The European Commission has asked member state leaders meeting in Brussels next week for the usual year-end European Council to endorse EU candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, that would be a mistake.
This would undermine the credibility that the EU accession process still retains by rewarding the most obstructionist politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It would undermine the credibility of the European Commission, which along with its recommendation for candidate status also issued a scathing report on the almost complete halt to reforms in the country.
It would also fail the seriousness test since Bosnia, like most of its neighbours, has no real prospect of EU membership for many years.
Instead of simply waving at a country run by a cartel of venal and irresponsible politicians claiming to serve their ethnic constituents while enriching themselves, EU leaders should be bold, for once, and order a comprehensive review of the EU enlargement policy.
Such a review should identify why, after more than 15 years of EU leadership on the “international community” in Bosnia, so little progress has been made. In many policy areas, there has actually been a setback, as the commission’s national report points out.
The commission’s rationale for recommending candidate status to Bosnia was geopolitical: after doing the same for Ukraine and Moldova (and conditionally, Georgia) to build their resilience against the Russian attack, the commission argued that the same should be done in the West. Balkans, the six countries of South-Eastern Europe which are not members of the EU.
Real or symbolic?
But there are good reasons to wonder whether the membership offer to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is genuine or largely symbolic. There are equally good reasons to ask for the same in the case of Bosnia, where the commission seeks on the one hand to advance the accession process while on the other hand seeking to appease the Bosnian Serb separatists and Bosnian Croats in a way that would make Bosnia even less capable of assuming the responsibilities of EU membership.
In its opinion on Bosnia’s June 2019 membership application, the committee wrote: “Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to align its constitutional framework with European standards and ensure the functionality of its institutions in order to be able to assume the obligations of the EU.
Not only did the country’s political leaders do nothing to solve this problem, but the EU itself pushed the Bosnian and pro-Bosnian parties to acquiesce to the demands of the main Croatian nationalist party, the HDZ BiH, in alliance with Bosnian Serb ruling party. , to overhaul the electoral system in a way that would deepen ethno-national divisions and secure the HDZ’s hold on power in perpetuity.
Instead of working towards a less divided electoral system, as demanded by several judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and demanded by the EU’s own declarations and various resolutions of the European Parliament and the The German Bundestag, the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), together with the Americans and the British, sought to pressure Bosnian and non-sectarian parties to accept greater division.
Hungary and Croatia alone grow
Within the EU, this approach had two main sponsors: EU member Croatia, whose ruling HDZ is a sister party to HDZ BiH, and Hungary, which openly supported the secessionist Bosnian Serb regime. by Milorad Dodik.
Together, Croatia and Hungary captured the EU’s Balkan policy; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is too weak, or too disengaged, to overpower Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi.
However, the problems of the enlargement process go far beyond Bosnia and have been manifesting themselves for some time.
Serbia has made progress on its path to membership even as President Aleksandar Vučić has deepened the autocratic transformation of his regime and sided with Russia after its brutal attack on Ukraine.
Something similar, although in a less destabilizing form for its neighbors, happened in Edi Rama’s Albania.
Montenegro, the other “favourite” in the negotiation process, has made great progress under the leadership of Milo Djukanović, in power for 30 years but recently greatly diminished, even if there has been no progress in terms of democracy and the rule of law.
North Macedonia resolved its decades-old dispute with Greece over its name in 2018 – only to see Bulgaria impose retrograde nationalist demands regarding national history and identity on its membership process.
It is paradoxical that the main democratic hope and the most open society in the region, Kosovo, is also the furthest behind. Prime Minister Albin Kurti has announced that the country will apply for membership this month, but as long as five EU member states refuse to recognize its independence, there is little hope of significant progress towards membership.
The EU has failed to adapt the “enlargement toolbox” it used for the ten candidate countries in 2004 to the very different realities of the Balkans. It has not activated the transformative potential of enlargement to push for democratization and the rule of law. It took a transactional approach to the issue of irregular migration along the Balkan route, which peaked in 2015-2016; now that the numbers are on the rise again, the EU is again moving at the same speed.
As a result of these developments, the EU has lost its collective understanding of why it is enlarging in the first place; no Member State leader effectively advocates to their national audiences the benefits of Balkan membership.
At the same time, the process was discredited among natural EU constituencies within BM6 thanks to EU support for the autocrats.
The war in Ukraine and the offer of eventual EU membership offer an opportunity to address what went wrong with EU enlargement.
Instead of engaging in unproductive debates on enlargement in stages, the EU and its member states should ask themselves why, 20 years after the Western Balkans’ offer of membership at the Thessaloniki summit, the region remains stuck.
The EU must renew its commitment to liberal-democratic values and make them – once again – the cornerstone of its approach to the region if it is to have a significant influence there and really help the citizens of these countries.