Bosnia formally applies for EU membership

Bosnia formally applies for EU membership
By Denitsa Koseva February 15, 2016

Bosnia & Herzegovina formally applied on February 15 to join the European Union after several months of delay. The chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, said Sarajevo hopes the country will get applicant status in 2017.

Bosnia is one of the last countries in Europe to formally apply to join the EU. Its progress was stalled for several years as successive governments failed to carry out necessary reforms, but Sarajevo made a breakthrough in 2015 with the election of a new pro-EU government. The national government has continued to push through reforms, despite a recent dispute with the government of the Republika Srpska, the smaller of Bosnia’s two entities.

Covic formally filed the application to Bert Koenders, the foreign minister of the Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating EU chair.

“I am certain that this is the path, which will further strengthen our positive energy to change the society. I am certain that Bosnia & Herzegovina belongs to the European family,” Covic said as quoted by daily Nezavisne Novine.

“This decision follows months of hard work by Bosnia’s leadership and, we believe, addresses the aspirations of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” EU high representative Federica Mogherini and European enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a joint statement on February 15.

Their statement added that Bosnia needs to implement reforms to improve economic growth, social justice, the rule of law and public administration. The statement once again pointed out that Bosnia needs to adjust its Stabilisation and Association agreement (SAA), to normalise trade with the bloc, and to have an effective and functioning coordination mechanism on EU matters.

Bosnia’s SAA, one of the key steps on the path to EU accession, was signed in back 2008 but it only entered in force on June 1, 2015. The long delay was caused by the lack of reform and slow progress towards economic and political stability.

The European Commission’s latest progress report on Bosnia, released in 2015, says that despite some progress “Bosnia and Herzegovina is at an early stage in developing a functioning market economy ... [and] achieving the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the union.”

At the beginning of 2015 Bosnia appointed a pro-EU government led by Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic, which showed its willingness to return to its European path. In January, the tripartite presidency approved a joint declaration signalling its interest in EU integration and its commitment to carry out necessary reforms. The declaration was seen as a key prerequisite for the country to unfreeze the process of preparation for EU membership. In February, Bosnia’s parliament adopted the declaration, which includes a plan for political and economic reforms. As a result, in April the Council of the European Union decided to unfreeze the SAA.

However, the country needed to also agree on a reform agenda in order to further advance in its EU membership process. Despite an initial refusal by the Republika Srpska to approve the agenda, in July it was adopted by all three governments – the national government and those of the two entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Internal tensions resurfaced during the run up to the formal application for EU membership. In early February, the state-level government announced it had adopted a coordination mechanism that is one of the key prerequisites for the country’s application to join the EU. This angered officials in the Republika Srpska who said they had not been consulted on the move. The entity’s government asked for the mechanism to be cancelled and a new one to be adopted with its input.

Republika Srpska also opposed the adjustment of Bosnia’s SAA in line with Croatia’s entry in the bloc, another key condition set by Hahn in January. The entity’s government said in February that adjusting the SAA would seriously harm its agricultural sector.

Although the country’s SAA entered in force in 2015 it was signed before Croatia’s entry to the union. In January, the European parliament suspended Bosnia’s trade privileges as the country had failed to adjust its SAA. Previously, Bosnia was allowed to export duty-free certain goods to the EU and the bloc was its main trading partner.