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EWB Interview, Denis Zvizdić: Bodies envisaged by the coordination mechanism will become operational before questionnaire comes to BiH

In an interview for European Western Balkans Denis Zvizdić, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, talked about steps and challenges that await BiH on it’s EU path after Council for General Affairs of EU accepted BiH’s application for membership this month.

European Western Balkans: Mr Zvizdić, thank you for your time. First of all I want to congratulate you. We have gotten a green light from the European Union. Application of BiH for membership is accepted, the next step is to obtain the questionnaire. BiH received pilot questions in 2012. Based on them, as well as on the experience of neighboring countries, can you assume possible questions? How many questions do you expect in the questionnaire, and consequently, how long will this process take? Do you expect any particular difficulties on certain issues? Which of them you think will take the most time?

Denis Zvizdić: First I want to say that congratulations go to the citizens and the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina as this work has been done within the very good cooperation and coordination between the Council of Ministers and all other institutions in BiH. It was very serious, very complex and very demanding work, given the fact that for a long time BiH’s EU path was blocked, as well as taking into account the fact that within this phase of implementation of the Reform Agenda there were several quite demanding conditions that had to be fulfilled. The fact that we did it in quite optimal, but I can also say accelerated deadline, shows that BiH institutions are still credible and able to respond to the most demanding challenges on the road to European integration, because when it comes to the European integration there is still acceptable level of consensus in BiH.

We do not know how many questions we will get when it comes to the questionnaire for BiH. Based on experiences from the region, the assumption is that it will be between two and three thousand questions. However, the arrangement of Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite complex, so there will probably  be a number of additional questions. The questions will be related to all segments of life and all sectors, covering all general topics regarding BiH. And bearing in mind our complex constitutional system, of course it will take a lot of coordination, a lot of patience and a lot of expertise to adequately, promptly and, above all, professionally and for the European Commission acceptable way, answer the questions. As I said, the questions will relate to various spheres, from education to environmental protection, agriculture, our capacity in terms of inspection bodies, the judiciary and so on. From those most ordinary, most simple questions that we will answer only with certain numbers, to those very complex issues, in which we will have to present BiH’s legislative level. We will also have to translate this legislation into English language. It is a minimum of 20 to 30,000 pages which we will have to translate. Then, we will have to show in what way and in what capacity this legislation is implemented in practice. Of course, the entire process will not be easy to complete, as nothing is simple in BiH. However, I refer to dialogue and patience, which are always good instruments to solve problems in BiH, and the fact that we will, within the established working groups which will begin to work, commit to primarily professional and technical issues. The point is that our working groups will be made up of people coming from the sphere of profession. The representatives of the European Commission will also help us in these matters. We will be able to pick up the positive experiences and practices from the neighborhood, especially from countries that have already gone through this process, for example Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. Once again, work in these groups should not be burdened with any political, but rather dominantly and with focus on technical and professional issues. Therefore, I am sure that in most of the questions the process will be done in a timely and professional manner. Of course, it is likely that a few topics will appear needing additional, and if necessary and political aligment.

EWB: What topics are those?

DZ: All those areas in which jurisdictions is divided. The matter should be fully coordinated because we have totalk with the EU with one voice,we need to have an uniform approach and methodology of answering such questions. We in BiH need to finally understand that we are entering the EU, that we are joining the EU, not the other way around. Thus, Europe will not change its rules, but we have to harmonize with directives and rules of the European Union. This alignment in some later phases has to be carried out uniformly and simultaneously. All governments in BiH will have to adopt in the same text, for example, a specific directive related to the environment or agriculture, or for any sphere. We will not be able to change the EU directive. Before such understanding of the EU integration process matures we will probably have problems in the first phases, but later it will become clear that we need to have the same standards, the same principles, the same level of quality if we want to be a part of the European space and if we still want to, for example, export our products to the EU market.

EWB: In statements following the decision of the Council for General Affairs of the EU, you said you believe that we will get the candidate status for EU membership by the end of 2017. However, for countries in the region this process lasted for two years on average. On what do you base your optimism?

