Photo: Ruined house in Mostar. ESI/Kristof Bender

Abandon clichés about Bosnia

Push EU-related reforms instead of arbitrary conditions

International thinking about Bosnia is marred by clichés: that Bosnian politics is all about ethnicity, that elections in Bosnia change nothing and that Bosnia is uniquely dysfunctional. Clichés are terrible guides to action and have led the EU to demand from Bosnia and Herzegovina a series of arbitrary conditions never asked from any other accession country. While most of them were eventually dropped, it cost Bosnia a decade. The EU needs to abandon this practice and give it the chance to work on EU-accession-related reforms as its neighbours.

ESI report: Wine, dog food and Bosnian clichés – False ideas and why they matter 5 November 2017

In the second half of 2017 leading politicians of the largest party catering to Bosnian Croat voters (HDZ BiH) warned that failure to change the Bosnian election law would lead to "full paralysis of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina" after the upcoming elections of October 2018. Promptly, the Office of the High Representative, overseeing the implementation of the Dayton peace accords, announced that "the international community is actively involved in drafting" a new election law.

This is the trajectory of many of the debates in Bosnian politics in the past decade. Parties declare their unhappiness about something. Dark warnings follow about the end of democracy and institutional melt-down. Before long international organisations step in, claiming a mandate to mediate where local institutions cannot cope on their own. In this way everyone has a role to play. Bosnia lives up to the cliché of a helpless society with a hapless elite.

Already in January 2018 we argued that "there is no institutional crisis". We predicted that the law would not be changed, that the elections would be held as foreseen and that parliaments and governments would be formed like they had been after the seven previous elections since the war. This is also what happened.

But there is a price to pay for Bosnia: Clichés and distorted views feed a widespread sense that Bosnia requires special guidance and intervention by benevolent foreigners. In the last decade the EU asked Bosnia to fulfil a series of arbitrary conditions that were not asked from any other accession country. Bosnia finished negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) only two weeks after Montenegro, in December 2006. But while Montenegro prepared to apply for EU membership in December 2008, the EU asked Bosnian political leaders to further centralise Bosnia's police forces, a condition no other country was ever asked to meet. While Montenegro received candidate status in 2010, the EU told Bosnia to implement a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights regarding discriminatory electoral provisions before it could file a "credible application". While Montenegro started negotiations in 2012, the EU still prevented Bosnia from moving forward due to this condition, even though the provisions in question are considerably less discriminatory than those upheld in several old and new EU member states. While Montenegro continued to open chapter after chapter, the EU asked Bosnia to establish a "co-ordination mechanism" for its EU accession process, another exercise no other country had to perform.

Most of these special conditions for Bosnia were eventually dropped, but at a high price for Bosnia: By early 2020, Montenegro had opened 32 of 35 negotiation chapters. Bosnia had opened not a single one. Instead, The European Commission sent it a new list of 14 "key priorities" that Bosnia should meet before it can open accession negotiations.

The EU needs to abandon its practice of developing special conditions for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whenever the Bosnian administrations were faced with a clear and meaningful challenge (negotiating the SAA, meeting conditions for visa-free travel, filling the questionnaire of the European Commission), they delivered. It is high time Bosnia should not be given any more additional arbitrary tasks, but the same chance to work on EU-accession-related reforms as its neighbours.