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Bosnia’s 2023 Commission report: A lack of strategic steering and the buck passed to the Council

Bosnia-Herzegovina / COMMENTARY
Berta López Domènech

Date: 16/11/2023
In the 2023 Enlargement Package published last week, the European Commission delayed its decision on the recommendation to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) until March 2024. This tactic keeps the Balkan country on hold and gives time to the member states to agree on a common position regarding Bosnia’s next steps. The issue now is that the Commission’s stance on Bosnia is as clear as mud. The Brussels’ executive is neither leaving the door open to kickstart accession talks in the name of geopolitical considerations nor denying BiH to advance due to a lack of progress on reforms. Instead, the Commission passed the buck to the Council to determine whether the message should be read as a strategic reward or meritorious sanction. As a result, BiH has little incentive to deliver the work.

The report states that whenever the Brussels’ executive “assesses that Bosnia and Herzegovina has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria and, in particular, has met the key priorities, the Commission will recommend opening EU accession negotiations”. This formulation helps the Commission avoid rewarding the Bosnian authorities for their insufficient commitment to the reform process while simultaneously trying not to hinder the geopolitical ‘momentum for enlargement’.

This avis might have been presented as a “historical step” by the Commission and positively welcomed by domestic political leaders in BiH. Yet it is essentially a repeat of what the Brussels’ executive has already expressed in its 2019 opinion on Bosnia’s application.

In the report, the Commission committed to returning to the Council by March 2024. While this timeframe can be seen as an opportunity for BiH to double down its efforts to comply with the membership criteria and the 14 key priorities, it is unrealistic to expect that any substantial progress on what has not been done in four years will now be achieved in four-months. Especially considering that the conditions include issues as sensitive as improving the institutional and constitutional framework, where progress has been lacking for two decades.

One can argue that the extra time is probably meant more for the Council than for BiH. Member states have been divided on whether Bosnia should be allowed to advance on its EU path. Austria, Croatia and Slovenia have been vocal in advocating for the immediate opening of accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The three countries have justified their position by the geopolitical and strategic need to accelerate enlargement and by the imperative to avoid having two classes of aspirant countries – i.e. Eastern and Balkans - some more privileged than others. However, other member states have expressed reluctance to make such a move when BiH’s political situation and the rule of law standards have deteriorated. From these countries’ perspective, any rewards without progress would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal.

Real transformation or just cosmetic reforms?

For Bosnia to advance towards negotiation talks, the Commission has asked the country to meet “the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria”. Yet, it did not clarify which specific reforms BiH should tackle. This vagueness on the ‘homework’ suggests that the Brussels’ executive relayed the decision to the member states, expecting them rather than the reforms implemented by Sarajevo to determine BiH’s further EU integration prospects.

Such an approach conceals a lack of strategy on the part of the Commission on how to incentivise Bosnia’s democratic transformation. It also indicates that the Commission might be fine with settling for cosmetic changes instead of substantive reforms, thereby converting the reform process into a mere box-ticking exercise.

The report recognised that the recent decisions made by authorities in the Republika Srpska, which did not comply with the rulings of the Constitutional Court and restricted space for civil society, are major setbacks that undermine the possibility of Bosnia advancing towards EU membership. However, over the past years, it has become evident that the EU does not have effective tools to deal with democratic backsliding and authoritarian leaders in the region, especially given that some EU member states endorse such behaviour domestically.

Frustration is growing among civic actors in Bosnia, which have long warned that the broad formulation of priorities from the Commission “opened up space for free interpretation and different interpretations on the results achieved”. The lack of clarity makes the monitoring exercise very difficult and weakens the capacity to exert bottom-up pressure or hold authorities accountable. As a result, reformist forces are left in the lurch.

Civic actors working on Bosnia’s EU accession and pushing for the implementation of the necessary reforms have questioned the commitment of EU institutions and domestic authorities in the process. In April this year, several civil society organisations shed light on the lack of transparency in BiH’s decision-making efforts to adopt EU-related laws, the country’s tendency to silence non-institutional actors, failure to implement adopted plans, and a general lack of political will to improve the situation in Bosnia.

The geopolitical imperative of enlargement has been a mantra constantly invoked in Brussels and the EU aspirant countries since the start of the war in Ukraine. The so-called ‘new momentum’ on the dossier has helped unblock long-standing bottlenecks in the Balkan region, like the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania and lifting visa restrictions for Kosovo citizens. However, hope that the EU enlargement process would be reinvigorated in the new context seems to slowly fade away, and the likelihood of EU membership is once again becoming unrealistic for many aspirants in the Balkans. Throughout the region, there is a growing perception that the EU’s attention is focused elsewhere – i.e. towards the East. Such a feeling is not good news for the prospects of the EU delivering on the Thessaloniki promise and acting in its fundamental security interest. Nor can it be expected to ensure the transformation of the EU-hopeful countries when it offers little motivation and support to the reformists in the Balkans.

Berta López Domènech is a Junior Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions programme at the European Policy Centre.

This Commentary is part of the EPC's Task Force on EU Enlargement.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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