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Will Bosnia Get EU Candidate Status?

The prospect of being granted EU candidate status will be welcome news in the Balkan country, but it could still mean waiting many years for full membership.

Long road ahead: Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Šefik Džaferović meets with President of the European Council Charles Michel in Brussels. Image: European Union

On 12 October, the European Commission recommended that EU candidate status be given to Bosnia if the country adopted a number of reforms. This decision came more than six years after Bosnia applied for candidate status in 2016. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi hailed this as 'historic', as did Bosnia's foreign minister, Bisera Turković. Now it is up to top European leaders to approve it.

The granting of EU candidate status to Bosnia would be a positive development. Since the Thessaloniki summit of 2003, the country's citizens have been hoping for closer integration with the EU. In fact, the public discourse for almost two decades has been significantly shaped by the idea that joining the EU would resolve many of the country's challenges. The mantra of European integration has been so dominant that there is not a single anti-EU political party in the country.

The dominant narrative of European integration is one of fulfilling admissions criteria and then being rewarded with closer integration and ultimately full membership. While Bosnia has been preoccupied with the EU, the signals coming from Brussels have been disappointing. In a number of cases over the past decade, Bosnia's citizens have felt that Brussels has not kept its part of the bargain.

Last summer, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. While most Bosnians have sympathy for the Ukrainian cause – recalling their own experience of the early 1990s – there is a lingering feeling that Brussels operates double standards. Bosnia has been far ahead in the process of European integration, and yet the EU bypassed the country last summer when awarding candidate status.

If fulfilling criteria is the chief measure, Bosnia was ahead. If strategic calculations trump criteria, then the mantra of meeting EU standards is no longer relevant.

The EU top brass is no doubt aware of the exceptionally complex political system in Bosnia, which stymies efficient decision-making in all areas including European integration. Still, Brussels has now decided to offer a belated half-measure: conditional candidate status.

A host of factors including enlargement fatigue, domestic politics, the rise of the far right and rising Islamophobia will affect the membership perspective for Bosnia

However, it is not clear if the EU will grant this status to Bosnia by the end of the year. Last summer, there were media reports that France, Denmark and the Netherlands were reluctant to proceed with enlargement due to domestic political reasons. This is concerning. It shows that meeting EU criteria is no longer a guarantee of full membership. A host of other factors including enlargement fatigue, domestic politics, the rise of the far right and rising Islamophobia will affect the membership perspective for Bosnia.

A particularly worrying position is that of the Netherlands. Just over two decades ago, its contingent in the UN force in Srebrenica played a shameful role in the genocide. The Netherlands has a historic responsibility to come to terms with this dark chapter in its and Bosnia's history, and should be at the forefront of the push for Bosnia's accession to NATO and the EU.

Even if Bosnia overcomes these dissenting voices in the EU and receives candidate status, the decision –long overdue but still welcome – would not guarantee full membership in the foreseeable future. Absent such a full membership perspective, the impetus for adopting EU acquis will be less pronounced.

Furthermore, candidate status would require Bosnia to align its foreign policy with that of the EU. However, if full membership in the foreseeable future is not a realistic option, why would Bosnia limit its foreign policy options when it is unable to reap the benefits of a seat at the table in Brussels?

In sum, the EU should grant candidate status to Bosnia as soon as possible. But Bosnia's political leaders should know that being given this status can mean long years of intermediate relations with the EU without full membership.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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