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Angela Merkel's political legacy in the Western Balkans will be tough to beat | View

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During the last visit of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to Berlin in the summer of 2018, the now outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly told Bosnian politicians that in the architecture of the European Union, BiH would be the church's crowning ornament, without which the church would not be a church.

She allegedly added that in order for the EU to achieve that ornament, it would be necessary to do a lot of hard and demanding work in the Western Balkans region, in the EU, and in Bosnia itself.

This statement reportedly provoked mixed reactions in the Bosnian delegation. It was welcomed as good news that BiH is seen as a crucial part of the EU by the German chancellor

Yet it was also bad news, as the chancellor's statement was a clear sign that BiH would be the last to enter the EU and a sign that support for reforms in BiH is not a priority for Germany.

However, during the more than 15 years of Chancellor Merkel's mandate, Germany has on several occasions launched initiatives aimed at accelerating reforms and bringing BiH and the other Western Balkan countries closer to the EU.

Indeed, Merkel began dealing with BiH immediately after winning the parliamentary elections and before her election as chancellor, when she supported the election of a new High Representative of the international community in BiH (OHR), Christian Schwarz-Schilling, a politician of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In addition to continued support for Croatia's EU membership, Merkel became significantly more involved in the Western Balkans region during 2010.

On the one hand, interest in the region was sparked by the success of the visa liberalisation process and a series of applications for EU membership submitted by Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia the year before.

On the other hand, interest was aroused by the need to react to the July 2010 opinion of the International Court of Justice on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, which, due to circumstances and diplomatic activities by the USA and EU member states brought the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade under EU auspices and the then newly established European External Action Service (EEAS).

It was during this period that Chancellor Merkel and her team launched the first initiative for Bosnia. It aimed to support the formation of governments at all state levels following the October 2010 elections. Even more significantly, it aimed to change BiH's constitution, and among other things implement the European Court's 2009 Sejdic-Finci ruling.

Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, members of Bosnia's Roma and Jewish communities, respectively, were barred from running for parliament or the presidency under Bosnia's postwar constitution, which only allows members of the country's "constituent peoples", Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs, to run for these offices.

At that time, the constellation of international relations was in favour of supporting reforms in BiH. In addition to Germany, interest in BiH existed in the United States, in the first half of the first term of the Obama administration, but also in the United Kingdom, where the closest associates of Prime Minister David Cameron, elected in May 2010, had extensive experience in BiH.

However, the initiative of Chancellor Merkel and her team did not lead to the desired results.

First, the President of the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH), Dragan Covic, rejected any possibility of the Social Democratic Party of BiH (SDP BiH) getting any ministerial position reserved for Croats in the Council of Ministers and the Government of the Federation of BiH. The President of the SDP BiH, Zlatko Lagumdzija, as the winner of the elections in the Federation of BiH, refused to form a government without the SDP BiH getting some of the Croatian positions, which belonged to them as per the election results.

The stubbornness of the HDZ resulted in the OHR's decision in March 2011 to enable the election of the president and vice-president and form the federation government without them. This decision invoked the last time OHR’s ‘Bonn Powers’, which give the office authority to push through laws in the country and adopt binding decisions.

In an apparent move to "defend" the HDZ, Milorad Dodik, the President of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and the then President of the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska, reacted to that decision in April 2011. He proposed a decision to hold a referendum on laws that were brought forth by the court and prosecutor's office in BiH and proclaimed by the High Representative. Shortly after that, the National Assembly of this Bosnian entity adopted this decision, essentially calling into question the authority of the OHR.

All of this resulted in a visit from the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs at the time, Catherine Ashton, to Banja Luka; Dodik's disavowal of the referendum, and the launch of the structured dialogue on the judiciary in BiH.

Then, in July 2011, the EU dismissed the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko as the EU Special Representative and appointed Peter Sorensen to that position. Inzko later returned to Bosnia as the High Representative of the International Community.

Shortly afterwards, the EU, led by Stefan Fule, took over the initiative from Chancellor Merkel and her team, and the OHR never used the Bonn powers again.

Unlike the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, where the EU made significant progress in 2013 by mediating the signing of the so-called Brussels agreement, Bosnia's reform processes stagnated, with no progress in sight. During this period, Serbia opened membership negotiations with the EU, and Kosovo unlocked the Stabilisation and Association Process.

The flare-up of the crisis in Ukraine in early 2014, the February social protests in Bosnia, and the floods that swept the region in May 2014, again led Merkel to shift her focus towards Bosnia.

