EWB Interview with Adnan Ćerimagić, analyst at the Berlin-based think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI).

European Western Balkans: Was it a mistake for EU member states to accept Bosnia-Herzegovina’s membership application in September 2016 and ask the European Commission to start the opinion process?

Adnan Ćerimagić: It was not a mistake. For the first time in a decade, the EU did something right in Bosnia. For far too long the EU has treated Bosnians as a special case, by throwing at them – with no reasonable justification or link to EU standards – conditions such as police reform, closure of the OHR and implementation of the Sejdic-Finci ruling. The opinion process has given Bosnians a fair chance to discover what they know about their country, describe and explain how it works, and find out how far it is from EU standards. Bosnia is finally able to do something its neighbours had done years ago.

EWB: Twelwe months later the country has still not delivered answers to a questionnaire. The process is taking significantly longer than in any other country of the Western Balkans and official EU candidate status – promised by the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency by the end of 2017 or in early 2018 – seems all but achievable. Has Bosnia-Herzegovina used the chance offered by the EU?

AĆ: It would have been praiseworthy if the Bosnian governments did their work within the same timeframe as their neighbours. Or if they did it by the time they promised their own citizens to do so. But they did not.

This fact has created a noteworthy dynamic in the country. Bosnian civil society is openly shaming governments by publishing rather embarrassing and effective charts comparing Bosnia’s time to answer the questionnaire with that of its neighbours. There was even a call for organising a ceremony of mockery marking a year since the questionnaire came to Sarajevo. Bosnian opposition parties are doing similar things. They demand governments to stop embarrassing Bosnia and claim that if they were in power the answers to the questionnaire – and the candidate status – would have been delivered much quicker. This is the sort of competition that Bosnian society and politics desperately need, especially ahead of the October 2018 general elections.

It also resembles the dynamic created during the visa liberalization process. Back then the Bosnian governments also performed slower than their neighbours. What helped deliver results in that case was clear, strict and fair conditions from the EU’s side, the ability to compare with neighbours, the impossibility to hide the absence of results and pressure from the public and opposition. Bosnia received visa free travel in December 2010, twelwe months after Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. In elections held in October 2010 Bosnian citizens remembered that and punished their governments by voting for opposition parties.

EWB: Agreement on answers to some questions seems like mission impossible regardless of which political parties sit in governments. Different politicians, levels of governments and institutions have different data and seem to see too many things differently. Is it possible to overcome this?

AĆ: Yes it is. At the end of the opinion process, the European Commission will publish a document explaining how far Bosnian legislation, institutions and their practices are from the EU standards. In order to do it well, the Commission needs to have as much of the available information as possible. This is why it sends long questionnaires in the first place. And this is why it often asks additional questions after it receives initial answers.

When different Bosnian institutions have different data, views or practices then they should not spend too much time fighting over which is right. Instead, they should simply state the obvious – that there are different views, or differing data and practices – and submit to the European Commission everything they have. Be it different population figures or opposing views on the level of threat that religiously motivated extremism poses for Bosnian society. With answers in Brussels the Commission will be able to tell how far different legislation, or differing data, views and practices are from meeting EU standards. The accession process should then help bring Bosnia in line with EU standards.

EWB: Many claim there should at least be a single answer to a question about a country’s population, but then how can there be one when the state-level and Republika Srpska published different results of the 2013 census?

AĆ: Having two different versions of census results does sound confusing. In October 2013 Bosnian statistical agencies jointly conducted the census and collected data. But then they decided to use different methodologies when processing and bringing together the data. This resulted in different institutions having different results. EU’s statistical agency Eurostat confirmed that at least one of the two census results is in line with EU and international standards. Taking into account the very poor state of Bosnia’s overall statistics – including total absence of some important statistics on agriculture or education – it is encouraging to know that at least one census result has EU quality. Instead of spending precious time fighting whether the second result is also in line with EU standards, Bosnians should send both results together with an explanation of the different methodologies that were used. And then find out which is closer to the EU standards when the European Commission publishes its opinion.

EWB: But then there is also the question on whether Bosnia-Herzegovina plans to join NATO. All parties in Republika Srpska entity insist on negative answer and all parties in the Federation entity insist on positive answer.

AĆ: The European Commission has asked the Bosnian governments over 3,200 questions. The fact that not a single question is related to Bosnia’s NATO aspirations shows where the public debate on the questionnaire is. Domestic and foreign observers – but also many Bosnian politicians – engage in a public debate on how the answer on NATO aspirations could and should be structured. Or they go as far as to conclude that there will never be an agreement. While debating this they miss to notice that the European Commission did not even ask the question in the first place.