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The European Council greenlights opening accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina

Berta López Domènech

Date: 22/03/2024

On March 21, the European Council greenlighted the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). While not all 27 EU member states were convinced of the Balkan country’s readiness to start accession talks, they endorsed the Commission’s recommendation.
The decision, postponed since December, is part of the EU’s effort to revive the enlargement process as a geostrategic imperative since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the need to deliver progress also concerning the Western Balkans, and not just the Associated Trio. The challenge is to restore the credibility of the policy after decades of impasse in the Western Balkans while ensuring that the approach remains merit-based. The decision was justified by the argument that BiH has done more in the past two years to fulfil EU demands than over the past decade. Still, BiH is far from meeting the 14 key priorities set out by the EU in 2019 as pre-conditions for the opening of accession talks.
This positive assessment contrasts with two specific laws – the law on courts and reform of the electoral law – set out as priorities by the European Commission earlier this year have not been passed. Meanwhile, the laws on preventing conflict of interests, and against money laundering and the financing of terrorism were only adopted a few days before the Commission had to issue its recommendation and under high pressure from the EU. Domestic civil society organisations, such as Transparency International BiH, criticised how these laws were adopted, warning that the process was neither transparent nor in line with established procedures.
Irrespective of whether one thinks that Bosnia has done enough to deserve opening talks with the EU, the decision is not completely misguided. Entering the negotiation phase is not a ticket with quick, direct access to EU membership. It took Croatia six years to complete its talks, and Serbia and Montenegro have been negotiating for over a decade now. Furthermore, member states will still have several veto opportunities to block or reverse the process, the next one being the adoption of the negotiating framework. Yet, the screening process will provide a clearer and much-needed understanding of the level of alignment between BiH’s legislation and the EU, and a stronger mechanism to monitor the lawmaking process and assess the quality of the reforms adopted and implemented in the country.
The decision also sends a positive signal to the Western Balkans that the EU does not play favourites between the trio and the region but recognises the strategic significance of both.  This gesture is more likely to motivate domestic forces in Bosnia to maintain focus on reforms than a negative EU response would have done. Yet, the road ahead is still bumpy, and the implementation of sensitive reforms at the institutional, electoral, and judicial level will require sacrifices and political determination. A strong involvement of the Bosnian civil society in providing advice, monitoring the process, and holding authorities accountable will be vital to ensuring the transformative character – and hence the success – of this new step on BiH’s path towards the EU.

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

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