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Thessaloniki and After II: The EU and Bosnia


Afflicted still by the physical, psychological and political wounds of war, and encumbered by the flawed structures imposed by the international community to implement peace, Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter: Bosnia) is not yet capable of plotting a strategy or undertaking the measures likely to win it membership in the European Union (EU). Yet the government announced on 10 April 2003 that its major policy goal is to join the EU in 2009, in the blind faith that the processes of European integration will themselves provide Bosnia with remedies for its wartime and post-war enfeeblement. The Thessaloniki summit meeting between the heads of state or government of the EU members and the Western Balkan states to be held on 21 June is likely to throw some cold water on their ambitions.

Bitter memories of Western European complicity in and indifference towards Bosnia’s wartime tragedy remain strong among many of the country’s citizens, particularly Bosniaks. The EU countries’ stringent visa regimes provide a continuing and humiliating reminder that Bosnians are not fully welcome in Europe’s more prosperous half. The ever-tougher and more complicated requirements set by the European Commission (EC) if Bosnia is to edge towards a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) may be meant as incentives, but look too often like barriers. And, of course, the dire state of the country’s economy inspires little hope that actual accession can come in time to win plaudits for any politicians now active.

All these factors will make it difficult for the policymaking elite that has willed the goal and set the target date to “sell” its vision to the public or, for that matter, to rise to the challenge of making it happen. Thus the belief that progress from a Feasibility Study to an SAA and ultimate EU accession will either solve or sideline the country’s past and present problems is necessary but not sufficient.

Pledges to adopt “European standards” and invocations of Bosnia’s “European destiny” were much in evidence during last year’s election campaign. All of the parties now sharing power in the nationalist-dominated governments at state and entity level sought to push these buttons with the electorate. There is little evidence, however, that either the parties or the public understands much of what European integration entails. The EU is generally identified with peace, probity, prosperity and freedom to travel and work abroad. Rarely are voices raised to warn that there is a price to pay. The reforms required to attain those “European standards” will be costly and the constraints on government, corporate and personal behaviour will be considerable.

If Bosnians appreciated either the extent to which some of their free and easy ways will have to change or the Herculean effort that will be required to secure EU membership, many might conclude that drowning now is preferable to swimming for years. As it is, ignorance is bliss. The dream of EU membership can serve to inspire both hope and reform, at least until it becomes a real enough prospect to generate informed debate and/or obdurate dissent.

But even in dreams, things are not simple in Bosnia. A closer examination of the declarative consensus in favour of “Europe” that exists among the national political establishments reveals substantial differences. Like much else in Bosnia, these differences stem from the war and contradict the cosy assumption that everyone can unite in support of European integration. Only sovereign and competent states can traverse the road to Brussels. Thanks to the war, the Dayton armistice that ended the fighting, and the continuing struggle to improve upon Dayton, Bosnia is not yet a competent state. That, however, is how too many people and parties want to keep it, notwithstanding their simultaneous advocacy of “Europe”. These would-be Europeans could also defect from the cause once it becomes obvious that the more ardently felt causes for which they fought the war are in jeopardy. Meanwhile, those who are keenest on building a competent and integral state also have reservations about Europe.

The EC and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) are reluctant to spoil the pro-European atmosphere by getting tough with those political forces that talk about European integration but sabotage the state-building that is its precondition. Like the domestic officials who lodge their trust in irreversible processes, the EC and OHR may also think that the enemies of the state can be jollied along until there is no going back. This is unlikely to work, largely because time is not on Bosnia’s side. What is worse, it invites suspicion that the EC and the member states are less keen on helping Bosnia make the grade than they claim. If they really want to get Bosnia on the road to Brussels, European institutions will not only need to offer unparalleled technical assistance, they will also have to identify and anathematise those who stand in the way.

The most effective tool for accomplishing both aims was invented long ago, but has not yet been applied in Bosnia with much consistency or resolve – conditionality. The message to the governments of Bosnia should be simple: if you do not play your assigned parts, there will be no more EU support. But if you do, the EU will help you to develop the capacities you lack. Setting conditions without helping to build the institutions that will prove competent to fulfil them guarantees either failure or the abandonment of the conditions. In the first case, the failure would be immediate. But in the second, it would merely be postponed, since the necessary transformation of the state would be no farther forward. Yet with all the will in the world, the crippled state created by Dayton cannot make the running alone.

The EU has an unsurpassed record in turning former enemies and economically depressed states and regions into peaceable and prosperous members of the European family. The Western Balkan countries in general and Bosnia in particular represent another great challenge. Just as Bosnia – with its nationally, religiously, economically and geographically variegated populace – epitomised the old Yugoslavia, so too is it Europe in miniature. This makes its successful integration in the EU all the more needful and significant.

The Western Balkan heads of state or government are set to meet with the EU Council in Thessaloniki on 21 June 2003 to put the seal on the Greek Presidency’s six-month long effort to enhance EU engagement in the region. This briefing paper examines some of the key problems that have arisen in making the prospect of EU membership either a motor for reform or a realistic expectation for the people of Bosnia. It aims also to identify additional steps that the Bosnian authorities, the EC and the EU member states might take to improve the region’s chances of catching up with most of the rest of the continent.

Sarajevo/Belgrade/Podgorica/Pristina/Brussels, 20 June 2003:


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