European Western Balkans

EU candidate status of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Undue reward or a boost for the reform process?

BiH and EU flags; Photo: European Commission

At the end of December last year, the member states of the European Union decided to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. BiH submitted its candidacy in 2016, while the European Commission 2019 defined 14 criteria in the rule of law and the fight against corruption. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina did not fulfil those criteria, the highest EU officials did not hide that the decision to grant candidate status was political.

“This is a decision for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Political leaders can now turn this ambition into reality through decisive reforms”, said EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The EU also stated that the new government’s leaders must demonstrate their commitment to the European perspective by accepting necessary reforms to unlock the benefits of candidate status.

Political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina welcomed the decision of the European Union and assessed that it was a political boost to the country’s reform processes. The President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, welcomed the decision and pointed out that he will propose to all political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the entities to ask the EU for financial support of 20 billion euros by 2027.

At the end of January, three months after the October elections, the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the Council of Ministers – was formed. Thus, the formal conditions for starting reform activities were fulfilled, and the new authorities rhetorically announced a pro-European course.

Nedim Hogić, Bosnian lawyer and a PhD candidate at Sant’ Anna School of Advanced Studies, says for European Western Balkans that the whole situation is reminiscent of the one after the 2014 elections when BiH made a significant economic breakthrough that would have been significantly greater if there had been a stronger will on the part of domestic actors.

Speaking about the future of the reform process, Hogić recalls that one part of the government, specifically Milorad Dodik’s SNSD, is under formal sanctions from a part of the international community.

“It would be expected that those sanctions cause that part of the government precisely to give in to some relatively hard positions regarding the demands coming from the EU. On the other hand, ‘People and Justice’, the Social-democratic Party of BiH (SDP) and ‘Our Party’, as part of the reform-oriented, have an even more difficult job because they have to justify the trust of their voters, who expect them to bring about changes at the BiH level, and they cannot manage their smaller coalition partners”, says Hogić.

What is happening with the implementation of 14 criteria?

Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership in February 2016. The Commission adopted its Opinion on the EU membership application of the country in May 2019, identifying 14 key priorities for the country to fulfil in order to get candidate status. The EU Council endorsed the Opinion and key priorities in December 2019. The Opinion constitutes a comprehensive roadmap for deep reforms in democracy/functionality, the rule of law, fundamental rights and public administration reform.

According to the European Commission’s report from 2022, of the 14 defined criteria, only a few have been met.

The priority of elections in Mostar in December 2020 has been fulfilled. In 2021, the recommendation for the proper functioning of the Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee was fulfilled. The first SPAC was held in 2021, while holding was absent during 2022.

Adopting the National war crimes processing strategy in September 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina fulfilled criteria 5 about the reconciliation process. In August last year, Bosnian authorities adopted legislative amendments on public procurement to align the legislation and strengthen capacities for public procurement.

There was also progress in migration management, public administration reform, and LGBTQ rights.

“In essence, it is about several political requirements, legal regulations, and some criteria for which only those who wrote them are clear about how they are fulfilled because they are neither defined nor, as such, existed in any other candidate country. I think that the most difficult thing is to implement the reform of the Constitution and the electoral law that would meet the criteria of the judgment of the European Court for Human Rights ‘Sejdić and Finci vs BiH'”, says Hogić.

According to him, the other criteria are not far from being met, but the problem is that the HDZ has no particular desire to meet them since the demands that could serve as negotiating leverage were mostly completed by imposing changes to the Constitution of the Federation of BiH by the High Representative.

“SNSD, which, together with HDZ, was the main blocker of the request for the adoption of the legal part of the ’14 priorities’, announced that cooperation, but appointed its toughest man Obrad Kesić as ambassador to Brussels, which does not show a commitment to cooperation, but to lobbying and trade,” says Hogić.

Candidate status: minimum for BiH, maximum from the EU?

Not a few believe that the political decision on BiH’s candidacy is the maximum Bosnia and Herzegovina can achieve with all its internal problems and political crises.

Hogić believes that the candidate status is the greatest reach for the EU at this moment.

“Domestic and EU officials should consider the possibility of many other benefits of economic cooperation extending to the Western Balkans despite the impossibility of full membership. The creation of a special economic zone and those solutions that are being considered for Ukraine should be a minimum, below which we should not go. Still, at this moment, it is also unclear whether the new BiH authorities will ask for such a thing from the European Union,” says Hogić.

According to him, the key problem is that the EU at one point almost gave up on expansion and that the United States of America did not see its strategic interest in the expansion of the EU to the Balkans as, for example when the EU enlarge to include Romania and Bulgaria.

“Now, when the interests of the EU and the USA have converged, it is challenging to solve certain, especially constitutional, issues. Namely, a decade of standing still and constant threats of disintegration led to complete mistrust in the international community among a significant part of citizens, especially those of Bosniak nationality who have the impression that the effort is to oust only one national party, the SDA, from power, and the other two, the SNSD and HDZ awards for cooperation are unprincipled,” says Hogić.

He adds that this puts the SDA in a comfortable position to call out all domestic and foreign actors from the opposition for treason, except for Željko Komšić, the Croatian member of the BiH Presidency.

“This makes any future progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina very fragile because quick changes that could dispel suspicions of conspiratorial narratives among citizens will not come,” concludes Hogić.

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