DZ: Exactly on the practice in the region. Perhaps those who are skeptical about that deadlines did not understand enough the dynamics of obtaining candidate status of our immediate neighbors or countries in the region. It takes on average two years, from the moment of submission of the application for membership. We submitted the application in February this year, which means that by the end of 2017 this period of 20 or 24 months expires. The European Union has created a positive atmosphere connected to BiH. The fact is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is no longer a country which is mentioned in the EU only in terms of resolving problems, but has been recognized as a country that is capable and credible to implement its obligations. Bosnia and Herzegovina on 20 September was good, perhaps the best, most positive news in the EU that day, given numerous problems the Union is facing. I am sure that this atmosphere in a certain way, and I am not trying to say that we can skip any part of the process, could speed up Bosnia and Herzegovina in all further stages of the EU integration process. So, after we successfully answer the questionnaire, there is no obstacle to obtain the candidate status. For answering the questionnaire we will have about six months. Maybe, with some additional questions and explanations, it could last seven months. This is why it is important to start with real diplomatic “offensive”. To lobby and to explain  BiH’s views and attitudes to all our friends, members of the EU, and then to all others. I am quite sure that we will have the status of the candidate for EU memebership by the end of 2017, 30 days more or less. That is the second or next important event for the country. The first was this one, the next is to obtain the candidate status. These events are opening an entirely new chapter in the relations between the EU and BiH. Investors have an entirely different, new, positive image and positive incentive to invest in BiH. Also, a number of funds will be opened for us, which ultimately means new benefits for the country.

EWB: What kind of comment do you expect from the EC after submitting answers? What follows after that? Countries in the region needed at least six years from obtaining the candidate status to full membership ih the EU. Slovenia six, Croatia even longer. How do you predict BiH’s progress? Following the decision of the Council for General Affairs of the EU, rather optimistically, you said that we will soon live in BiH  which will be a member of European Union.

DZ: I am still quite sure that we will live in BiH that will be a member of the EU, especially the young generation who will be the carrier of such a processes in BiH. Ultimately, BiH will for sure be a member of Euro-Atlantic integration as well. So, from the moment we hand over our responses to the questionnaire, the European Commission can ask a set of additional questions on those subjects that may need additional explanation. Such was the practice in the region. This new set usualy contains some 400 or 500 questions. The point is that questions must be answered on the basis of arguments and profession. The answers to the pilot questions, which you mentioned before, a kind of dress rehearsal of some 300 questions, has been evaluated as good, solid level of answers that are acceptable for the EC. So, we already have the practice, we know how to do this. The Council of Ministers is already prepared. We have adopted a unified methodology by which we will uniformly answer the questions, we have established an information system, forming bodies in accordance with the coordination mechanism, and the translation services, that will have to work simultaneously with others, are being prepared as well. When we get the questionnaire, which should be in six or seven weeks, we will be fully prepared to begin answering the questions the same day. When the European Commission says OK, we accept your answers, then it will prepar an opinion in which it will make a recommendation for the candidate status for BiH. In addition to this, the EC can provide another important recommendation. That is the connection with the strong diplomatic activity and lobbying that I mentioned. That is the recommendation to open the chapters. If we get that, then in 2018 we will be side by side with our neighborhood countries.

EWB: Some countries in the neighborhood have become candidates but have not started negotiations. Is this scenario possible for BiH?

DZ: Of course it is, if some individuals or parties in BiH continue to think in the dimensions of the referendum (referendum on the Republika Srpska Day), the dimensions of going back to nineties and mobilization on some new hegemonic ideas. Then of course it is possible. But, at the moment these people are alone. They truly are a lonely island in the region and Europe that respects democratic standards and the rule of law. I met with all the most important EU officials several times and each time I got a very clear message that the door of the European Union is opened for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that they will help us on that path. We have a huge number of true friends in the EU. Let’s mention only Mrs Mogherini (Federica, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and Mr Hahn (Johannes, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations) who are very dedicated and consistently work with us on the path to the EU integration. Such EU institutions, nor EU forces, pro-EU forces in BiH will not allow the retrograde ideas to prevail. BiH needs a European future, needs economic development, jobs, good education, inclusion, mobility… This is what young people in BiH want. Ask such questions with any retrograde referendum questions. Ask these young people if they want a referendum or jobs, good life and to be citizens of Europe. The answers are quite clear.

