EU membership: Boost for Bosnia as Sarajevo given 'candidate status' to join bloc

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By Aleksandar Brezar  with AP
Workers attach an EU flag on a building in a main street in Sarajevo, 16 December 2022
Workers attach an EU flag on a building in a main street in Sarajevo, 16 December 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Armin Durgut

Brussels added Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to the list of official candidates to join the European Union on Thursday, ending a six-year wait since the small Balkan country filed its membership application to the 27-nation bloc.

Bosnia is now a part of the waiting room that includes Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Turkey, despite continuing criticism of the way it is run.

The approval came after European affairs ministers agreed unanimously earlier in the week to endorse a recommendation from the bloc's executive arm to grant Bosnia the status.

"Today, we confirm that the future of BiH lies in the EU," EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell said in a Twitter post on Thursday.

"This is a decision for the people of BiH. Political leaders can now turn this ambition into reality through decisive reforms."

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February has served as an accelerator for the bloc's enlargement process. 

EU leaders gave more concrete signs this month to six Western Balkan countries aspiring to join that they have a future within the union.

At a summit in Albania, the EU "reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans" and called for the acceleration of accession talks with the membership hopefuls.

Kosovo is now the last remaining Western Balkan potential candidate country.

Its leadership officially handed in their application to join the bloc on Thursday. However, five member states -- Romania, Cyprus, Spain, Greece and Slovakia -- still do not recognise its independence from neighbouring Serbia, an obstacle that will continue to stall the accession process for both Belgrade and Pristina until it is resolved.

Decades of stalled negotiations finally over?

Despite long-standing promises of enlargement to the Western Balkans bloc, the EU's expansion eventually stalled, with Croatia the last country to join the union in 2013.

Other countries, such as North Macedonia -- which signed its Stabilisation and Association Agreement ahead of Croatia -- saw their EU membership dreams quashed after two back-to-back vetoes from member states Greece and Bulgaria stalled the process for almost two decades.

Albania, which was paired with North Macedonia by the previous Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, was also prevented from negotiating with Brussels due to the vetoes against Skopje, becoming collateral damage in the process.

But since Russia's aggression against Ukraine, EU officials have emphasised that stepping up the bloc's engagement with Western Balkans nations was more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security.

The EU also agreed in June to make Moldova and Ukraine candidates for membership and said Georgia would be eligible for candidacy once the country met goals defined by the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

The European Commission recommended granting Bosnia candidate member status in October, more than six years after the country formally applied to join and nearly three decades since it emerged from a 1992-1995 interethnic war that left more than 100,000 people dead.

Now what for Bosnia?

Once a country becomes a candidate, it still can take years before admission to the club takes place. 

The path toward membership is a lengthy process, as countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions defined in chapters grouped together in thematic clusters.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in October that Bosnia needed reforms on issues that include the judiciary, battling corruption, and constitutional and electoral changes. Little progress on those issues has been made in recent years.

A set of 14 priorities defined in the European Commission's 2019 Opinion -- originally meant as a prerequisite for Bosnia's candidacy status -- is also yet to be fulfilled.

While Bosnia expressed a desire to join the EU starting in 2003, the country's ethnic leaders have so far proven unwilling to put aside their differences and implement necessary reforms.

The staunchly pro-Russian Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, has increasingly threatened to separate Bosnia's ethnic Serb-dominated part from the rest of the country.

After agreeing on the new state-level government together with the ethnic Croat right-wing mainstay HDZ BiH and a broad centre-left "Octet" coalition on Thursday, Dodik expressed willingness to work with the EU on necessary reforms in return for financial support.

"The EU is our partner, not our boss. We do not take orders," Dodik said, adding that Brussels should dole out at least €10 billion in support of the reforms, or else the accession process will turn out to be "smoke and mirrors".

"If they are willing to define precisely what we must do within the next four years and to give us funding in return for doing that, we will work on it," Dodik said.

Critics have repeatedly accused Dodik, as well as other ethnonationalist leaders, of intentionally sabotaging the accession process.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians -- most of them young and educated -- have left the country over the course of the last decade, primarily for western European countries.