EM Ireland: Just the facts – Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU Membership Application
On 20 September, the 28 EU Member States accepted the application of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the EU. They noted the progress made in necessary reforms in the country since it applied to join the Union in February 2016. The European Commission will now prepare an assessment of the country’s readiness to join the bloc, which is the first step in a process that could lead to full EU membership.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is the latest country of former Yugoslavia to apply for EU membership, following full accession of Slovenia and Croatia, in 2004 and 2013 respectively, and the ongoing accession negotiations with Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The EU has been active in supporting the country since the war which took place from 1992 to 1995, crippling the economy and displacing a large proportion of the population. Following on from the EU Stability Pact in 1999, which aimed to develop a long-term strategy for the Western Balkan region, the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina have implemented the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and Reform Agenda, which served to speed up the process leading to the EU membership application in February 2016.
Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced ethnic-nationalist fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The ethnic conflict between Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats which followed Bosnia’s declaration of independence in 1992 claimed over 100,000 lives. International intervention under the UN and military action by NATO led to the Dayton Agreement of 1995, which created a constitution and complex political structure. Officially a federation, the country is divided into the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska, each of which has its own government, legislature and police force. Both entities come together in a central government with a rotating Presidency between the Bosniak, Croat and Serb communities. The institutional set-up is seen as obstructing efficient cooperation between all parties in the pursuit of EU-related reforms, which adds to problems of corruption and worsened conditions in media freedom and the protection of minorities.
There has been ongoing tension in the years following the Dayton Agreement, with the Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska threatening secession on a number of occasions. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina recently ruled that the Bosnian Serb official celebration of 9 January, which coincides with a Serbian Orthodox Christian festival and commemorates the Bosnian Serbs’ unilateral decision to declare independence in 1992, was discriminatory against the other two main ethnic groups in the country. The government of Republika Srpska, led by Milorad Dodik, defied the ruling and scheduled a referendum for 25 September 2016, which asked whether or not there was support for the affirmation of 9 January as a national holiday for the Serb Republic. The referendum was opposed by the EU and the US, as well as Bosnia’s Muslim majority, who claimed it was an illegitimate and unlawful attack on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragile institutions. Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak member and current Chairman of the rotating Presidency, said the referendum is part of President Dodik’s ambition to ask residents of Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Neighbouring Serbia, also an EU candidate for accession, did not support the referendum but indicated that it would not allow any harm to come to the Bosnian Serb Republic if it came under attack. Three days prior to the referendum, President Dodik met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, to discuss economic cooperation and security.
A reported 99.81% of votes supported the motion. Questions have been raised as to the legitimacy of the referendum, which analysts at the Democratisation Policy Council, an NGO promoting accountability, claim took place in a “legal and political vacuum”, without proper oversight. A spokesperson for the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, established by the Dayton Agreement, stated that whether the results of the vote were accurate or not was irrelevant since the referendum had no legal basis. It remains to be seen how this result will be received internationally and its implications for the Dayton Agreement and the EU accession process.
Path towards EU membership
The Slovak Presidency of the Council of the EU, commenting on the acceptance of the application, stated that EU Member States welcomed the progress made by Bosnia and Herzegovina in implementing their reform agenda and invited leaders to continue their efforts for the benefit of their citizens. This includes socio-economic reforms as well as reforms in the area of rule of law and public administration. The European Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2009 that the Bosnian constitution discriminated against minorities by limiting membership of the country’s Presidency to the Bosniak, Croat and Serb communities. While many reforms will be necessary for the country to fulfil the EU’s acquis communautaire, current Bosniak Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić said the acceptance of the country’s application constituted a “historic moment for the European path and European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
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