The European Union's foreign policy chief used the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement that ended the Bosnian War to urge Bosnia's political leaders to overcome their persistent ethnic divisions and prepare their nation to join the EU fold.
"We have to commemorate the past, but we have to look to the future," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said during a visit to Sarajevo for Saturday's anniversary, adding that the U.S.-brokered peace agreement for Bosnia concluded "one of the most shameful episodes in the modern history of Europe."
The peace agreement, initialled at a U.S. Air Force base outside Dayton, Ohio on Nov. 21, 1995 and formally signed in Paris a few weeks later, ended the 44-month war in which Bosnia's three main ethnic factions — Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs — fought for control after the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Over 100,000 people were killed during the war, most of them Bosniaks, and upward of 2 million, or over half of Bosnia's population, were driven from their homes during the conflict.
While it stopped the bloodshed, the peace agreement formalized the ethnic divisions in Bosnia by establishing a complicated and fragmented state structure linked by weak joint institutions. Over the years, the country’s complex administrative system has allowed its ethno-nationalist elites to take full control of all levers of government and plunder public coffers with impunity while engaging in the same arguments that led to the war.
The European Union accepted Bosnia’s membership application in 2016, but its government has failed to make the deep structural reforms required before the country can move forward with the process of joining the EU. The bloc expects to see changes in how Bosnia's judiciary and economy are run, intensified efforts to fight corruption, the safeguarding of human rights, among other reforms.
The EU priorities are largely shared by Bosnia’s citizens, but continue to be sidelined by their ethnic leaders under the cover of nationalist rhetoric.
After meeting with members of the country’s tripartite presidency, Borrell said Bosnia’s "future is European" but that in order to get there "authorities must step up their efforts to deliver on the reform priorities."
"Let's make good use of these 25 years from Dayton, from the moment when the war stopped and a fragile peace started," Borrell said.
"It is still fragile, it is still not complete — on the spirt, on the memories of the people — but there is a big and enormous political challenge for all of you to win and in this battle, the battle to win the future, the European Union will be at your side," he added.