European Western Balkans

BiH and the EU: The politics of „almost“ does not deliver anymore, Hahn loses patience

Hahn with Zvizdić; Photo: Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina

The pictures are telling – Commissioner Hahn smiling and celebrating the next step in Bosnia’s EU integration back in late 2016 while delivering the EU Commission’s questionnaire stands in sharp contrast to the same but this time rather disillusioned and frustrated Commissioner in Sarajevo by the end of 2017. And this huge nothing in the meantime that has changed Commissioner’s mood reveals a simple fact that Bosnia as a country is basically not functioning and in its present shape it is light years away from the EU membership.

Yes, this is because of the dysfunctional logic of Dayton and the political practice that derives from it and we usually describe as self-referential ethnopolitics. Yes, it is also because elected politicians on all three sides almost ever since the last elections have been engaged in a permanent electoral campaign based on blaming and accusing each other for the lack of progress is the matrix they stick to.

But it is also partly because of the passivity of Bosnian population and a similar kind of passivity in the EU and the European Commission. The majority of Bosnians are tired of politics and do not believe that change is possible. It seems that also the EU does not believe too much that a happy end in Bosnia is realistic, at least not under present circumstances. This is where the vicious circle starts and ends – as long as there is no faith in change or confidence that an extra-effort will lead to results, the playing field is surrendered to the moribund but yet alive political class.

To be more concrete: Hahn losing patience in the press conference means that the talks behind closed doors were a major disaster. The visit for sure came at bad time as the three constituent people and their political representatives (in the case of Bosnian Croats and Serbs aligned with their respective “brother-nations” in Serbia and Croatia) following latest decision at ICTY (Mladić and Prlić et al.) were engaged in one of the worst nationalist and revisionist campaigns in the recent past. Čović, for example, was contemplating about blocking Bosnia’s EU path because of the judgment in The Hague. The new climate of hatred and exclusion came on top of the already heated political situation in Bosnia, which contributed to the very slow response of Bosnian authorities to the EU’s questionnaire.

Hahn rightly showed his frustration with constant promises of Bosnian authorities to “almost” deliver answers in the “next few weeks”. This “almost” with no results yet should be understood in Brussels as it is meant – we, the Bosnian political elites, do not care about the EU integration, and this is why we are pretending and buying time.

This is the background to answer the question of Bosnia’s EU perspective: if everything stays as it is there will be no Bosnia in the EU any time soon. And here even the best intentions of the EU are doomed to fail.

As the rumors about the upcoming Enlargement strategy of the Commission (to be presented in February) tell, the Commission hopes that Bosnia will be able to open negotiations with the EU in 2023. If we carefully listen to reactions to Hahn’s visit we have to put a huge question mark behind this target date, at least for now: Dodik, for example, immediately after Hahn’s visit announced that there will be no final answers to the Questionnaire as long as there is no major political compromise over major issues (like results of the census). The paradoxical moment here is that the one asking for the political compromise is the same person that is engaged in destroying any chance for the compromise. The results is again a “zero sum game”.

And finally, Hahn’s frustration also means that – at least for the moment – the EU Commission is puzzled and has no answer to the Bosnian permanent political crisis. Against the background of a situation where we can observe a new sense of relevance of the Western Balkans in Brussels, which will ultimately be reflected in new EU’s initiatives in 2018, Hahn’s frustration might be read as an invitation to engage very broadly in a new offensive thinking about Bosnia that goes beyond the ethnopolitical conundrum.

Bosnia, as the major piece of the puzzle in the Western Balkans, without which there will be no stability in the region, has to be placed very high on the EU’s agenda. And when it comes there, a new and very offensive action plan for Bosnia is needed.

Few sketches on its content, not elaborated here but more as “food for thought”:

Firstly, pass the message to Bosnian politicians that the politics of “almost” and fooling the EU and citizens of Bosnia in terms of EU integration do not deliver any more, and blame directly those responsible for the “politics of almost”.

Secondly, learn the lessons from Macedonia, elevate the political pressure on politicians, engage with opposition parties (yes, there are some in Bosnia also) and refocus on real partners in civil society and among citizens.

Thirdly, promote democratic values and draw red lines if major fundamental rights or democratic values are violated.

Fourth, start sooner than later talking seriously with Croatia and Serbia and urge them to become EU’s partners in resolving Bosnian questions rather than spoiler.

Fifth, look for pragmatic technical tweaks (like opening chapters 23 and 24 immediately, or creating a new chapter 35 called “state functionality”) and accompany them with financial support if the compromise happens in case of tangible progress.

Sixth, reaffirm major commitment of the EU to the region, engage all countries of the Western Balkans in positive competition and motivate and push Bosnia to be part of this regional EU competition.

The publication of this article has been supported by the European Fund for the Balkans

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