EWB: Progress has so far been hampered by particular interests of political actors. The Council of General Affairs of the European Union called on the European Commission, when preparing its opinion on the membership application of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to pay particular attention to the implementation of the Sejdić-Finci ruling. Apart from the case Sejdić-Finci and Zornić against BiH, there is a verdict of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ilijaz Pilav against BiH, which highlights the discrimination of certain constituent peoples at the entity level. Certain political factors and part of the public feared that the implementation of the verdict Sejdić-Finci creates the famous third entity within BiH.How difficult will it be to implement the mentioned verdicts with regard to the internal political circumstances in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

DZ: There are several relevant facts that have to be taken into account when we talk about a very complex topic which, of course, can significantly improve the quality of relationss and functionality of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also, if  not explained in sufficient way, if we do not inform all institutions and citizens about the end goals and intentions, can cause big problems. It is really big deal in BiH when “constitutional changes” are mentioned. If it enters the sphere of spining some ideas, then it goes in a completely different direction. Let’s go back to the facts. The fact is that we have Sejdić-Finci verdict, the fact is that there are verdicts about which you spoke, Zornić against BiH, Pilav against BiH, which tell us about a few important things. First, Sejdić-Finci is related to the discrimination of non-constituent peoples in BiH, not the constituent ones. Thus, we can not deal with the issues of the constituent peoples equality through Sejdić-Finci. On the other hand, everything has to be based on several important facts. We must respect the Constitution and constitutional capacities within BiH, and on the other hand quite openly speak about possible discrimination of any people in BiH. Bosniaks feel discriminated in the Republika Srpska, Croats talk about possible discrimination within the Federation of BiH, Serbs say something else and so on. We need to put these issues on the table and talk about them openly, and on the basis of democratic standards resolve the issue of equality of peoples and citizens in this country. Of course the agreement is possible. It is possible if we begin from  the basis of documents that I mentioned. But if any dialogue starts with maximalist positions, in which those who negotiate immediately dig trenches and put on helmets, then of course that the agreement is very difficult and almost impossible to achieve. The agreement can be achieved on the basis of the key premises in BiH, and that is that you can not seek the protection of your own people by endangering others. It is understandable that everyone seeks protection of their own people. But I do not see anyone who, while talking about protection of their own people, talks about needs of others too. All peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be fully equal and must have equal access to the institutions, resources and all capacities of this country. If that is the basic premise, then of course that the agreement is possible.

EWB: BiH had a problem with the adoption of the coordination mechanism. There was a lot of criticism from some political figures, mostly because of the issue of the role of cantons. When will bodies established by adopting the mechanism of coordination finally become a reality?Are we going to be ready to communicate with the European Commission with one voice?

DZ: The basic premise on which the coordination mechanism is based is that BiH talks with the EU with one voice. This means that all documents that we present to the European Union have to be the product of joint work. All bodies envisaged by the coordination mechanism will be formed and become operational before questionnaire comes to BiH, at least in the capacity of bodies we need to work on the questionnaire. We will be completely ready to start aswering the questions immediately after we receive the questionnaire. But it will generally be the body for all the other processes that follow, from the screening of our situation and harmonization of our legislation with the EU acquis, to the opening of individual chapters. Therefore, in the coordination mechanism nothing is unclear. There is nothing that is not fully compatible with the current constitutional competencies of BiH. If and when we change the constitutional jurisdictions, then we will change and coordination mechanism. But changes in constitutional jurisdiction will mean a change in dozens of other laws, acts, regulations, etc.

EWB: Before the conclusions of the EU Council of General Affairs, you held, along side with the entity Prime Ministers Fadil Novalić and Željka Cvijanović, a meeting with representatives of the EU and other international authorities, during which they noted “impressive progress” of BiH regarding the implementationof the Reform Agenda. However, statistics show that BiH according to the same parameters, for example, youth unemployment, is among the last in the region. Given the statistics, as well as the political situation of which we have already spoken, do you think that the EU is little unrealistic when it comes to BiH’s progress?

