COMMENT: Bosnia’s EU push poses problems for Brussels

COMMENT: Bosnia’s EU push poses problems for Brussels
Bosnia capital Sarajevo skyline. Photo by CC
By Alex Young in Belgrade January 29, 2016

Almost eight years after signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, the first step toward joining the bloc, Bosnia & Herzegovina is finally set to apply for membership in mid-February. The very motivation for and credibility of such an application, however, remains a major bone of contention.

Sceptical that Bosnia’s politicians have upheld their commitment to the EU’s reform agenda, many EU member states believe that accepting Bosnia’s bid would be a premature and unjustified reward for the country’s recalcitrant politicians. Fearful of its own credibility, however, the EU might further erode the very tool of conditionality – whereby certain criteria (usually economic or political reform) must be met before progressing to the next step – that has been so pivotal in securing structural transformation elsewhere in the Emerging Europe.

Bosnia has long been in the paradoxical position whereby it couldn’t apply for EU membership whilst essentially an international protectorate (through the stewardship of the Office of the High Representative, which still retains executive powers). Despite Bosnia achieving most of the ‘Five plus Two’ conditions for gettting rid of the OHR, the issue has all but disappeared from the agenda, in part due to threats of independence by the Republika Srpska (the Serb entity of the country, the other being with the Muslim-Croat Federation). Bosnia has, as a result, remained in limbo ever since. 

And yet the undoubted benefits of enhancing Bosnia’s European course have long been recognized. Candidate status would catalyse change by permitting the opening of chapters on some of the more challenging aspects of the EU's acquis communautaire. It would offer an objective basis for judging progress towards clear benchmarks. It would also provide renewed reform momentum, even as Europe grapples with its own internal challenges.

The dilemma for the EU is whether or not Bosnia has actually taken meaningful steps to implement its reform agenda, such as the Compact for Growth and Jobs, which involves a commitment to thoroughly reform labour markets. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a new stand-by loan facility (worth some €630mn) collapsed in October due to a failure to agree on a package of reforms, though there is optimism about talks resuming after the passage of a new labour law in the Republika Srpska. Public spending, however, remains a cause of considerable concern, with murmurings about the country’s impending bankruptcy growing ever louder.  

In early January the EU suspended Bosnia’s favourable trade preferences after it failed to amend the economic quotas contained within the SAA to reflect Croatia’s 2013 admission to the EU. As a result, the country’s already devastated farmers now have to pay tariffs to export to the EU, their largest export market. Bosnia – which has no state level agriculture ministry due to political wrangling – asserts that European subsidies give Croatian producers an unfair competitive advantage.    

There has also been little tangible progress on the other key EU condition – the establishment of a state-wide coordination mechanism. Given Bosnia’s convoluted state structure, where different levels of government have responsibility for different segments of the acquis, a coordination mechanism is vital for developing a unified stance on and harmonized implementation of EU-related policies. Fearing potential marginalization from decision-making, entities, cantons and Brcko District have all approached the issue with fear and trepidation.    

Though Bosnia’s State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) arrested on January 25 one of Bosnia’s most high-profile politicians, Fahrudin Radoncic, for obstruction of justice, there has been minimal progress in the fight against corruption. Radoncic is leader of the Alliance for a Better Future (SBB) – which recently joined the ruling coalition – and has been accused of spurring on the February 2014 protests which swept through the Federation (one of Bosnia’s two entities), but his arrest is being seen in some quarters as motivated by politics. Given Bosnia’s inherent weaknesses in trying such cases, a conviction is highly unlikely and a domino effect leading to further arrests shouldn’t be expected.

Progress for progress' sake

After the EU tore up its previous policy of conditionality for Bosnia’s EU progress (grounded in the ECHR’s Sejdic-Finci judgement that would have ended ethnic discrimination in elections to higher office) in order to focus on socio-economic priorities (the so-called ‘Anglo-German initiative’), several member states are now eager to vindicate the change of approach by making Bosnia an official candidate state. Regardless of progress, there is a sense that progress must be demonstrated.

Some member states, meanwhile, are keen to demonstrate that the EU remains committed to enlargement, despite Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, announcing a five-year enlargement pause. Such views have become more pronounced as fears of a resurgence of Russian influence in the Balkans grow. Other member states, however, are understandably more sceptical – about further enlargement in general, and Bosnia’s suitability specifically.

Domestically, advancements on the European front have long been perceived as a boost to one’s electoral fortunes, no matter how insignificant such progress may actually be. With local elections in Bosnia ahead in the autumn – a vital part of the patronage networks that underpin Bosnia's politics – a well-received membership bid would provide a timely boost for many politicians still reeling from disappointing performances in the 2014 general elections. It would also help distract attention from the country's dire socio-economic situation.

Despite all the rhetoric and sentiment, Bosnia has never enjoyed a tangible European perspective. Whilst applying for membership would give Bosnia a clear path, rewarding lacklustre reform efforts at this juncture would send the wrong message to a country where EU conditionality was already on life support.

Unfortunately for Bosnia, the EU's own lack of credibility is only surpassed by that of its politicians. Any rejection or postponement of any application for EU membership would only further harm the EU’s credibility, to the benefit of nationalist parties. With Bosnia now seemingly committed to submitting a membership bid, the EU needs to use the next 12 months to ensure that reforms are both comprehensive and credible.