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Bosnia: Europe’s Time to Act

Europe Briefing N°59 11 Jan 2011

OVERVIEW

After years of hesitancy, European Union (EU) member states should make 2011 the year when the lead international role in Bosnia and Herzegovina shifts from the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to a reinforced EU delegation. Bosnia has outgrown the OHR established in 1995 after the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC). Today the country needs EU technical assistance and political guidance to become a credible candidate for EU membership, not an international overseer to legislate for it or maintain security. Member states should rapidly install a comprehensive plan to reinforce the EU presence, including an embassy led by a strong ambassador, strengthen the membership perspective and build local credibility. OHR should withdraw from domestic politics and, unless a threat to peace emerges, focus on reviewing past decisions.

Member states should step up the EU’s presence even while Bosnia’s political parties struggle to form entity- and state-level governments more than three months after the 3 October 2010 general elections. Reform is urgently needed to avert political and economic crisis, but the OHR is no longer the entity that can cajole Bosniak, Serb and Croat leaders into change. EU membership perspective can better stimulate a shared vision of the country’s future among its leaders and encourage key reforms needed to improve institutional efficiency. “Enlargement fatigue” and the crisis of the euro should not allow sceptics among member states to undermine Europe’s success at securing stability in the western Balkans in what is a major test of the capability of the new European External Action Service (EEAS) to deliver a more effective common foreign and security policy.

The PIC announced its readiness to close OHR five years ago, but this now seems remote. Slipping calendar deadlines gave way in 2008 to a set of five objectives and two conditions (“five plus two”) – of which Bosnia has completed three of the former and one of the latter. Because the remaining two objectives – division of state property and of defence property – have defied all attempts at a political solution, OHR is likely to remain open throughout 2011, if not longer. Several non-EU PIC members also want to see stronger evidence of leadership from Brussels, notably through greater resource commitment, before handing over the baton.

Solution of the property issues has little bearing on state viability but has become a symbol of Bosnians’ ability to govern on their own. The symbol should not obscure the actual situation: Bosnians do manage their affairs without significant help. While the PIC and Bosnian elites have debated OHR’s fate, much of the transition to domestic responsibility has quietly happened. State institutions have full use of the property they need, despite lack of clear ownership status. The Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) National Assembly passed its own property law in 2010, which is now being challenged at the Bosnian constitutional court. The armed forces have unhindered access to all military facilities and properties. Ownership will have to be established sooner or later, to allow for re-sale and investment, but this is not urgent.

The political scene has also shifted. Most Bosniaks voted for moderate parties in the 2010 elections while those who campaigned on the old issue of defence of the state against Serb challenges lost heavily. In RS, the ruling SNSD conducted a nationalist campaign but did less well than it had hoped. The small Croat population supported its own ethnic parties. Wrangling over the composition of the state government and its agenda has continued into 2011, when governments at state and entity levels – especially in RS – will face massive budget deficits, as the global economic slump belatedly hits Bosnia. Leaders consequently have limited room for intransigence. All major parties are now at least declaratively behind key reforms and speeding up EU integration; none count seriously on OHR intervention to help them with the required tough decisions.

Important PIC stakeholders such as the U.S., the UK and Turkey, together with some domestic elites, worry that Bosnian politicians are not ready to govern on their own (though sovereign Bosnia has been entrusted with a UN Security Council seat) and will be unable to form a functional coalition government, that the RS will attempt secession and violence ensue. They fear OHR closure would trigger the country’s break-up, or at least remove a barrier to moves in that direction. But the OHR is no longer the security guarantor it once was. In the event of a threat to territorial integrity and advised by their on-the-ground ambassadors, the EU, the U.S. and others in the international community could muster the political will and military means to act, whether OHR remains or not; Bosnian politicians who acted irresponsibly would be vulnerable to the same diplomatic and other international mechanisms, including sanctions or, in the extreme case, use of force, as any other national leaders. Meanwhile, however, the OHR gives them an excuse to deflect responsibility for their failures to the international community.

2011 can be the pivotal year during which the EU builds up and the OHR downsizes gradually. For an effective soft transition, EU member states and the key Brussels players – primarily the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission (Catherine Ashton) and the European Commission – should take several steps in parallel:

  • Ashton should name, without extending what is already a six-month delay, a strong ambassador to head the EU Delegation (the formal term for its embassy) in Sarajevo, ideally a former member-state senior official with solid EU experience in, particularly, enlargement issues;
  • increase significantly the capacities of the Delegation’s political section to advise the ambassador on Bosnian developments, liaise with senior party and government leaders on bringing legal and institutional structures into compliance with EU norms and coordinate the contributions of other EU actors;
  • create or strengthen the Delegation’s legal, communication, economic and security sections, drawing on other EU staff already in Bosnia and upgrading the field office in Banja Luka; increase the Delegation’s own budget to a level commensurate with its new responsibilities; and
  • increase funding under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) to levels comparable to those in neigh­bouring countries and consistent with the EU’s stated aim to lead in Bosnia.

Though the EU has long aspired to lead the international effort in Bosnia, member states and other Brussels actors still have to settle differences over timing, strategy, staffing and financing of a reinforced presence and mission. If they cannot do so in early 2011 – starting with a comprehensive discussion by foreign ministers at the 31 January Foreign Affairs Council – and Bosnian officials fail to support the process by making a genuine effort to work towards EU integration, the handover risks being botched. Bosnia could then be left with the worst of both worlds: rivalry between an enfeebled OHR and an EU Delegation struggling ineffectively to assert itself.

To help avoid this, the PIC should:

  • refocus OHR on its own unfinished business, especially dealing with the cases of Bosnians it has barred from public office, while limiting its use of executive powers to a true emergency;
  • support the EU’s leading role in Bosnia by agreeing to a transfer of the EU Special Representative (EUSR), currently double-hatted as the High Representative, and that official’s staff to the EU Delegation; and
  • continue to commit to Bosnia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, support the executive mandate of the EU military force (EUFOR) that took over from NATO in the country and keep the UN Security Council apprised of any threat to the 1995 Dayton Agreement or subsequent Security Council resolutions.

Once freed from its link to OHR, the EU’s diplomatic team should be able to focus on facilitating the political process and helping Bosnia’s disparate communities find the single voice required to interact responsibly with their European neighbours.

Sarajevo/Istanbul/Brussels, 11 January 2011