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[EWB Interview] Ćerimagić: Without implementing all 14 key priorities, BiH will not become full EU member

Last week, the European Union agreed to open membership negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, eight years after the country first applied for EU membership. The European Commission had previously assessed that BiH made sufficient progress in aligning with the EU’s standards for opening accession talks.

European Western Balkans spoke with Adi Ćerimagić, Senior Analyst at European Stability Initiative (ESI), about the significance of this decision, the future reform process and the European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

European Western Balkans: How do you assess the message the EU sent to BiH and the region with the decision to open negotiations with BiH? Can we talk about a new EU that really wants to enlarge?

Adi Ćerimagić: In Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region this decision was welcomed as a positive encouragement. Brussels would, of course, like candidate countries to see this decision as a sign that the EU is now serious about enlargement.

The decision on starting EU accession talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina went much quicker and smoother than with North Macedonia and Albania. It also allows Bosnia-Herzegovina to follow the same path as Ukraine and Moldova. But I am not convinced this shows EU is serious about enlargement.

When the EU decided to start accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia, in 2011 and 2013, both countries received a clear date by which the accession talks should formally start. Also, the negotiation frameworks were adopted without conditions.

In the case of Ukraine and Moldova, and now Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is no end date to formally start accession, and conditions were attached to adoption of the negotiation framework. We now even hear rumours that Bosnia-Herzegovina might need to implement conditions for the European Commission to even start drafting the negotiating framework.

The accession process is being further sliced into even smaller pieces

This means that the accession process is being further sliced into even smaller pieces. While this might make it easier for the EU to digest positive decisions, over a medium-term it will hamper EU’s ability to exert more significant influence in candidate countries.

EWB: Are the negotiations opened based on merit or is it a geopolitical decision?

AĆ: Brussels would like us to think that this decision was a combination of geopolitics and merits. There is no doubt that EU would not start accession talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina had it not done the same with Ukraine and Moldova. This link was also clear when awarding candidate status.

But also, without positive reports published by the European Commission in November 2023 and March 2024, it would have not been possible to convince governments of 27 EU member states, or some of their parliaments.

EWB: Can we say that the European Union abandoned those 14 criteria defined for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which according to many analysts were unfair and too strict?

AĆ: Yes and no. Let’s be clear: without implementing all 14 key priorities, Bosnia-Herzegovina will not become full member of the EU. But when in the accession process, these should be implemented is a matter of smart policy.

The 14 key priorities include a long and difficult list of conditions, requiring several constitutional reforms and agreements that go in the heart of what we know as the Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Commission’s decision to set them in May 2019 aimed at making sure that next decisions – on candidate status and starting accession talks – were pushed as far in the future as possible. It might have made sense from EU’s position as this was done at the peak of EU enlargement scepticism in key member states. Back then any positive decision became difficult or even impossible. Including to start well-deserved accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

From a perspective of Bosnia-Herzegovina, setting these conditions so early in the process made no sense and it failed to create any momentum for reforms. Quite contrary, in three years that followed the EU was side-lined and its ability to influence processes in the country was further weakened.

EWB: When do you expect the opening of the first chapters? Is it realistic that the negotiating framework will be adopted by the summer as we have heard from some announcements?

AĆ: In theory, the negotiating framework could be prepared and adopted in June 2024, together with Ukraine and Moldova. The Commission has enough time to prepare and submit the draft. The question is if the EU will tell the ruling coalition in Sarajevo that such a goal is realistic.

The Commission has enough time to prepare and submit the draft negotiating framework. The question is if the EU will tell the ruling coalition in Sarajevo that such goal is realistic.

Bosnia-Herzegovina would in parallel need to take all relevant steps from October 2022, some of which are politically quite difficult, as they include the adoption of already disputed law on state-level courts and a completely new law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council.

But they would also need to adopt the so-called National Program of Integration. This requires a very detailed agreement on which level of governance and institution, by which date, and in which manner aligns with the EU acquis. The content of this document has been discussed for years in Bosnia-Herzegovina. How difficult and complicated its development can be is best seen in Ukraine and Moldova, where so far, the EU refrained from setting it as condition.

From today’s perspective, the opening of clusters seems very far. After the Commission proposed the negotiating frameworks with North Macedonia and Albania, it took two years for the EU member states to approve it and formally start accession talks. Two more years later, the screening process is over but not a single cluster has been opened yet.

EWB: The President of the European Commission stated that the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have done more since they received candidate status than in more than a decade. How do you evaluate the reforms implemented in the past period? Is it just about the adoption of laws that the EU insisted on, or is there any substantial progress on the ground?

AĆ: The Commission reported in November 2023 and March 2024 that in many respects things moved forward. None of it, I fear, have fundamentally changed, or improved everyday life of citizens. But most of the laws and decisions, from amendments to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to the Conflict-of-Interest law, were pending for years. And now they were finally done.

EWB: After the EU leader’s decision, we saw a lot of positive tones from Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was even praise from SNSD leader Milorad Dodik (although of course, he said that it was a tribute to him and the RS). Do you expect that the opening of negotiations will be an incentive for the ruling majority to continue this reform path?

AĆ: If this kind of EU approach to Bosnia-Herzegovina was happening in the domestic, regional and European context that existed in 2010, I would be very hopeful and even certain that things could pick up in the right direction. But that is not the case and I worry that all this might be too little, too late.

The regional and European context have altered. Since 2021 the High Representative, for example, has started to frequently use its so-called Bonn Powers, recreating rather unhealthy political dynamic in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The regional and European context have altered since 2010.

But the EU’s ability to influence processes in the region has weakened as well. This is particularly case in Serbia. Many of the red lines have been blurred. In Belgrade and Banja Luka, politicians who champion the so-called Serb World are openly discussing the best moment and strategy to unite Serb majority territories. Serbia is also arming itself. Last year we have also seen a return of paramilitaries and violence in north Kosovo.

Within the EU and the NATO, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become supporter and protector of presidents Vučić and Dodik. They share hope and prepare for Donald Trump’s return to the White House. There is also a new dynamic between Dodik and Vučić, which emerged because of Dodik’s important role in the December 2023 elections in Serbia. The times of Vučić’s superiority over Dodik are long gone.

EWB: Where are the citizens of BiH in this whole story? Can they hope for some benefits from the opening of negotiations?

AĆ: Not really. Start of accession talks itself will not make it easier for Bosnian and Herzegovinian economy to trade with the EU, it will also not make it easier for citizens to travel or work in the EU, and it will not open access to additional EU funds.

Furthermore, experience of Montenegro and Serbia, or North Macedonia and Albania, give little reason to hope for concrete and quick benefits for the citizens.

Pro-EU forces in the ruling coalition in Sarajevo, however, argue that Bosnia-Herzegovina is in much better position than their Western Balkans neighbours when they started accession talks. First, they claim that the New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, although not yet directly linked with accession talks conditionality, will help them motivate reluctant politicians to do reforms with more concrete results for citizens. Second, they say Bosnia-Herzegovina is on the same train with Ukraine and Moldova, which they believe in Brussels and other EU capitals is seen as going towards full membership.

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