The EU granting Bosnia-Herzegovina candidate status illustrates a new geopolitical environment in Europe and shows that the bloc wants ‘to strengthen itself and broaden its family as a sign to Russia that it will not be intimidated by Russia – or Serbia being a client of Russia in many ways on these sorts of issues’.
On Dec. 15, Bosnia-Herzegovina gained candidate status to the European Union. This development came two months after the European Commission recommended making the Western Balkan country a candidate.
This decision represents “an opportunity we must not miss,” declared Denis Becirovic, the current Bosniak member of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Authorities in Sarajevo “must take advantage of this hand extended by Brussels to speed up the country’s march toward full EU membership.”
Now Bosnia-Herzegovina joins a group of other countries with candidate status to the 27-member bloc, including Albania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Türkiye and Ukraine. The EU granting Sarajevo candidate status comes after six years of Bosnia-Herzegovina waiting for this moment and 19 years after Bosnian officials began expressing their desire to join the multilateral institution.
There are major hurdles that Bosnia-Herzegovina must overcome to move further along toward membership in the bloc. Sarajevo will need to expedite reforms, which, if not done, will prevent Bosnian accession to the EU.
Bosnia-Herzegovina must implement major legislative and legal changes to fulfill the thousands of requirements necessary to one day obtain full-fledged membership in the bloc.
“Candidacy status is more of a formal entry card than anything else, but it is a clear signal that Bosnia-Herzegovina needs to expedite its reforms to move ahead,” explained Leila Bičakčić, the executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, in an interview with Daily Sabah. She added that “our politicians, and that includes all national leaders, are very good in agreeing to implement necessary reforms and fulfill obligations set in the road map toward EU, knowing they would never deliver.”
There are various reasons analysts are pessimistic about Bosnia-Herzegovina becoming an EU member in the foreseeable future. As a country with a traumatic history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the 1992-95 conflict, there are deep ethnic divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. With a weak central government in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina is partitioned between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes a Bosniak majority along with a significant Croat minority; the Republika Srpska (RS) – the country’s Serb entity; and a tiny self-governing administrative unit called the Brcko District located in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s northeastern territory.
This balance of power within Bosnia-Herzegovina has been an outcome of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian War in 1995 but has been highly problematic from the standpoint of developing a stable and functional political system. These divisions and dysfunctional governance will impede the prospects for Bosnia-Herzegovina gaining full-fledged EU membership.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has for years been pushing a separatist agenda that threatens the country’s Daytonian equilibrium. According to some of his critics, Dodik has been obstructing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s journey toward EU membership. The Russian-backed RS strongman, Dodik, while not in principle opposed to Bosnia-Herzegovina joining the European bloc, has said that the country must “not take orders” from Brussels, which he has asserted is “not (Bosnia-Herzegovina’s) boss.”
The Moscow and Belgrade-oriented Bosnian Serb leaders have stated that the EU should give Bosnia-Herzegovina at least 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion) to support necessary reforms, or else the country’s accession process will be “smoke and mirrors.” Nonetheless, if the EU would provide Bosnia-Herzegovina with such an amount of financial assistance, Dodik says that he would be willing to work with Brussels on the reform process.
“Dodik is undermining the stability of Bosnia-Herzegovina, not just politically, but the entire structure of the government and the ability of Bosnia-Herzegovina to take the sort of decisions at a national level that will allow it to qualify for European Union membership,” said Matthew Bryza, who served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 to 2009, in an interview with Daily Sabah.
“I think that it’s impossible that Dodik would be doing what he’s doing without encouragement from Serbia and encouragement from Russia, to say the least. That positions Dodik and Russia as able to spoil Bosnia-Herzegovina’s necessary reform plans that are required to become a member of the European Union,” he added.
Low expectations among Bosnians
Bosnia-Herzegovina will not be able to access new EU funds because of this decision. Nor will the country’s candidate status result in Bosnia-Herzegovina-produced goods being sold across Europe with greater ease. As Haris Dzonlic, a Bosnian living in Sarajevo, told the media, “I don’t see that this candidate status will greatly improve our lives and the standard of ordinary people here.”
The decision to grant Bosnia-Herzegovina candidate status was “welcomed mainly by (Bosnian) political parties who are now trying to establish a new government and they tried to use this as some kind of a linchpin to pin their efforts upon,” told the regional editor for Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and an independent expert from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Srecko Latal, to Daily Sabah.
“But essentially it was pretty much irrelevant information that left the news cycle in about 24 to 48 hours. In general, ordinary people – but especially politicians, media, experts and intellectuals – understand that this was given by the EU not because Bosnia-Herzegovina deserves it, but because the EU is facing pressure, doesn’t know what else to do with Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rest of the Balkans, and is then giving away these aspirations and titles, which unfortunately for the time being mean absolutely nothing,” added Latal.
Europe’s new geopolitical realities
Although at least in the foreseeable future, candidate status will have essentially no practical implications for Bosnia-Herzegovina, this symbolic act by the EU illustrates a new geopolitical environment in Europe.
From northern Kosovo to Serbia and RS to Montenegro, there are ethnic Serb politicians who align their policies with the Kremlin’s revisionist and anti-NATO agendas while seeking to disrupt the post-Cold War European order. Although the West had concerns about these pro-Moscow actors in the Western Balkans prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the post-Feb. 24 environment officials in Brussels and Washington are increasingly unsettled by Dodik and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s revanchism.
Now with the West more determined than ever to weaken Moscow’s clout in the Western Balkans, the enlargement fatigue that kicked in the 2000s is fading away. European leaders believe that expanding EU membership to the Western Balkans is necessary to counter Russian, as well as Chinese, clout in Europe’s “inner courtyard.”
The EU granting Bosnia-Herzegovina candidate status shows that the bloc wants “to strengthen itself and broaden its family as a sign to Russia that it will not be intimidated by Russia – or Serbia being a client of Russia on these sorts of issues. The European Union wants to show it will not be intimidated by expressions of opposition coming from Moscow and Belgrade to Bosnia-Herzegovina eventually becoming a member of the European Union,” explained Bryza.
“Even though the granting of candidate status to Bosnia-Herzegovina is symbolic primarily, symbolism matters significantly. Much of politics is about symbolism,” said the former U.S. diplomat. “So, the EU is sending a very important signal to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and of course the Western Balkans and Russia that Bosnia-Herzegovina is considered already a member of the extended European family.”
*CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy
Source: Daily Sabah