The Application Shakedown

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership application, which it plans to submit on 15 February, is by any objective measure premature and likely to suffer a humiliating rebuff by EU member states. In an effort to avoid that scenario, it is now being sold by Presidency member Mladen Ivanić as a necessary measure to preserve stability.

In a recent interview with Banja Luka’s Nezavisne novine, Ivanić said the following: “It will not be easy to get candidate status, but I’m optimistic. If BiH remains isolated in the Western Balkans, I think it will be the next potential crisis area and that the EU could eventually suffer the consequences of it…This can be seen in the context of Libya, where many refugees come to Western Europe through Italy, Malta, or in the case of Syria and of all migrants coming into the European Union, in the example of Ukraine and in the extremely problematic economic relations between the EU and Russia, so that the EU does not need another source of crisis.” The article then notes that Ivanić believes that this threat of instability will likely lead to BiH’s application being accepted.

By framing the case in this way, Ivanić knows he is pushing the buttons of the EU and the wider international community. The stability fixation of the West was already evident before the refugee crisis arose. In the same way that the Cold War allowed illiberal, undemocratic leaders the world over to short-circuit the brains of Western leaders by marketing their regimes as “anti-communist,” (such as those of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and P.W. Botha in apartheid-era South Africa) governments throughout the Mediterranean Basin, and in the Western Balkans, are using the legitimate fear of Islamist radicalism as an alibi for their repressive and regressive policies, as well as a method to extract material support from the West. In BiH, given that the enforcement tools of EUFOR and the High Representative have effectively been neutered by the EU, the only lever of outside influence left – considering that the prospect of EU membership has yielded no results to date – is money. BiH politicians know this and are primed to take full advantage.

Mladen Ivanić is an intelligent man; he knew the score at the inception of the German-British initiative which begat the Reform Agenda, when he called it “senseless”. At the same time, he is opportunistic. He is taking advantage of the EU’s myopic policy vision which is predicated on an uncritical and unquestioning partnership with the prime beneficiaries of BiH’s inherently corrupt and unaccountable political system. But the EU set itself up for this; its manufactured optimism in the 2015 EC Report (formerly known as the “Progress Report”) on BiH was unsupported by facts on the ground and it has made regular statements that it would consider a “credible application” – after a coordination mechanism and arrangements for “traditional trade” under the SAA are agreed. That low bar still has not been cleared. Now the EU will reap what it sowed: it will soon receive a non-credible application, with BiH politicians calling their bluff; hence the evident lack of enthusiasm and dread in EU member state diplomatic circles for the application’s delivery.

Of course, the West does have a serious stake in BiH, which borders the EU and NATO. But the EU should not allow itself to be manipulated by threats, which constitute the latest iteration of the industry-standard Balkan shakedown, and which can be summed up as “indulge us or we’ll go crazy.” Instead, the West – and especially the EU, which has a mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment in BiH – should shore-up its capacity to deter genuine threats to security and the rule of law. This means making clear that attacks on the BiH constitutional order and state institutions (such as the perpetually proposed RS referenda) will not be tolerated and that the High Representative has full Western backing to deter them from happening. This is still lacking. Worse yet, calls for the use of the existing and effective enforcement tools are frequently blithely written off by the EU and others as “wanting to go back to the past.” A return to a time when the High Representative drove the reform process is not what’s required – or proposed. But a restoration of the role of the High Representative to prevent violations of the Dayton Peace Agreement or subversion of state institutions is required.

To this end, the entire Western posture in BiH needs to be reassessed, starting with the West’s own stated interests and assumptions. There can be no denying that the elites of the country do not want to destroy a comfortable ecosystem in which they can keep what they stole, keep stealing, and remain unaccountable. Considering their rational self-interest, they can never be the EU’s reliable partners.

So, if they are not to be the partners the EU needs to get its standards met, how about doing the labor intensive work of developing a popular constituency for those standards, rather than idly standing by as parliament rams through legislation in urgent procedure – like the entity labor laws – in the vain hope of selling them to an understandably skeptical public ex post facto? Ticking off a law on the Reform Agenda checklist may look like progress, particularly from Brussels, but implementing such laws will be far more difficult. Worse yet, it deepens a popular perception that we foreigners are allied with the political elites against the people for our own interests.

The EU’s approach remains based on the article of faith that the political elites of BiH will evolve with the incentive of membership. But the Union’s representatives would do well to reflect on what enabled human evolution from small mammals to begin with: a mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs – dominant species which had no environmental pressure to evolve.

Region-wide, leaders are pressing the line that “integration is still the key to Western Balkan stability,” while simultaneously seeking to delay, avoid or pervert the reforms required to move towards membership, all too often with EU acquiescence. DPC strongly supports full integration of the region into the EU and NATO. But the West’s strategic goal should not simply be “membership,” but rather functioning liberal, constitutional democracies consolidated under the rule of law and accountable governance, capable of being constructive EU members. Right now, EU statements about promoting enlargement constitute a charade to mask what is effectively a containment policy.

Until that goal is reached in BiH and with other EU aspirants, attempts at effective integration will end in frustration and failure. Integration of weak, dysfunctional states – were it even politically possible for member states to do that – will not strengthen the EU; in fact it will lead to more strain on an already strained and stretched Union. Those elites pressing for integration as a substitute for actual reform leading to functionality, and threatening instability should they not be appeased, are not the West’s friends or partners. It is high time that the EU recognized this and acted accordingly.