European Western Balkans

Ćerimagić: To get to the EU, we have to change a flawed perception of hopelessness for BiH

European leaders do not think much about Bosnia, expectations towards it are generally low and those who decide on whether to dedicate time and resources on Bosnia and Herzegovina are convinced that changes are impossible, stated Adnan Ćerimagić, analyst at the Berlin-based think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI).

In an interview given to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian daily newspapers Dnevni avaz, Ćerimagić underlined that against the background of “dramatic days in European politics”, during which US President questions the very existence of NATO, prospects of trade wars between the US, China, and the EU, as well as other chalenges facing the Union, that the “European leaders think about the Balkans only if countries surprise them positively or if there is a real chance that countries could surprise them positively”.

“We have seen that in the case of Albania, which fulfilled very demanding conditions for opening of accession talks with the EU, but even more in the case of the agreement on name dispute between Skopje and Athens. We see it also in relations beween Belgrade and Pristina, where the EU still believes there is a chance for an agreement on normalization of relations. While a majority of observers of the Western Balkans are convinced that Bosnia is constantly on the verge of some new conflict, those who decide on whether to dedicate time and resources on Bosnia are convinced that changes are impossible, and that nothing positive should be expected from Bosnia. They consider it a success that Dayton peace and democracy have survived despite numerous prophecies of their collapse”.

He has also stated that positive changes in Bosnia and Herzegovia are not imposible and that Bosnians and Herzegovinians are “as capable of being successful as any other Europeans”, and that its diplomats, civil servants, and politicians are capable of success when they work on the right issue.

“We have seen it in 2006 when Bosnia finished negotiations on the SAA only two weeks after Montenegro, to the surprise of many in the EU. Or at the time of the visa liberalisation process, during the European Partnership, etc. Today we need to fairly analyse on the basis of facts why Bosnia is almost a decade behind Montenegro. And learn from it”, Ćerimagić said and added that the main reasons for the lack of progress is the development of a “dark legend” of failure, incompetence and obsession with irrational emotions in Bosnia itself.

“This is not how people today regard Montenegro, Serbia or Croatia, as well as Macedonia and Albania. They should not look at Bosnia in that way. Bosnia’s biggest failiure is not the Dayton constitution, which worked well in preserving the peace, but the failiure to develop and implement sound economic, educational and social policies. Bosnia needs politicians, intellectuals and a civil sector that comes with concrete proposals on how to strengthen institutions within the current constitutional order, how to improve policies and catch up with neighbours and the EU when it comes to the quality of schools, support to entrepreneurs, production and exports, promoting tourism and creating decent health care. All that is possible and achievable, because Bosnia has both human and natural resources, but they need to be encouraged and motivated.

He has also highlighted that “myths about Bosnia that manage to survive are used as an excuse for policy failures, which should not be accepted by Bosnians”.

“The Bosnian problem is that there are too few serious and concrete policy debates and ideas on how to improve public policies. The EU itself bears a lot of responsibility for this because it wasted more than a decade of Bosnia’s time on irrational conditions which only led to strengthening of myths about Bosnia and not their weakening. From police reform and insisting on Bosnians to sit and wait while the international community agrees on how to split the Office of the EU Special Representative and OHR to insisting on Sejdic-Finci as the essential condition”.

The fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina Bosnia is the only country that has applied for EU membership but does not even have official candidate status yet is “shameful”, according to Ćerimagić. However, he recognizes that it is not only Bosnia’s fault, but also a result of the EU treating Bosnia differently from Montenegro, Serbia or Croatia.

“There is no reason why Bosnians should accept this kind of treatment from the EU. Politicians and civil society should demand from the EU and its member states that Bosnia is treated in the same way as its neighbours. Bosnia should be required to meet the same standards as its neighbors, and not some arbitrary standards such as implementation of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in the case of Sejdic-Finci, which was ruled on a basis of a standard that Sweden, France, the UK and 17 other EU member states rejected to accept in their own countries, and it was imposed as condition on Bosnia at the time when only six EU member states had a better track record than Bosnia in implementing ECHR judgements”.

Bosnia needs realistic but ambitious goals on its path towards the EU, he continues, and not to be told that it should be happy if in ten years it manages to open accession talks, but that the goal should be to receive candidate status as soon as the results of the October elections are implemented and new governments begin to work. This, Ćerimagić states, could mean that by the end of 2019 Bosnia should open accession talks and that it “can and must be in the same group as Macedonia and Albania”.

“For this to happen, the EU needs to learn from the past, and when it comes to assessing and deciding on conditionality, it needs to treat Bosnia as all other countries. That approach would not lead to EU demanding less from Bosnia, on the contrary it would mean that the EU would demand more. Bosnia would have more intense and better support from the EU and would at the end do more. To get there we need to change a flawed perception of Bosnia – the dark legend of hopelessness”, Ćerimagić said.

In Ćerimagić’s opinion, Bosnia can do much more than it does now, particularlly in areas that affect the everyday life of citizens.

“Democracy everywhere is about compromise. And this always involves consultations, negotiations, and takes time. Some of the most successful democracies in the world – the Swiss, the Dutch – have the most intense processes of consultation before any law they pass. In order to come to a compromise different interests need to be taken into account. This is no different in Bosnia. What is different in Bosnia is that compared to Switzerland or Belgium the quality of inputs during these processes is not as high. This can be changed with modernisation and improvement of existing institutions”, says Ćerimagić.

He also highlights that the EU accession talks can be of great help in this process and that “the Bosnian approach to ethnicity is more liberal than in many EU member states”.

“A Muslim Roma in Cyprus, an EU member state since 2004, has no choice but to belong to the “Turkish Cypriot community” according to the constitution. In Europe’s capital of Brussels Fuad or Aziz ran for the parliament either as Francophone or Flemish. And Aziz who chose to be Flemish can never become prime minister… In Bosnia the decision of ethnic belonging is fully left to the individual, it is not imposed, it can be changed and it is not written in any personal document. And if we compare divisions in the Northern Ireland where the so-called peace lines or peace walls physically divide different communities then the ethnic lines in Bosnian society seem invisible”.

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