BiH’s Application for EU Membership – The Question of European Interests

On 14 February 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) Presidency and Prime Minister submitted the country’s application for membership in the European Union to EU representatives in Brussels. There were many questions about BiH’s application, most notably whether this was really a credible application with a realistic chance of giving BiH candidate status and thereby opening the door for membership talks with the EU.

This commentary is not directly about the credibility of BiH’s application. Instead, I believe that – regardless of content or merit – it will be very difficult for the EU to reject BiH’s bid to be recognised as an official candidate country and to soon start membership negotiations. BiH is not Albania, which was rejected not once, but twice before it became an official EU candidate country. BiH, many argue, is “special.” Its history of war, its convoluted power-sharing governance system, the strong presence of the EU on the ground, its borders with Croatia (a past player in the wars and a current EU Member State), its strategic position in the Western Balkans, the existence of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) and the increasingly forgotten “Others” – all of these points make BiH “special” in the eyes of many.

In fact, I would argue that what BiH needs is not more “special treatment” but more “normality” – meaning here a strict application of the EU’s own conditionality, a focus on its membership criteria, and the sticking to robust standards as outlined in detail in the EU enlargement framework. In recent years, BiH political elites have failed to adopt major legislation related to the country’s EU integration, and the farce about not yet releasing the results of the 2013 census demonstrates the lack of political progress made.

Hence, this commentary is about the EU and its role in BiH. Over the last 16 years, the EU has taken a more proactive role in the Western Balkans. In BiH it took over security provisions from the UN – EU Police Mission (EUPM) in 2002 and NATO – EU Force (EUFOR) in 2004. The EU connected its growing profile as an external actor in the region with a new strategy of political engagement, which in theory would eventually lead to the integration of all former Yugoslav states (and Albania) into the EU, as well as the state-strengthening and democratic consolidation required to merit membership. This process – called the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) – aimed to address issues connected to post-war and transitional societies by offering these countries EU membership and preparing them as member states through a process of EU Member State Building.

In short, what the EU tried to do is address issues of weak statehood, economic transition and deficiencies in democratic governance through a focus on “EUisation” and the adoption of the acquis communautaire, the EU’s own framework of existing law. The notion was simple – all problems associated with weak states, transitions and frail democracies could naturally be addressed as part of the EU’s own enlargement framework. As these countries moved closer to the EU by adopting various parts of the acquis, they would also become automatically stronger states, more stable economies and better democracies.

Unfortunately, as Romania and Bulgaria already proved after 2007, the link between EU integration and democratization is not as direct and as strong as previously assumed in Brussels.

The EU’s lessons learned from Romania and Bulgaria were that its own policy needs to be more robust and its monitoring mechanisms need to be improved. The EU’s focus then shifted from policy adoption to policy implementation and it recognised that “strategic” enlargements in which geopolitical concerns take precedence over the Copenhagen Criteria, will result in a longer transition period and weaker EU member states. Thereafter, Croatia became the first country to be subject to greater scrutiny and more detailed and firm conditionality as part of its integration process. Nevertheless, almost two years after it joined the EU, doubts still exist about the actual impact of Europeanisation on Croatia, particularly under its new HDZ-MOST coalition government. It still struggles with engagement of its Serb minority, it has become a more overtly one-sided actor in BiH and its adoption of legislation defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman has called into question its commitment to the rights of sexual minorities. These and other examples of regressive policies seem incongruent with the goals and values of “Europe.”

The EU, it seems, still has not found the right tools for productive engagement with candidate and potential candidate countries. Evidence from Hungary and Poland also suggests that EU membership does not make a country a resilient democracy, that historical legacies matter, and that the transition to a market economy and the 2008 economic crisis has resulted in a revival of anti-democratic and nationalist tendencies. The EU, in other words, has contributed to the democratization of Poland and Hungary, but has failed (until today) to successfully counter those promoting anti-democratic and anti-European policy solutions.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU has tried all kinds of incentives, promises, diplomatic initiatives and technical support programmes, and yet it has nothing to show for it. None of the EU’s initiatives have resulted in any progress towards more democracy, closer adherence to European values or a strengthening of European norms in the country. In its ostensibly pragmatic approach, it has had the reverse effect: enabling and rewarding political actors who seek to undercut the rule of law, accountability, and liberal democratic values.

Take for example the European Court of Human Rights’ 2009 Sejdić and Finci vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina ruling. The Court ordered BiH to change its constitution and end the discrimination of non-constituent peoples in the House of Peoples and the Presidency at the state level. In 2010, the EU made implementation of this decision a condition for candidate status. Yet in 2014, after successful resistance from BiH political elites, it dropped (or “re-sequenced”) the condition in favor of a “new” priority: economic reform – stalled for the last 20 years by political corruption and now expected to miraculously move forward without any change in the political equation.

