Balkan nations not yet a part of the EU have long viewed membership as a key step in modernising countries still awaiting full recovery from the turmoil of the 1990’s. Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia are all relatively recent arrivals into the EU, with North Macedonia, Albania and eventually Serbia hoping to follow suit on the road to accession.
The decision to halt enlargement talks has been met with severe reproach from both within and beyond the Balkan region. Many critics believe the decision is a betrayal of the Union’s principles, and a step towards the further establishment of a two-tiered Europe. North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia hope to persuade Brussels to change tack and re-open discussions in December’s EU summit, but for Bosnia-Herzegovina the notion of accession talks is but a distant dream.
The Evolution of Bosnia
The Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina and Republika Srpska is a nation born from the ashes of the Balkan war, following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early to mid-nineties. Riven by sectarian divides, mass emigration, no effective government, and a collapsing economy, Bosnia was recently described by French President Emmanuel Macron as a ‘ticking time bomb’ due to the problematic arrivals of return jihadist fighters from Syria.
51 percent of the country is currently formed by Bosnia Herzegovina, ethnically Bosnian or Bosniak, with its capital in Sarajevo. Republika Srpska forms the other 49 percent, ethnically Serbian and with its capital in Banja Luka; Croatian stands as the third official nationality. This federation was formed in 1995 by the Dayton Accords, which ended the bloodiest conflict it had seen since World War II. Instead of gradually coalescing to form one nation as envisioned, ethnic divides, wartime atrocities, and endemic corruption and bureaucracy led the states to drift apart.
In 2016 alone, approximately 80,000 people left to work in other EU countries. Separatist rhetoric has increased steadily, with the Republika Srpska’s Prime Minister declaring the breakup of the federation inevitable, while simultaneously striving to create a quasi-military force in the form of national police. The population, comprised of roughly three million, is governed by three presidents – one Bosnian Muslim, one Bosnian Serb, and one Croatian – plus fourteen prime ministers, and over 800 legislators and ministers.
More than a year after the 2018 elections, a breakthrough last week led to the formation of a government, with Bosnian Serb politician Zoran Tegeltija emerging as the decided candidate to run the Council of Ministers. In general, the Bosnian and Croatian population and politicians favour integration with Europe and NATO while Bosnian Serbs are more closely aligned to Moscow and Belgrade.
Those decrying the political ineffectiveness and instability wrecking the nation believe Brussels to be the only institution capable of intervening and helping overhaul its structures.
Allies to the East?
Bosnian economist Borisa Falatar recently wrote in a Guardian op-ed that it was time to move on from the Dayton Accords and repair the unequal system it had created, lest the country pivot to the East for assistance.
“Business as usual will lead to Bosnia’s leadership pivoting to the Gulf states, Russia and China, which will further jeopardise the country’s cohesiveness and its EU future, especially now when the only national consensus that existed – the hope of EU integration – appears to be indefinitely postponed”, said Falatar. “It will become harder for Bosnia to avoid becoming a testing ground in a new cold war.”
The former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ivor Roberts, says that Moscow, in particular, makes little secret of the fact that it will do whatever it takes to ensure that the Christian countries of the Balkans remain outside of the EU and NATO, as a “wedge between Greece and its NATO allies to the North”.
The geopolitical concerns of Moscow and deliberate distancing by the EU means little to the average citizen of Bosnia Herzegovina, where it is estimated that up to 23 percent of the population live at, or below, the absolute poverty line.
The ‘ticking time bomb’ analogy which Macron referred to while speaking of Bosnia is indicative of old clichés. According to Paul Butcher, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, such statements could “encourage other member states to become more sceptical, which is not very helpful for the region, in geopolitical terms”. He continued, saying that “It is important that other important actors who are in favour of enlargement, such as Germany, do not assume Macron’s view, as they are not useful.”
Florian Bieber of the Europe Policy Advisory Group has said that such views on the Balkans were based on “bias and arrogance”. Bieber added that the “ticking time bomb is not in Bosnia but in Western European unwillingness to understand that Europe is bigger than just its Western half”.