 and 2012. But they never went through with it – until 15 February 2016, when Bosnia finally submitted its application.

Many observers offered their opinions on this move. Some considered it still "by any objective measure premature" and opportunistic of Bosnia’s politicians. For others, the application was "a cover-up strategy, because everyone knows that Bosnia is not ready." And for a group of Bosnian intellectuals, it was "not a great step forward." The answer to the question of why Bosnia went through with the application this time around, despite so much skepticism, can be found in an untold story about the current Bosnian presidency, a collective tri-partite chairmanship of the state made up of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat.

One of the three members of Bosnian presidency is Mladen Ivanic, a professor of economics, former prime minister of Republika Srpska and former Bosnian minister of foreign affairs. He had campaigned on a platform of opposition to the divisive politics of the president and former prime minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik. Ivanic belongs to a growing group of Bosnian Serbs who believe that it is in the best interest of Serbs, and of Republika Srpska, to show that Bosnia in its current form is functional and can deliver better lives for all its citizens. This policy won him 318,000 votes in Republika Srpska, and made him the candidate who received the most votes in all of Bosnia during the October 2014 elections.

In his inaugural speech on 17 November 2014, Ivanic warned that “people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are sick and tired of the politics of confrontation and fighting, of being imprisoned in a circle of economic crisis and high unemployment, and of being depressed about knowing that there is a lack of ideas on how to change this situation.” He was certain that the Bosnian presidency could help change this. He promised to contribute “as a Serb member of the presidency … to the politics of agreement and compromise, to a politics that will give new hope to all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Another member of the presidency, inaugurated on a same day, was the Croat Dragan Covic. During the inauguration, he presented “a vision for our homeland Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Part of that vision was Bosnia becoming an official EU candidate country within four years.

The Bosniak member of the presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, is the son of Bosnia’s war-time leader Alija Izetbegovic. Bakir has often spoken about the need “to distinguish between real interests and national illusions.” He has openly admitted that “Bosniaks have insisted on a transfer of powers to the state level even when it was not in their best interest.” In his inaugural address he wished for the presidency “to be a strong motor that will move Bosnia and Herzegovina along the path of reforms and towards the most important goal – full membership of the community of free and democratic European states.”

During the first weeks of their mandate, the three men agreed on their approach. They agreed that they would “sit, discuss and debate as long as is necessary to find a compromise.” Three months later, this approach yielded its first results. On 23 February 2015, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini praised them for "their role and leadership” in bringing together the leaders of 14 different political parties to agree on the content of an “irrevocable written commitment to reforms”. The adoption of this document by the state parliament was a condition for the entry into force of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), which the EU, dissatisfied with the political situation in Bosnia, had held back since February 2011.

Not everyone in Bosnia was happy with the strong role and leadership that the presidency was showing. For a long time, Milorad Dodik openly rejected the idea of the presidency bringing everyone together. He complained that “the presidency has no constitutional competences for this,” and that “suddenly they make themselves look as if they are important, but they are not at all important!” The members of the presidency dismissed his claims as “not serious” and kept their focus on the result they wanted to achieve. They called on Dodik to join them at the table and publicly expressed their readiness to discuss and find compromises with him regarding his various demands. By doing so, they rejected engaging in a public fight. In the end, Dodik gave in and joined them at the table.

On 1 June 2015, the SAA became effective, as a reward for the written commitment to reform. The EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, Johannes Hahn, described the SAA’s entry into force as “a milestone on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU path.”

Now the three members of the Bosnian presidency had to make a decision: to sell this to their voters as their biggest success on the EU agenda, or to strive for more – and possibly fail.

On 23 July 2015, the Bosnian presidency decided to be ambitious. They wanted Bosnia to become an official candidate for EU membership, perhaps even during their time in office. So they set early 2016 as the deadline for Bosnia’s EU membership application. Many diplomats and observers warned them that this would be too early. But the three of them persisted.

Their decision to set a deadline for the application put additional pressure on Bosnia’s governments, at state and entity levels, to deliver tangible results. Before the end of July 2015, the governments had agreed on a joint list of socio-economic reforms. During the summer they had already started to implement this list. Finally, in September 2015, the governments agreed on an action plan for implementation of the reforms with benchmarks and deadlines.