DZ: This assessment was given by the representatives of international institutions, not by the representatives of BiH authorities, and therefore, it seems to me, it is more acceptable to our public. It is  more acceptable because it is said by a foreigner, not by local officials. In a way it speaks about the current situation within the media and public space. If you would like a very vivid answer to the question you asked, it would look like this. We have a stand at the market with a nice pile of beautiful apples, of which somewhere in the middle, or in the end, one of the few, perhaps, started rotting. And the camera focuses solely on it and says “look, these are the apples“, ignoring a hundred kilograms of beautiful apples. We have presented at least 30 different data, of which the most worrisome is really youth unemployment. I always emphasize it particularly and focus on it as the most important macroeconomic problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina,which we have to deal with. But it would not hurt if we were a little more optimistic and if we observe processes as if the glass is half full. It does not always have to be half empty in BiH. Let’s say that this time, the glass is really half full. The measures carried out within the Economic Reform Agenda have already resulted in the fact that our vital economic parameters are among the best in the region, regardless of the complexity of the political and other situations. Our GDP was 3.1 in 2015 and this year will be even better. We have a large increase in exports, a significant reduction in imports, a significant reduction of foreign trade deficit, which this year will be higher than 10 percent, we are among the top ten countries in the world with the largest increase in tourism in the last 12 months, we have a constant increase in industrial production, especially in those segments where we have traditionally good quality of industrial products and the quality of the workforce in the industry. Finally, during 16 months more than 25,000 jobs were opened. It is really, as the representatives of the EC, EU and international financial institutions said, “impressive progress” of BiH. Especially when you take into account the conditions in BiH 20 months ago.

Is it enough? Of course not. When will this progress feel every Bosnian family? Of course we have to continue this growth in this and next year we have to increase growth from 3.5 to 4 percent, we must employe at least 50 or 60 thousand people in the coming years, so the economic could be felt progress . But all things at the moment are going in the right direction. We have defined our most important sectors, we have defined priorities and a number of projects. Right now we are working to use our natural and human resources as an instrument for economic development of BiH. We improved significantly business environment, domestic investment is growing, as well as the interest of foreign investors in BiH. A recent study which covered more than 70 foreign companies in BiH, showed that 78 percent of them are thinking about expanding their production capacity, and more than 86 percent of hiring new people. This means that they understand the improvement of the business environment and the acceleration of administrative procedures. This year, thanks to this progress, BiH will improve its ranking  at some important ranking lists such as “Doing Business” and similar…

So, BiH is going in right direction. Although, from time to time, our progress is being stoped or slowed down by politicial circumstances, political bickering and election campaign. I repeated many times, and now as well – it is big mistake that local elections were not delayed and held together with the general in 2018. That way, the executive branch would have a minimum of 36 or 40 months of work, without being burdened with the election campaign and constant stopping of  projects due to pre-election impression. These frequent elections, the fact that we constantly find ourselves in election campaigns, in a pre-election atmosphere, is preventing active and effective work of the executive authority and prevents deeper and more substantial reforms. This issue should be very seriously considered within BiH. Leaders of political parties should sit down and decide to break this frequent election cycle which ruins the capacity, efficiency and speed in the BiH’s economic sphere.

EWB: But aren’t policial partys those responsible?Because they pay more attention to election campaigns than the continuation of the work.

DZ: Of course, political parties have overall responsibility. Political parties need to be generators of positive processes in a country, especiallythe ruling parties. Ministers, directors and other officials who are in charge to generate positive things and to generate and accelerate the positive processes are from ruling parties. Of course that in this sense political parties bear a large degree of responsibility. But I call for the acceptance of a real argument. After all, you already know what kind of atmosphere prevails a few months before the elections. We did not start this election campaign on 2 Septembar but in April or even March. Even back then began stories how some serious reforms should be postponed until after the elections because it is not known how they will affect certain categories of the population. And just when we finish this campaign, in early 2018 starts a new election year. Executive, any government that wins a mandate of 48 months, really works only 25 or 30 months. Rest of the time is burdened by constant bickering about the elections. That is why I am saying it is very important to accept these arguments, analyze them and try to create normal election cycles. That would be an election cycle of every four years.