A second example can be found in the agricultural sector, where for years the EU had pushed BiH to unite the entity and canton agricultural ministries under a state-level ministry to ensure certain standards are maintained and quality control is ensured (thus allowing export to the EU). Yet this unification has not occurred; in fact, as of 2011, the Commission stopped mentioning the need for a state ministry entirely. As a result, BiH’s agricultural trade with EU member states, most importantly Croatia, is currently facing serious limitations and restrictions. The poverty-stricken country is struggling against both EU trade frameworks and Croatia’s own duplicitous efforts to get the best EU trade deal for itself while maintaining preferential advantage vis-a-vis BiH.

A third example is the ongoing debate about legal and judicial reform in BiH. Over a decade ago, great efforts were made to integrate and standardize the legal system, and to ensure that judges and prosecutors are appointed by an independent body rather than party-aligned parliamentary representatives. But nearly two decades of minimally effective judicial processes – not least in terms of fighting endemic high-level corruption – has demonstrated the gaping structural problems that exist in the system. Yet the Republika Srpska leadership (particularly its President, Milorad Dodik), who has made attempts to further fragment and bring the judiciary under its political control, has been appeased; the EU initiated and has engaged in a “Structured Dialogue on Justice” with the political elites which has not yielded any results other than to undermine previously agreed reforms.

What these examples demonstrate is that EU policy has not been successful in BiH, if success is to be measured in actual change on the ground. BiH political elites have mastered the art of manipulation and “sitting EU demands out,” through which they have managed to seriously challenge, and indeed reduce, EU conditionality. The question that arises is, if there has been so little progress in BiH, why is the country applying for membership?

This is where the notion of European interests becomes important. Europe’s elites, especially those that have been involved in politics since the early 1990s (when they failed to end the war in BiH), value stability as the guiding principle in their approach to BiH. The EU’s policy in BiH has little (or nothing) to do with preparing the country for actual membership, making it more democratic, and building a stronger economy. Instead, the EU is focused on maintaining an increasingly fragile peace by giving in to the demands of those elites that threaten this peace. This has nothing to do with the EU’s professed values, such as a focus on democracy, human and fundamental rights, and the rule of law. Many groups in BiH will sign up to these values and the promotion of them – in fact, some have actively advocated them for a long time. However, the EU’s focus on stability has contributed to the marginalisation of these alternative voices in BiH (and the wider Western Balkan region). This leaves those subscribing to democratic values and promoting their protection and deeper entrenchment without backup. If BiH policies are good enough for the EU, politicians say, what are they complaining about? Worse yet, they have been characterized as impeding the “European path.”

BiH’s elites have recognized this European priority and have been able to push their own agenda as part of a wider political game of “threatening stability”. The elites ostensibly representing three constituent peoples (but actually only protecting their own dominant positions) have all recognized and learned the game they need to play to get concessions from the EU and its member states. RS President Milorad Dodik has threatened stability through his recurring threat to hold a referendum on the legitimacy of state judicial institutions, while Croat member of the BiH Presidency and HDZ leader Dragan Čović has successfully pushed the issue of a Croat entity (in some form) onto the agenda. Using its ally in Zagreb, the HDZ BiH has been able to impede the formation of a Federation government and has consistently pushed its own agenda. The leading Bosniak party, the SDA, has also been able to use the stability argument to push its agenda, particularly in terms of its representation in state-owned companies and in the public sector.

As a result of the EU’s indulging such behavior, there has been virtually noreal political progress in BiH since 2006. As long as the EU values stability above democracy, human rights and state functionality, there is also little doubt that no further progress will be achieved. The ‘progress’ promoted by the EU is based on a foundation of ‘agreement,’ ‘promises,’ and ‘plans,’ such as in the case of the German-British initiative, rather than on concrete policy adoption and implementation. It is a policy of wishful thinking.

Yet in the case of Albania, the EU delayed the country’s candidacy application twice (in 2010 and 2013), based on legitimate worries about ‘the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law,’ to quote the EU’s enlargement commissioner at the time, Štefan Füle. In terms of institutional stability, democratic progress and the rule of law, BiH today is certainly no better than Albania in 2010. Yet, all indications are that its application for candidate status will be looked at much more positively, probably because processesare supposedly ongoing (despite their lack of delivery of actual results). The EU needs to maintain the illusion that ‘progress’ is happening, that BiH is moving closer to becoming a consolidated democratic state, ready to join the EU, and not least that the EU enlargement process is working.

Ironically, the EU’s focus on stability and its bowing to the demands of BiH’s political elites has made the country less secure and less stable. Its focus on stability has in fact generated more instability.

  • Soeren Keil, PhD is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom. He has written, edited and co-edited six books, the latest being “State-Building and Democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (co-edited with Valery Perry). He has provided academic expertise for multiple think tanks, NGOs, and governments on questions of Western Balkan politics, EU enlargement and democratization. He can be contacted at