A year and a half after its EU accession, Croatia can boast a huge diplomatic success - the return of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the agenda of the Union. In the beginning of the year, after the massive protests against the enormous unemployment (mostly among the young people) and the severe economic situation in the country, Croatia proposed the EU to change the approach toward Bosnia and Herzegovina by giving the country a special status. The Croatian first Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Vesna Pusic succeeded to insert this point on the agenda of a Foreign Affairs Council meeting which, at the time, was unexpected because of the fuming conflict in the Ukraine. The reactions were mixed. There were voices that this means lowering the bar, evasion of criteria and, generally, joining the accession process through the back door. The EU foreign affairs ministers decided then to wait for the elections in the country this autumn before deciding on the next steps.
And here it is - soon after the elections in October, Britain and Germany came up with an initiative of their own calling for a brand new strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This happened during a conference in Berlin on South-Eastern Europe attended by the foreign minsters of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Croatia, too, was invited to attend. The essence of the British-German initiative is to put a strong focus on the economic and social challenges Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing by expanding the reforms agenda. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier propose BiH's progress to be moved up the EU agenda via a more active participation of the Union in BiH's work on fulfilling the criteria.
The two believe that a roadmap needs to be drawn the implementation of which should lead to a "reward" for the efforts at every step of the way - first, activation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, then applying for EU membership and finally getting a candidate status. In addition to the initiative, the British foreign secretary marked enhanced activity in Bosnia itself. On 24 October, the Bosnian Vecernji list published an address [in Bosnian] to the people of the country by Philip Hammond in which he says that the EU has not left BiH behind and recalls which are the main problems of the country - corruption and inefficiency. "There are no sufficient jobs, especially for the young. There is too big a number of highly educated people who have no job or are leaving their families and country. Your system of education and health care are far from the standards anywhere in Europe. The most urgent issue is the economic situation which is serious and unsustainable both in the Federation BiH and in Republika Srpska. But let me be clear, those are not challenges that can be resolved by loans of several million euros from the IMF, the World Bank, EU, Russia or else", Philip Hammond points out.
Philip Hammond and Frank-Walter Steinmeier firmly state that their initiative is not lowering of the bar for EU membership. They want a broad political support both from the neighbouring countries, like Croatia and Serbia, and the partners in the EU and the US. This is a very serious step forward, although belated, which can be very successful if it is realised. According to Croatia's first Deputy Prime Minster and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Vesna Pusic, the initiative is very good. It is neither a lowering of the criteria for BiH nor abolishing some of them. This is a step to put an end to the standing in one place which she views as a sliding backward. Every year, one and the same thing is repeated and nothing changes, Ms Pusic told euinside in an interview (you can watch the entire interview in English in the attached file).
And the repetition is really despairing. This year, as last year and the year before that, the European Commission states in its progress report on BiH that its European integration process is stalled. It is repeated time and again that the country must apply the ruling of the European Court on Human Rights on the Sejdic-Finci case because this is the pre-condition which the country's progress depends on. It is crucial for the legitimacy and credibility of the BiH Presidency and the country's parliament, elected in 2014, the Commission says. The country also needs urgently to establish a coordination mechanism on European issues which, too, has been repeated in all European Commission reports. Desperate with the impasse, the Commission decided to use the stick to force the Bosnian leaders to make progress by reducing the pre-accession assistance for Bosnia and Herzegovina and it also suspended the negotiations on the second phase of the pre-accession assistance (IPA II).
"Eight years are enough time for any country that is going into the wrong direction"
Those are Valentin Inzko's words, the high representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the UN Security Council. On November 11, he presented his annual report on the country. He welcomed [in Bosnian] the British-German initiative pointing out that the work of the international community in BiH has not been finished yet. It is a fact that the Bosnians and Herzegovians need to do more, especially the political forces who are incapable of responding to the needs and wishes of the citizens. He expects the political parties to form a government as soon as possible to avoid a repetition of the situation from 2010 when it took nearly two years for a cabinet to be formed. Secondly, he said, more women have to be involved in the government, especially in the economic area. The newly elected leaders should reaffirm their commitment to the rule of law and the fight against corruption. "Words are not enough. We need to see concrete results", Mr Inzko added.
