DPC on why granting opening of accession negotiations is counterproductive for EU/Western and BiH interests

On Thursday, March 21, 2024, ahead of the EU Council deciding on giving green light to Bosnia-Hercegovina for opening accession negotiations, Al Jazeera Balkan published a lengthy interview (in B/C/S) with DPC Senior Associates Kurt Bassuener and Bodo Weber, on why DPC advocates against a positive decision, identifying it as countering both EU, and wider West, and BiH’s interests. The provided answers built on DPC’s recent analyses on BiH authorities’ fraud implementation of reform conditions, the EU’s approach and decision-making process. In the following, we make the original, full answers available to a broader audience.

The DPC analysis indicates that BiH should not receive approval for the start of accession negotiations on Thursday. For all the forces that are trying to lead Bosnia and Herzegovina on the path to the EU and NATO, a negative decision will surely be met as a great disappointment. As someone who fully supports BiH’s path to the EU, how do you explain the results of this analysis?

Bassuener: I know we are outliers even in the policy analysis and advocacy realm in viewing the EC’s recommendation to open membership talks with BiH. It puts us at odds with people with whom we normally agree, including several MEPs and legislators – who have been strong advocates in a very helpful way for real progress toward developing accountable democracy in this country, upon which serious pursuit of EU and NATO membership depend.  However, it is because we have followed these issues in deep detail for at least two decades as DPC – and considerably longer individually – that we have been compelled to take the position that such a move is declaring a false dawn, not an open door to real progress.

You refer to those “forces” pursuing EU and NATO membership for BiH who would be disappointed (and perhaps undermined) at a negative decision by the European Council on Thursday. But who exactly are these forces? There are many in the political realm who declare they want to move toward these goals – but how much effort have they expended in this direction, given that the conditions have been clear from the outset – and clarified further with the 14 key reform priorities articulated in 2019? I would argue that the commitment of the BiH political class as a whole, excepting no party or individual actor, has never made progress toward EU or NATO membership a primary goal.

Weber: Our analysis shows on the one hand that formal reform steps undertaken by the ruling elites in BiH, from last year’s amendment to the Law on HJPC, to the recent adoption of the BiH law on conflict of interest, don’t represent true progress, nor are they in line with EU values, principles and standards. On the other hand, the European Comission’s positive recommendation of last week in founded upon avoiding any assessement of that “reform progress.” To sum up, the green light the European Council will give to BiH this Thursday is, again, exclusively based on lowering and dropping reform conditionality. This will only be the latest, grimmest chapter in a two decades-old policy of artificial/fake progress of BiH on its EU path, enabled by concessions. A policy that has long time –definitively– failed. Each new concession only further emboldens and empowers nationalist elites and leaders who truly don’t want into the EU, supporting them in systematically undermining democracy and the rule of law – and enables them to at the same time even present themselves as “champions of EU integration.” While citizens, having long lost any trust in the EU, are fleeing in ever larger numbers from such a BiH state.

For those reasons, anyone who geniously supports BiH’s EU path today has to advocate against green light for opening accession talks, however painful that might be, or sound absurd.

Many people, even in Bosnia, believe that their country really does not meet the conditions for negotiations with the EU. However, there are not a few who think that the start of negotiations would reduce tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and give a tailwind to the process and that it would be a strategically good political decision by the EU with the aim of stabilizing the region and European security cohesion, regardless of the level of fulfillment of the conditions . At DPC you obviously don’t think so?

Bassuener: Regarding the potential catalytic effects of beginning the membership talks regardless of whether the substantive criteria have been met (or even acknowledging that they have been actively undermined in some cases), I think this represents the triumph of hope over experience – a sort of magical thinking. This has been the argument since the SAA was initialed in 2007 – that declaring progress will generate this mythical “momentum” to drive the process forward. Instead, this has only allowed the BiH political elites to set the terms with the EU rather than the other way around. We saw this in the “structured dialogue” on the judiciary, for example. We have also seen it regarding the election law. Instead of compelling BiH elites against their will to change, the EU has become complicit in reinforcing their power. This hardly serves the public interest.

Security is a real concern, but if that is so, the best remedy is – as we at DPC have long advocated – confronting that directly by reinforcing EUFOR’s deterrent capability and posture, including my demonstrating secession is impossible and that instigating political or interethnic violence would be career-ending (or even more final) for those who initiate it from the commanding heights. The reality is – and the West has been dishonest with itself as well as Bosnian citizens and politicians alike – that Dayton BiH will never enter the EU (or NATO, for that matter). Not because these goals are impossible for any BiH, but since the Dayton system a) allows the political elites enormous latitude to abuse public funds and trust without accountability, and b) there is recognition that importing BiH as-is would import inherent, curated instability into their clubs.