EWB: Can we expect more concrete support of the EU, in terms of “twisting arms”, which is often mentioned in BiH’s public?

DZ: The EU does not work on those premises, ”twisting” any arms. It insists on its principles, on its postulates, all of which are based on the rule of law. We in BiH are, of course, in bigger hurry than anyone in the region or the EU to improve things and complete some processesas soon as possible. But th eEU will not deviate from its principles. The EU treats BiH as a unique country, a country that has its territorial integrity and sovereignty. It will not use the principle of separate punishment or in any way “twist arms”. The EU wants to help Bosnia and Herzegovina at the moment when in fact we want to help ourselves. And it will continue to use this prinicple.

EWB: Successful work requires that the National Integration Programme, which should give a plan of harmonizing domestic legislation with the EU acquis, is in place. Could you tell us at what stage is development of the National Integration Programme?

DZ: We will probably go with the same principle as the region countries. So, in parallel we will be working on the part of the process for acquiring candidate status. After that we will put more effort in the screening process, ie analysis of harmonization of our legislation with the EU acquis. The region countries needed, roughly, 12 months for this process. So I belive it will be the same case with BiH.

EWB: Has the process already started?

DZ: It has some start-up phase, but we will really start working on it after obtaining the candidate status. Then all those who had previously worked on the questionnaire and other stages will be completely committed to it. We will devote ourself fully to it. We will see whether, when we obtain the candidate status, will we also get recommendations for opening the chapters. It can change the model of approach and significantly speed up things.

EWB: Were we supposed to finish that earlier, are we late?

DZ: I think we are. We have a really incredible delay. BiH has lost, for absolutely no reason, at least six to seven years on the EU path. In 2008 BiH signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with EU. The signing of the Agreement already then allowed BiH to apply for the membership, similar to what has done, for example, Montenegro. The SAA came into force practically some seven years after the signing, which is an incredible waste of time, without any grounds. Of course, if we could go in a deeper analysis we would likely find the reasons why individuals or parties, the ruling parties of that period, hampered BiH’s EU path. But, if we go back to that period, we can see that BiH was one step ahead of the countries in the region, together with Croatia. At some stage of the EU integration process we went almost parallel with Croatia, then we started to fall behind Croatia but we were still ahead of Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, and then suddenly, inexplicably, for such a long period of six or seven years our EU path has been stopped. And it caused a complete economic stagnation. We lost a lot of time so now we have to work at least twice as much and twice as fast to catch the rhythm of the region.

EWB: What has changed in the meantime?

DZ: The political climate and the political will have changed, which at the moment, at least on the level of the  Council of Ministers, is completely positive. We are all fully committed to the EU integratioingl and not a single material regarding EU integration process in 16 – 17 month of this convocation of the Council of Ministers has been blocked. In these 16 months we have done all the work which shuould have been done in the past seven years – that’s what’s changed.

EWB: What is the situation with lower levels of government?

DZ: I will keep to the level of Council of Ministers and entity goverments. There is no ruling party within those governments that did not sign the Declaration of Commitment to the EU integration. Let’s go back to the Statement of the Presidency of BiH, which was supported by all the ruling parties and other parties, which was supported by both Houses of the BiH Parliamentary Assembly. There is no ruling party at the moment that is, at least regarding statements, against the EU path. And in the present work, with some minor problems and delays, the EU path moves. This means that the Council of Ministers as a key generator of EU integration process, certainly with the significant assistance of the Presidency and the Parliament, but above all with the entity governments, made the process of EU integration constantly moving,  moving it from the stalemate where we found it. The SAA entered into force, economic Reform Agenda has been adopted… We should not forget that the Reform Agenda is almost the only document in the last 15 years which has been adopted in governments at all levels in BiH in the same text. Its credible implementation also began. The Council of Ministers has so far, in a year, implemented 55 percent of its measures, the Government of RS about 52, and the Government of FBiH above 35 percent. Cumulatively, it is more than 40-45 percent. All this for 12 months, although the Reform Agenda was adopted for four years. We adopted the Protocol to the SAA, and you know how much problems it caused, we adopted the coordination mechanism…In the meantime, we completed some other important, very difficult processes, such as the census, and many other processes in BiH. That speaks of the existence of positive political will, despite all the political problems we have, which caused additional turbulence primarily by starting election campaigns, and for other purposes. So, that has been changed – political environment.

