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With Bosnia Recommendation, Is EU Enlargement Firmly Back On Track?

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has been blunt in saying that the granting of candidate status to Bosnia-Herzegovina would come with "high expectations." (file photo)
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has been blunt in saying that the granting of candidate status to Bosnia-Herzegovina would come with "high expectations." (file photo)

By recommending that Bosnia-Herzegovina be given candidate status with conditions on October 12, the European Commission picked up where it left off in June when it did the same for Ukraine and Moldova.

In large part due to the war in Ukraine, the EU enlargement process has suddenly been resuscitated again after almost a decade of being out cold.

The question now is whether the 27 EU member states will respond to this recommendation with the same positivity as with Kyiv's and Chisinau's bids. In the summer, a sense of history swayed them. War-torn but reform-ready Ukraine and the pro-EU but vulnerable Moldova needed to be encouraged and recognized, so went the vibe at the time. The candidate statuses granted in June were the "light at the end of the tunnel" those countries needed. Of course, strict conditions were attached that meant it could be a while before they could actually start accession negotiations.

Now, Brussels has tried to repeat the trick with Bosnia. Eight conditions come with the candidate status recommendation. Several of them concern various laws and amendments Sarajevo must implement to make its judiciary fully functional, but there are also reforms needed in migration management, more to be done to ensure freedom of expression and the media, notably judicial follow-ups to cases where media workers receive violent threats, and to make sure that there is coordination throughout Bosnia on EU matters -- something that has proven elusive in the highly divided nation.

A Tall Order

Already this is sounding like a tall order, but there is more. Perhaps the most pressing issue for Bosnia is the long-standing difficulty of finalizing constitutional and electoral reforms that would ensure better and fairer ethnic representation in the country. The West has long tried to find solutions via mediation but to no avail. Few believe anything will change anytime soon. The European Commission is hoping that the carrot of candidate status will be able to focus the right minds and get results.

The EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi was blunt about it when speaking on October 12 in front of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee: "Granting candidate status is an offer from Europe to Bosnia-Herzegovina and to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We are doing this for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it also comes with high expectations. It is for the elite to turn this into reality."

Will the 27 EU member states buy this? Some countries -- notably Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia -- pushed for speeding up Bosnia's entry after Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status in June. To many, their reasoning made sense: it did seem a bit unfair that a country that had waited so long in line was suddenly being leapfrogged by two countries that had only recently applied to join the bloc. And just like Ukraine, Bosnia had also suffered its fair share of war and destruction -- just not as recently.

If this was an oversight, member states now have a chance to correct this by putting Bosnia on an equal footing with Ukraine and Moldova when they meet in Brussels in December to decide on the European Commission's recommendation. And with the reform conditions hard to meet, granting candidate status would, in many ways, be largely symbolic. For the enlargement skeptics, notably in Western Europe, they can point to the punishing conditions and their inherent ambiguity --for example, measuring "decisive steps to strengthen the prevention and fight against corruption" -- and conclude that it will be a long time before Sarajevo advances further on its EU path.

Dire Reading

Yet there is a fundamental difference between Ukraine and Moldova on the one hand and Bosnia-Herzegovina on the other. Despite the hardships facing Ukraine due to Russia's February invasion, the country is still undertaking substantial reforms that Brussels is asking for in various fields. According to EU officials who spoke to RFE/RL, the same can be said of Moldova. When the European Commission comes with its first assessment of how Ukraine and Moldova are doing in the fall of 2023, they might well conclude that they have both made sufficient progress to start EU accession negotiations.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has so far been the exact opposite. Its latest progress report, produced by the European Commission and published together with the candidate status recommendation this week, makes for dire reading. It is perhaps the most damning assessment ever published by the EU on any country in the Western Balkans.

Some highlights from the report: "amendments to improve electoral standards were rejected in parliament…due to political obstruction [and] the Ministry of Finance and Treasury hindered the smooth organization of the October 2022 elections by withholding the required funds…no progress was made in ensuring an enabling environment for civil society…inconsistency and overly broad discretion persist in applying the rules on appointment, disciplinary responsibility, career advancement, and conflict of interest of judges and prosecutors."

Just for good measure, there is also an entire paragraph on the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, one of the country's two entities, and its attempts to "unilaterally take over state competences and dismantle state institutions, endangering the country's EU accession perspective."

For the commission, it is language that one associates with a fragile state rather than an almost-ready EU candidate. And EU member states, leafing through the report, will likely conclude the same. One of the unwritten golden rules in Brussels on taking in new members is that one does not "import problems." Bosnia is far from membership, although it's possible candidate status could trigger the country to get its house in order. Otherwise, the European Union and its member states are more likely to focus elsewhere when it comes to potential newcomers.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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