Through a joint British-German initiative, the EU focused on socio-economic reforms in Bosnia and on the country’s path to candidate status.

In the summer of 2014, Merkel launched the so-called Berlin Process, which, given the growing development gap between the Western Balkans and the EU, and the prolonged process towards EU accession, has served as a platform for maintaining high-level contacts and launching infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans.

In early 2015, protests in BiH, floods in the region, the mass exodus of thousands of people from Kosovo to the EU and the needs of Germany’s economy resulted in the adoption of the so-called "Western Balkans rule", which made access to the German labour market significantly easier for Bosnians.

When Merkel visited BiH in 2015, she met exclusively with the BiH Presidency and the BiH Council of Ministers, which were primarily composed of representatives of the European Family of Parties (EPP), to which Merkel also belongs. The EPP actively supported the formation of a government at the state level, which excluded Milorad Dodik and his SNSD.

Merkel came to Sarajevo with a concrete offer to push Bosnia towards candidate status for EU membership in exchange for socio-economic reforms.

In this attempt, Merkel occasionally supported the state authorities. In addition to visiting Sarajevo in 2015, Merkel also gave the green light for Bosnia to submit its application for EU membership in February 2016.

Then, in July 2016, she sent her minister of agriculture, Christian Schmidt, to Sarajevo to meet with Milorad Dodik, who was then the President of the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska. The reason behind Schmidt's visit was to negotiate with Dodik the terms for fulfilling the conditions for a unanimous decision of the 28 EU member states to forward the application for Bosnia's membership to the European Commission.

When the Presidency of BiH visited Berlin for the last time, in May 2018, Mladen Ivanic, the Serb member of the triumvirate presidency, allegedly pushed for the Membership Action Plan for NATO membership be activated in Bosnia only after the general elections in October that year, in order to give Ivanic a better chance of winning the election and beating Dodik.

Perhaps the most important intervention of Merkel in the region happened at the end of the summer of 2018, when she publicly opposed and helped stop the idea of drawing new borders along ethnic lines in the Western Balkans.

The idea was advocated by the then presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci, and they found support for it in the form of the administration of former US President Trump, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, and the President of France, Emmanuel Macron.

In light of the Trump administration's interest in the Western Balkans, which primarily focused on the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, their already capricious policy changes, and after the signing of an agreement with Kosovo and Serbia in the White House in September 2020, Merkel and her government decided to nominate a German candidate for the position of the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia. The choice fell on the former Minister of Agriculture, Christian Schmidt.

The debate about Schmidt’s appointment is still ongoing. His election, announced for the beginning of June 2021, depends on whether the Russian Federation will give its consent. The way for Schmidt to being elected would be the unanimous decision of the US, UK, and the EU to elect him, regardless of the opposition of Russia. That, as well as the composition of the future German government and Merkel's successor, will determine the nature of Schmidt's mandate.

In that way, and in addition to the search for new political reform forces in Bosnia, a US-German initiative might be the key to resolve the growing political problems in BiH. But whether that will happen is, at this moment, hard to say.

It is clear that Angela Merkel's last act when it comes to the Western Balkans and BiH will almost certainly be related to holding her last meeting within the Berlin Process this summer in the German capital.

The future of this process is still undecided, though there are hints that, like many other Merkel initiatives, it could be transferred to the hands of Brussels and the European Commission.

At this point, it is difficult to say how Angela Merkel's departure from the political scene will affect Bosnia. However, despite the many misfortunes that befell the world and Europe during Merkel's term, she never turned her back on Bosnia and always kept an eye on the Western Balkans and the political processes taking place in this region. When Merkel became Chancellor, she knew very little about the Western Balkans and Bosnia and they were not on her list of priorities, but that soon changed and she became an unavoidable political link in Europe when it came to the future of the Western Balkans and Bosnia in the EU. She was always a strong advocate of the full membership of the Western Balkans countries in the EU and has never changed her course - all the countries of the Western Balkans in the Union, no matter how long the process should take. All this was reflected in the initiatives she launched in Bosnia and the region.

One thing is for sure, whoever succeeds Merkel as Chancellor, be it Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Armin Laschet of her CDU or someone else will have to do her or his best to overshadow the political legacy left by Angela Merkel in the Western Balkans if that is even possible.

Last but not but least, it has to be said that ethnonationalism continues to rule Bosnia, and politicians such as Milorad Dodik and Dragan Covic, who are most responsible for this situation in the country, still remain on the political scene, with no changes in sight.

Harun Cero is a political scientist specialising in the politics of southeastern Europe and a former journalist.