EWB: Much criticism could be heard from the civil society on the non-transparent manner of making the vital decisions on the EU path of BiH. One of them relates to  the adoption of the coordination mechanism. How do you plan to include the civil society in the coming phases of the BiH integration process?

DZ: Of course, you are completely right. Just a small digression, the adopting of the coordination mechanism was a completely transparent process. A document published in the Official Gazette of BiH can not be shrouded in secrecy. Something represents a collision there.

But let’s go back to the civil society. This is a very important segment of the overall progress and development of any society. Civil society will be an extremely important link in our path to the EU integration and we soon plan to hold a number of meetings with representatives of civil society, to present them complete perspective of EU integration and to agree with them what are aspects, modalities and means of their participation in each of these processes. They will indeed become a very important instrument that will work together with the authorities. They will become not only a corrective factor, but a factor that should give us good recommendations, good suggestions to direct us in the right direction, to present to us and inform us about the positive experience they have from their work and the positive experience of countries in the region. We will establish a synergy between the authorities and civil society. I think we will continue to walk together, as partners, in all further stages of the EU integration.

EWB: One of the conditions of the EU is the development of regional cooperation. How do you rate the current relations of BiH with neighboring countries? Can political instability affect the economic cooperation?

DZ: I think the regional relations in the Western Balkans are in the ascending line. We, as representatives of BiH, are trying to significantly improve neighborly cooperation and mutual understanding. We are aware, of course, of everything that happened in the past. The past can not be forgotten, but we should build our future on such experiences. The processes of reconciliation are something that is essential and vital for the Western Balkans region. We need courageous actions of  leaders who often have to act against the dominant currents in Western Balkan countries, so the very processes of reconciliation and cooperation could go ahead. From time to time there are a so-called “sparks”. Relations can go on a type of an amplitudinal curve, but in the end we are all committed to peace and stability, because we are aware that they are the key factors of economic development and EU road. There are individuals who always raise tensions and make problems with their quite inappropriate rhetoric. We witness this very often, especially before and after some important events, marking of certain anniversaries in the area of BiH or region. But common sense and the need to live in a stable region prevail. The most important message we can send both to domestic and foreign investors, and they represent new jobs, new economic ventures, implementation of numerous projects, is that their investment is completely protected in a real economic sense. This can be achieved only by keeping peace and stability.

Bosna and Herzegovina is primarily committed to the good neighborly relations and the fight against all forms of extremism. What is important to note is that in recent times in BiH there has been almost no incident that could be defined as a form of extremism. We have very good laws in this regard. Our police, intelligence and other agencies also very well perform their function. Regarding this, we will continue to focus on those issues. Of course, we do not need no excesses, no incidents, no warmongering messages. This region needs peace and stability. These are the axioms of general prosperous future. I must say, however, at this time the leaders of the region behave exactly in accordance with these postulates. We have a very high quality of messages from, for example, Mr Plenković (Andrej, leader of the Croat Democratic Union of Croatia), extremely high-quality messages stated daily by the BiH Presidency Chairman Mr Izetbegović  (Bakir), we have a very good and mature messages, especially recently, from Mr Vučić (Aleksandar, Serbian Prime Minister), who always calls for peace, emphasizing respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is what the the region needs. Finally we have very decent, good, constructive and promising relations with our immediate neighbors. This is the key issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the region and in the European Union.

EWB: Mr Zvizdić, thank you for you time. We wish you a lot of success in European integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Author: Tarik Moćević, EWB Executive Editor for BiH