The European Commission also believes that the biggest challenges are related to the rule of law and the reform of the judiciary. In this year's report, it is pointed out that huge attention is needed on the fight against corruption, the organised crime, the reform of the public administration, the freedom of expression, including the intimidation of journalists, tackling discrimination, especially in terms of Roma. The Commission is also angry with Bosnia and Herzegovina for refusing to adapt its transitional association agreement to take into account its traditional trade with Croatia and calls on the country to urgently correct that.
What about Dayton?
Around the elections the calls for a reopening of the Dayton Peace Agreement became stronger. Many called the agreement exhausted and being the main reason for the lack of progress. Valentin Inzko, the high representative of the international community, emphasised in front of the Security Council that the peace agreement does not allow a break-away. "I'd like to once again clearly say: there will be no new redrawing of the borders". Vesna Pusic for her part said in her interview for this website that it is necessary to act on a step-by-step basis. At this stage, it is necessary not only the political elites but the entire society to be on board for the European integration. Only then it will be successful. The ministers of foreign affairs of Germany and Britain explicitly pointed out that Serbia's support will be needed too for a possible change of the approach toward Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Vesna Pusic is convinced that Serbia is on board judging from Ivica Dacic's statements, the foreign minister of Serbia, during the presentation of the initiative. However, she was reserved in her response on whether the stability in the region is now irreversible. There is no such thing as a long-term stability or forever resolved the issue of stability. We have to work on that permanently. Neglecting some sensitive historical issues is politically irresponsible, she added. Ms Pusic was also reserved on the question whether the current geopolitical environment contributed for BiH's return on the EU's agenda. "This is a very common assumption and maybe it is true but my experience is that it is actually not easy to keep BiH on the agenda in competition with huge crises such as Ukraine, the Southern Mediterranean, such as Iraq, such as Syria. In comparison with those BiH looked like something that is not so urgent and maybe we shouldn't focus so much on BiH. So, I'm not sure that the crisis in the EU-Russia relations refocused on BiH but when you think of that element too it certainly is an important factor".
The EU foreign ministers discussed this initiative for the first time at their regular meeting on 17 November. Before the beginning of the meeting, a journalist asked Vesna Pusic about Russia's involvement in the Western Balkans. She recalled that during the discussion of a resolution on BiH in the UN Security Council recently Moscow demanded the sentence on BiH's Euro-Atlantic integration to be removed. But it stayed and Russia did not impose a veto but abstained during the voting. We are aware of this fact and it is of concern, the Croatian foreign minister added. According to her, the EU Council needs to agree on a new common strategy which, however, should be done together with the new authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It should be in the form of a written commitment. It should even become part of the country's governance programme which needs the Parliament's approval. That will ensure that the country's commitment will be really strong. That was accepted by the EU foreign minsters, Ms Pusic said after the meeting on Monday evening.
The minsters have also agreed to proceed in the direction of the German-British initiative but the concrete steps BiH needs to follow are yet to be adopted. But the very fact that the issue has returned in the spotlight of the EU is a huge step forward which the political elite in BiH cannot afford itself to miss. "At the same time, we will be prepared to be tougher should political leaders once again allow themselves to get stuck in the mud of ethnic bickering. We, Britain and Germany, the EU, have invested too much to allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to slide backward. And we remain as committed as ever to our legal obligations to defend territorial integrity and to ensure a safe and secure environment", is said in the statement of the ministers Hammond and Steinmeier.
If the new approach for Bosnia and Herzegovina delivers, then Macedonia will remain the only problematic country in the region which will doom it to even deeper sinking and turning it into a real black hole in the Balkans. It will be wise if the EU does not allow this to happen. Vesna Pusic preferred, responding to this question, to quote her German counterpart, according to whom something is already being done about Macedonia. It is not necessarily public, but there are political discussions and negotiations going on on a possible solution of the Macedonian question. But when will there be a development it is not clear. It is a pity that Macedonia does not have a Croatia of its own to demand the search of a solution at EU level.