So it was no surprise that, when presenting the European Commission’s annual report on Bosnia in November, commissioner Hahn concluded that Bosnia was “back on the reform track.” This was a signal for Bosnia’s foreign minister and his deputy to go on a tour of EU capitals and explain that Bosnia was ready to apply.

When, on 15 February 2016, presidency chairman Dragan Covic went to Brussels to hand over Bosnia’s EU membership application, Hahn and Mogherini welcomed it as a result of “impressive achievements” over the past year. During this year, “the country’s political system has delivered on its citizens’ needs.” The two also noted that the EU and Bosnia now had to “seize the momentum gained so far, and keep on working hard.”

The presidency agreed with Mogherini and Hahn. Covic immediately told his EU counterparts that the presidency aimed to obtain EU candidate status for Bosnia during 2017.

The road to candidate status will, however, not be easy. The next step is to secure the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU member states to forward Bosnia’s application to the European Commission for an assessment on whether Bosnia sufficiently complies with EU standards to become a candidate for membership. This will be a challenge for Bosnian diplomacy. The Bosnian presidency and the foreign minister have already started touring EU capitals to build support.

In the case of Croatia’s application in 2003, EU member states needed two months to formally ask the Commission for an avis, as the assessment is called. For Bosnia, it should not take longer.

Once the Commission is tasked to produce the avis, it will send the Bosnian government a list of several thousand questions related to the legislation in force, its compatibility with EU legislation, the functioning and set-up of the country’s institutions, and issues such as democracy, human rights and the economic system. The questionnaire will also ask how Bosnia intends to reach EU standards in all these areas.

Providing the answers to all these questions will not be an easy task for the Bosnian administration. But it will be an exercise that is likely to be a transformative experience, as it was for other countries in the region. According to Radmila Sekerinska, Macedonia’s deputy prime minister for European integration in 2004, when Macedonia received its questionnaire, the process of providing answers was like “an x-ray”, which helped Macedonian officials and civil servants to see “the weaknesses and to come up with your own view on how to fix them. So, it’s a diagnosis and a cure … a combination of fact finding, political planning and strategy.” In a country of failing public policies like Bosnia, this is sorely needed, and could help shift everyone’s focus towards real issues and the tasks ahead.

Over the past 16 months, the hardest task for the three members of the Bosnian presidency was to get everyone in Bosnia and in the EU to believe in, and help them pursue, the goals laid out in their inaugural speeches. They had to overcome many obstacles. During 2015, Dodik issued several, fortunately empty, threats to conduct a referendum that would have violated Bosnia’s constitution. At the time, however, this poisoned the atmosphere. Both the state and federation government also had to deal with coalition crawlers and change their junior coalition partner. And everything was happening in a year when there was renewed interest in Bosnia due to the 20th anniversary of the Dayton peace accords. The international media and many pundits portrayed Bosnia as a uniquely desperate, hopeless and corrupted place.

In his inaugural speech, Ivanic had concluded that “it is true that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there is a great deal of things that politicians do not agree on.” But he also added that the presidency would work on finding more and more things that everyone could agree on.

With Bosnia’s application now in Brussels, the EU is in a position where it can help Bosnia’s presidency and pro-EU forces in Bosnia to do exactly that - by sending the questionnaire to Sarajevo as soon as possible. This will kick the ball back in Bosnia’s court. Then success will depend on their political will, and on the capabilities of Bosnia’s administration, and not on the EU – as it should be. 

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Adnan Ćerimagić

Adnan Ćerimagić (Bosnia and Herzegovina) works as an analyst for the think tank European Stability Initiative. He studied law at the University of Graz and EU international relations and diplomacy at the College of Europe in Bruges. Adnan has completed a traineeship in the Secretariat of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels and Strasbourg, and has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo and the Mission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU in Brussels. At ESI, he is researching EU enlargement policy, the Western Balkans’ EU integration process and Turkey. He is based mainly in Sarajevo. Adnan also supports... Read more about the author

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