BRUSSELS -- The European Union's Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has told the visiting foreign minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sven Alkalaj, that the divided country must consolidate its central authorities or risk damaging its chances of one day joining the bloc.
In particular, the EU wants Bosnia to prepare the ground for the bloc to take over the guidance of the country from the international community's Office of the High Representative (OHR), with Rehn linking the need for reforms to visa-free travel for Bosnians in the EU.
"The [European] Commission is committed to the transition from OHR to a reinforced EU presence," Rehn said on May 15, "and I reiterated to Foreign Minister Alkalaj that such a transition is indeed essential for Bosnia-Herzegovina's [EU] candidate status some time in the future."
The current high representative is an Austrian diplomat, Valentin Inzko, who -- Brussels hopes -- will ease the transition in the run-up to the 2010 elections.
Rehn downplayed suggestions that the United States -- which is increasingly concerned about the deteriorating situation in Bosnia -- is about to nominate a special U.S. envoy for the country, saying the management of diplomatic relations is every country's "internal affair."'High' On U.S. Agenda
The EU commissioner also did not comment on expectations surrounding next week's visit to Bosnia by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Alkalaj said Biden's visit shows Bosnia remains "high" on the U.S. agenda. He said Bosnia is pursuing the twin goals of NATO and EU membership, without putting one above the other.
It really will depend on the ability of political leaders, democratically elected political leaders, of Bosnia-Herzegovina to take such decisions, adopt laws, and implement such measures...
Serious concern does exist in Brussels -- as in Washington -- that Bosnia's central government is being dangerously undermined by the separatist policies of the Republika Srpska, which resents what it views as the domination of the state by the Muslim-Croat Federation.
Republika Srpska leaders have in recent weeks been highly critical of the international high representative's use of his supervisory powers, which include the right to fire officials and revoke laws.
Inzko has warned that ethnic tensions could jeopardize Bosnia's path to EU candidate status, as the bloc will only negotiate with the central government.
Rehn said the EU remains worried about "political stability" in the country. The EU commissioner linked the political turmoil to Bosnia's struggle with meeting EU conditions for visa-free travel.
The EU is hoping the prospect of visa-free travel will act as a powerful incentive for the Bosnian political class.
Alkalaj confirmed that the topic took up the bulk of his talks with Rehn.
"We know that this is a very important and tangible issue for the citizens of Bosnia Herzegovina, so that they can travel freely into Europe, into the Schengen states," Alkalaj said. "And especially for the young generation, so that they know what their generation [elsewhere in Europe] is talking about, not to talk about nationalistic issues."
Rehn said the reforms needed for the EU to drop its visa requirement are a litmus test for the ability of the federal Bosnian government to function.
"It really will depend on the ability of political leaders, democratically elected political leaders, of Bosnia-Herzegovina to take such decisions, adopt laws, and implement such measures as are required from the EU's point of view for our security reasons to achieve visa-free travel," he said.
Alkalaj said Bosnia will start issuing biometric passports -- a key EU condition -- on July 1.
Rehn said he hopes to be able to tell EU capitals by the end of June which Balkan countries deserve visa-free travel. The 27 EU member states would then need to endorse that recommendation before it would take effect. Rehn said citizens of the Balkan front-runners could realistically hope to cross EU borders without visas as of January 1, 2010.
He did not say which countries he thinks will qualify, but Bosnia is not considered likely to make the cut.