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Bosnia & Herzegovina’s EU Dilemmas

As its neighbours move towards the European Union, Bosnia & Herzegovina still has a host of complex obstacles to overcome.

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With a recent history starkly streaked with ethnic violence, political upheaval and economic uncertainty, Bosnia and Herzegovina desperately needs a sign that the future shall be better. For its neighbours, as for many eastern European states, the golden goose has long been accession into the European Union. Bosnia officially shares this ambition, but while others have made substantial progress in meeting the necessary criteria for membership, Bosnia remains hamstrung by its constitutional and political composition.

Croatia, whose membership shall be affirmed next year, has satisfactorily addressed outstanding issues on minority and human rights; Serbia has set itself well on the way with the high-profile arrests of Karadžić, Mladić and other suspected war criminals (a noted condition for Serbia’s candidacy); and Montenegro has been applauded as the state with greatest press freedoms in the region. In contrast to this, Bosnia’s politics remain characterised by strong hostilities, mistrust and ethno-national alignment, and its constitutional structure perpetuates division and decentralisation.

While the European Commission recognises that some progress has been made towards minority rights, the rigidity of the constitution framed at the Dayton Agreement is hindering further success. An example is the legacy of the prominent Sejdić-Finci case in 2009, which led to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the electoral provision – only allowing the election of “Constituent Peoples” (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) to the tri-member Presidency and House of Peoples violated the rights of minorities – must be amended. However, there followed a period of virtual inactivity for almost two years. After this, deadlines set by the Council of Europe came and went with no firm agreement on how to accommodate changes.

Although such constitutional issues are a major hurdle, the socio-political problems obstructing Bosnia’s progress run much deeper. A solution on Sejdić-Finci is not impossible, but nationally-mandated politicians frequently seem reluctant to cede or dilute their stake in federal power to any degree. This is perhaps not surprising when the national identities developed amongst Bosnia’s populace in the preface to and during the 1992-1995 war have become no less entrenched over time. From a national to a local level, politicians are almost universally elected on the basis of nationality, with tension still flaring around raw nerves relating to the conflict, as Reuters recently reported in Srebrenica’s mayoral election. The division between the two entities of the Federation and Republika Srpska is especially pronounced and often proves disruptive to effective national government and commerce, not to mention furthering “us and them” mentalities within the single state.

With such tortuous internal divisions, it might be assumed that membership in the European Union is of secondary importance to Bosnians. On the contrary, however, opinion polls have repeatedly shown overwhelming support (as high as eighty-six percent) for Bosnia moving towards accession. Bosnia’s economy could certainly use the relative security provided by the EU, even as the union weathers an unprecedented crisis of its own. Unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina is officially estimated at above twenty-five percent, but may actually be well over forty percent. Growth is sluggish after its notable pre-2009 rates. Foreign capital from loans, aid and investment has supported Bosnia since 1995 and while this may encourage over-reliance, the potential for greater investment as an EU member state is profound.

Furthermore, very real economic and social dangers shall arise for Bosnia as neighbours ascend to membership. Croatia, which has hitherto operated in common with Bosnia under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), is in the process of adopting more stringent EU regulations. This shall come as a blow to Bosnia’s exports– over fifteen percent of which go to Croatia – particularly in the agricultural sector, where production standards are not expected to meet the raised bar. An additional strain shall be the status of Bosnian Croat citizens, most of whom have Croatian passports and thus will have the right to work in the EU while other Bosnians will not. The socio-economic rift that could develop between these groups shall only be exacerbated by Bosnia’s other neighbours gaining membership in the future.

If Bosnia is to avoid divisions and disadvantages, it must decisively address these overdue political and commercial issues in the coming months and years. Yet it is difficult to see how these problems can be finally overcome without an eventual confrontation with and restructuring of its constitutional and political systems.

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Photo credit: dimnikolov