Brussels recommends granting Bosnia the status of EU candidate, but with conditions

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By Jorge Liboreiro  &  Aleksandar Brezar
Bosnia and Herzegovina was considered a potential candidate to join the EU back in 2003.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was considered a potential candidate to join the EU back in 2003.   -   Copyright  Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.   -  

The European Commission has recommended that Bosnia and Herzegovina be granted the official status of candidate country to join the European Union, but under the condition of further reforms.

"Today we have proposed to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the [Commission's] college decision," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

"We have recognised Georgia's European perspective too, so the wind of change is once again blowing through Europe and we have to capture this momentum."

The announcement represents a geopolitical step forward for the Balkan country, which has for months seen a rise in political infighting and ethnic tensions that threatens its delicate power-sharing system.

Bosnia has spent almost two decades on the EU's waiting list: it was first identified as a "potential" EU candidate in June 2003 and submitted its formal application in February 2016. 

In June this year, the European Council affirmed it was "ready" to grant Bosnia the candidate status and asked the European Commission to report back on the implementation of 14 key priorities from its 2019 report, covering areas such as democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights and public administration reform.

"We expect from the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina to make full use of this opportunity and to make the following reforms as soon as possible," said Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, as he presented the 2022 report.

The report acknowledges the "political turmoil" and "legislative standstill" inside the country and shows a lack of progress in most of the main fields, as well as a failure to comply with rulings issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding discrimination in electoral rights.

On top of the 14 priorities, the Commission presents eight additional steps to be taken by Bosnia, focusing on judicial reform, prevention of conflicts of interests, fight against corruption and organised crime, border and migration management, media freedom, protection of journalists and the creation of preventive mechanisms against torture and ill-treatment.

The executive's recommendation has to be endorsed by the 27 EU countries in a unanimity vote.

"Granting candidate status is an offer that comes once in a [lifetime] and with very high expectations," Várhelyi said, stressing the need for swift and effective reforms.

"This is not an offer for the political class. It’s an offer for the country."

Bosnia's Foreign Affairs Minister Bisera Turković described the decision as "historic" and a "strong message" for all Bosnian citizens. "Our future is within the European family," the minister said.

If EU leaders approve Bosnia's bid, the Balkan country will join Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and Moldova as official candidate countries.

Albania and North Macedonia opened formal negotiations in July. EU accession talks are notoriously complex and drawn-out, and are divided into 35 chapters.

Further down the line are Georgia and Kosovo. Georgia has been granted a so-called "European perspective" pending the introduction of reforms, while Kosovo is often considered a potential candidate, even if some member states still do not recognise the republic.

A country with three presidents

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with a unique political system born out of bloody civil wars.

From 1945 to 1992, Bosnia was part of the multi-national Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which rapidly crumbled and split into seven independent states.

Bosnia's three main ethnic groups — the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks — were drawn into a civil conflict that escalated into campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass rape and concentration camps. 

Its cities, including the capital Sarajevo, were subjected to years of siege warfare, including the indiscriminate shelling and sniping of civilians.

The war saw 100,000 casualties, with two million people becoming either refugees or internally displaced, culminating in the genocide of Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which were sponsored by the United States in a bid to end the violence, instituted two main administrative units in Bosnia — the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska (RS) and the Bosniak-Croat majority Federation of BiH (FBiH).

This resulted in a complex system of 14 different governments with a total of 136 ministers.

At the state level, Bosnia has a three-way presidency, with each member elected to a four-year term to represent one of the three ethnic groups, and a Council of Ministers and its president who are, in essence, the country's prime minister and their cabinet.

The intricate system installed by the Dayton peace deal struck a very delicate balance of power and has often come under strain by simmering tensions between the ethnic groups.

Earlier this year, a political crisis erupted after lawmakers of the Bosnian Serb-majority entity voted to create a separate judiciary from the rest of the country, a step condemned as secessionist and illegal.

Christian Schmidt, the High Representative in charge of overseeing the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Accords, has previously accused the Bosnian-Serb leaders of systematically challenging the peace deal's provisions and trying to usurp powers granted to the federal government.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine also exposed the fractures between the different factions. The 2 October elections were marred by allegations of vote rigging and sparked mass protests.

The latest developments are set to weigh on the deliberations among EU leaders. It's still unclear when a vote on Bosnia's bid could take place.

Várhelyi said he hoped that, by December, Bosnia would have a "completely" different political landscape that would enable the European Council to address the candidacy.