Europe's time to act in Bosnia
Europe's time to act in Bosnia
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Europe's time to act in Bosnia

Amid all the scepticism and uncertainty about the European Union's global role at the start of the New Year, it is useful to recall its influence in helping secure peace and stability in the western Balkans.

This is one region where the lure of EU membership, free travel and trade, educational and cultural exchanges, does make a difference and encourages local leaders to reform. While many European officials' attention has recently been on Serbia, hoping to offer it EU candidate status in 2011, all should also keep a close eye on Bosnia-Herzegovina, possibly the most unstable country in the region, and whose capital Sarajevo remains the most deeply ingrained in European collective memory.

For the past 15 years since the guns of war fell silent, the international community has overseen the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, with the United States and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) playing leading roles.

2011 should be the year the European Union takes over. Today, Bosnia needs EU technical assistance and political guidance to become a credible candidate for EU membership, more than an international overseer like the OHR to legislate for it or maintain security. EU foreign ministers should agree on the details of a stronger EU presence in Bosnia. They have already pushed their discussion on the topic into February; they should delay no longer.

Since 2005, the EU has offered to take over from the OHR and pledged to reinforce its mission but has been stymied in large part by the unwillingness of the international community to close the office. In 2008, a set of five objectives and two conditions were set for the OHR's closure; so far, Bosnia has met three objectives and one condition.

Dividing state property between the country's central and entity-level governments, one unresolved objective, may take years. It appears that the OHR will not close until this is done; meanwhile some fear a resumption of violence, however unlikely. The European Union should not wait. Further delay will only undermine the Union's credibility.

Encouraging reforms

In February, EU officials can agree on a plan to reinforce the EU delegation in Bosnia, expanding staff, empowering a single EU representative and giving this ambassador political and financial tools to encourage reforms for EU integration and, if necessary, impose sanctions for non-compliance with Dayton.

To fill this post, vacant since July 2010, Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign policy and security, should now appoint a senior former member state official who also has solid experience in EU enlargement issues. He or she should also take over the tasks and staff of the EU Special Representative, currently carried out by the OHR, so that the EU can speak authoritatively with one voice as it asks the Bosnians to do.

This will also be a challenging year for Bosnian elites as, three months since general elections, they are still struggling to form state- and entity-level governments. They are likely to face massive budget deficits as the global economic crisis belatedly hits the country. All major parties are now, at least declaratively, behind key reforms and speeding up EU integration. The EU should take advantage of its positive pull where it still has it.

A strong EU delegation that avoids being dragged into Bosnian politics and keeps the focus on moving forward with EU integration, is the best option to help Bosnia, show the new European External Action Service at work, and cure some of the New Year's blues about Europe's foreign-policy effectiveness.

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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