Weber: Any reasonable person, whether in EU capitals or in BiH, knows, or can know if he/she wants to, that BiH has not fulfilled the reform conditions for a green light by any means. Even with multiple additional concessions, the country as is will never be able to enter the EU, i.e. be ready for membership, in fact for years is moving further away from that aim. The fact that most of them don’t come to the same conclusion as we at DPC do, I see as an expression of conformism for some, a principle of hope, an expression of despair about the state of the country, and the lack of any perspective for a turnaround for others.

To repeat, the policy of concessions to, appeasement of Dodik and Covic , as we’ve constantly seen in the past, only encourages them, because they see it for what it is, a sign of weakness of the EU, and the West. And emboldens their ethnonationalist, secessionist agendas, thus further destabilizing the country. On the EU side, the latest cooncession does not represent any strategic decision, but is the consequence of the absence of a joint, strategic policy of the EU, and wider West towards BiH for two decades.

If not like this, how should the “real” European path of Bosnia and Herzegovina look like without the support of those you point the finger at – Dodik and Čović, without whom that path certainly can’t exist? Do you think that is possible with two of them?

Bassuener: Your reference to Messrs Dodik and Čović, both of whom have exploited the “EU path” to their own purposes – that is, to strengthen their relative power and security within an already oligarchical, feudal system – inflates them into becoming indispensable people.  For Covic, that was – and remains – the election law. He got rewarded with the High Rep’s impositions, but he wants guarantees that he or whoever he chooses is assured the Croat seat on the BiH Presidency.  For Dodik, it’s the foreign judges on the Constitutional Court (and that’s “original Dayton”), as well as pursuing to short-circuit the appellate level of the Court of BiH, as well as his attempt at a big payday with state property.  And nobody in BiH politics wants strong control over conflicts of interest, since that would cut to the heart of the political business model here. The hope and (unrealized) potential benefit of the EU enlargement process was precisely to pry the fate of this country away from such self-dealing, self-interested elites – not reinforce them. In essence, the idea that BiH can only move toward EU membership should their interests in self-preservation and enrichment be satisfied is a guarantee that the country will never advance into membership. Because such a country is absolutely unsaleable – at least at present and foreseeably – to citizens or political elites of a majority of EU member states.  The illiberal members of the EU, led by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, are such vocal champions of a values-free enlargement precisely because they want to make the EU safer for such “illiberal democracy.”  Citizens of BiH would hardly be beneficiaries of such a course of events.

As to what would constitute a real, substantive and honest EU enlargement process, this would entail the European Commission, EU Delegation, and member states – as well as the US, UK, Canada, Norway, Turkey, and other Western powers which advocate BiH’s EU path – working to develop a popular constituency among citizens for a country in which men (and the real decision-makers in this country’s politics all are) like Dodik, Čović, Izetbegović, Nikšić, etc cannot have a stranglehold on development, progress, justice, even peace itself. Such a latent constituency exists throughout BiH, disgusted with both their political elites and the West’s embrace of them. The enlargement process as practiced thus far has strengthened their politicians at their expense.

Weber: The issue is not about political leaders in BiH, but about a missing joint, strategic policy of the EU and the West towards the country. As long as the West had a strategy and the necessary political will in the past, reforms were possible even with the existing political elites and actors. Therefore, it’s high time for the West to get its act together and to pull the plug. To take its leverage and existing instruments, those of the EU as well as its Dayton instruments (OHR; EUFOR), and to develop a joint, comprehensive strategy. A strategy based on the analysis of the real situation on the ground, instead of continuing to adjust the reality to a non-existing policy towards BiH.

In my opinion, such a strategy would have to comprise the following elements: labeling, clearly and publicly, political elites and leaders in BiH what they are – nationalist, anti-democratic and anti-European actors; to openly state that BiH cannot enter the EU with its existing, anti-state constitutional order; for the EU to design a strategic plan for the negotiating framework with a new constitutional order, based on a new, democratic balance between individual and collective ethnic rights at its core, without the West again (co-)writing BiH’s constitution; and finally, that the West labels the ruling elites as partners by default, while identifying BiH citizens as their true, pro-European partners. For such an endeavor, political initiative and leadership coming from key EU member state capitals, starting with Berlin, will be needed.