Thessaloniki and After(II) The EU and Bosnia
Thessaloniki and After(II) The EU and Bosnia
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

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).

I. Overview

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.[fn]Full implementation of EU environmental protection laws, for example, will cost the present accession countries between €50 billion and €100 billion over the next decade. Standards for industrial and agricultural products and for accountancy and public finances will have to be harmonised with those of the EU – at a cost. State intervention, subsidies and protectionist measures to help various industries will be largely impossible. Taxes will rise. Bosnia’s heavy smoking population would be hit hard by the application of minimum EU duties on cigarettes, which that would shoot up in price from about €0.45 to €2.70 per pack. See “Joining the West: Why candidate countries want enlargement, warts and all”, The Economist, 17 May 2001.Hide Footnote

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.[fn]The Head of the European Commission Delegation to Bosnia, Ambassador Michael Humphreys, took pains to clarify the matter for readers of a news magazine published in Republika Srpska: “We negotiate only with state institutions, and the state should take care to involve the entities in the negotiations. We are not trying to undermine the constitutional arrangements of this country. In the EU we have many different constitutional arrangements. The most similar situations to the one in Bosnia are the constitutional set-ups in Belgium and Germany. We can live quite comfortably with the current constitutional arrangement here if it functions. But I am not sure that it does function”. “Bolje ne raditi nista, nego to raditi lose”, Novi reporter, 14 May 2003.Hide Footnote 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/Brussels, 20 June 2003

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.

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