Bosnia-Herzegovina takes another step towards EU accession

The fragile Western Balkan country's reform agenda is coming along. EU leaders decided to send a geopolitical signal by agreeing to open formal accession talks.

Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) discussed Bosnian accession to the EU with Borjana Kristo, president of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, last year. (photo: DW)
Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) discussed Bosnian accession to the EU with Borjana Kristo, president of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, last year. (photo: DW)
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DW

It very nearly didn't come off. Ahead of this week's European Union summit in Brussels, the European Commission recommended that the 27 member states approve the opening of formal EU membership talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The decision came with some last-minute drama on Wednesday, when the parliament of the traditionally enlargement-cautious Netherlands narrowly voted down a resolution opposing talks with the small Balkan state.

That meant that caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was able to vote in favor of the move, along with the other 26 EU leaders, on Thursday. This was a necessary hurdle to clear, since all enlargement decisions need unanimous support among the member states.

"Bosnia needs to be much more able to open the talks collectively by agreeing on a negotiating framework," Rutte said, making his country's concerns clear. "I have all the confidence that Bosnia will be able to do that.”

It was good news for the small multi-ethnic state, established in its current form in 1995 after the Bosnian War and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

However, Bosnia and Herzegovina still has five out of 14 reform actions to complete before accession talks can actually begin, Rutte noted.

It is still has a long way to go, although Thursday's agreement is a key step. First of all, the EU must conclude a framework agreement on negotiations with the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which must also be unanimously approved by the EU.

Only then will an invitation be extended to an initial intergovernmental conference, at which negotiations on individual topics such as the rule of law, the economy, education, and transport can start in earnest.

‘Not yet done, but enough'

How long the next phase takes depends entirely on the reform steps made by the government in Sarajevo, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels on Thursday, expressing hope this would be as stable as possible.

Von der Leyen praised Bosnia-Herzegovina for wholly adopting EU foreign policy. From taxes to migration and laws fighting money-laundering and terror financing, the country had made progress, she said.

Rutte summed it up succinctly: "Not yet done, but enough to open the negotiations. Not enough yet to agree on the operation framework. That is the next step."

In the official conclusions of the summit, EU leaders said there would be a decision on the negotiation framework as soon as the European Commission signaled that all the necessary criteria had been met.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sent his congratulations on X, formerly Twitter: "The European peace project is growing. A clear sign in favor of a strong Europe." For him, the overture towards Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a signal to the four Western Balkan states that are already in formal negotiations with the EU: Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.

"For me, it is clear that the countries of the Western Balkans need to be able to rely on us. The promise was made over 20 years ago. Now we need to take the next steps," Scholz said in Brussels on Thursday.

Kosovo, which broke off from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as an independent state by Belgrade or certain EU states, is the only remaining non-EU Western Balkan country that is not in formal talks to join. EU diplomatic sources told DW on condition of anonymity that no progress can be made there until the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia is solved. The EU and the United States have been trying to mediate for years without success.


Welcome news in Sarajevo

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a complex governance structure reflecting its three main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — who were in conflict during the Bosnian War, plus other minorities. The state is comprised of two main political entities, the multi-ethnic Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its rotating tripartite presidency, and the majority-Serb Republika Srpska, plus the autonomous region Brcko.

For Bosnia and Herzegovina, Thursday's step is symbolic rather than one with practical implications. As EU diplomats stressed, it is very much about sending a signal to Moscow that the country belongs on the side of the west. This is despite sporadic attempts at disruption by the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, though he praised the development on X.

An EU flag was hoisted in Sarajevo to mark the occasion. Borjana Kristo, an ethnic Croat who currently chairs the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thanked EU leaders. "Mutual determination and effort have resulted in achieving the necessary level of compliance with the requirements and criteria," she said. "We remain strongly determined to continue the work that will result in the further progress and development of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

Neighboring EU state Croatia hailed the news. "The decision to open negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina is a great geopolitical message from the EU to all its nations, leaders and institutions," Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said.

Along with the Western Balkan states, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are also EU accession candidates.

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Published: 25 Mar 2024, 3:33 PM
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