16 March 2015 was one of the most important days in the history of the relationship between the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Council of the European Union adopted the official conclusion suggested by Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stating that Bosnia and Herzegovina has fulfilled the requirements to start the implementation of the Stabilisation and Accession Agreement. Bosnia and Herzegovina signed the Agreement seven years ago, and although it has been ratified by all Member States of the EU, it was not yet implemented due to the Bosnia and Herzegovina government’s lack of devotion to reforms.
This news came at the right time and was welcomed after a long time of waiting. The EU took a great step towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the return, they expect this country to do the same. The crucial moment for this decision was the formation of the recent government in Bosnia and Herzegovina after elections in October 2014. It took them five months (this would a formation record, considering that there are 140 ministries and administration offices for one small country with two entities and three constitutional nations).
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement constitutes the framework of relations between the European Union and the Western Balkans. The agreement is adapted to the specific situation of each partner country and besides establishing a free trade area between the EU and the country concerned, it also identifies common political and economic objectives and encourages regional co-operation. In the context of accession to the European Union, the agreement serves as the basis for the implementation of the accession process.
People of Bosnia and Herzegovina have waited for this moment for a long time and lost seven years of possible reform and administration improvement on the path towards the EU. The Stabilisation and Accession Agreement was signed in 2008, and all Member States had ratified it by 2011. However, the Agreement was never implemented due to the requirement put forward by the representatives of the EU: to fully implement the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdić and Finci vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a case decided by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in December 2009, which found that certain arrangements of the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina – more specifically with regards to the constitutional arrangements of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina – were in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The plaintiffs were two citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci, of Bosnian Roma and Bosnian Jewish ethnicity, respectively. They fought for the right to be a rightful candidate for the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, something which, according to the Dayton Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is only preserved for individuals from one of the official ‘nations’: Bosniak, Croat or Serb.
However, considering that, for seven years, Bosnia and Herzegovina didn’t make any effort to implement that decision, the EU decided to find another solution in order to make this country work and not punish the citizens for the acts of their government. The EU recommended different reforms, with the socio-economic being the priority, to improve the economy of the country. In November 2014, the UK and German foreign ministers, Philip Hammond and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, sent an “open letter” to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which they pledged there would be a substantive progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership process if the country’s politicians gave a written commitment, promising to implement a package of reforms, including compliance with the Sejdić and Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.
What happens now? In the next period we expect at least two months of administrative procedures before the official start of the implementation of the Agreement. With its start, Bosnia and Herzegovina can finally and officially apply for membership status and become a candidate for the European Union. However, bearing in mind the past of the relationship between EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina, one must not neglect the presence of the “hot-and-cold” aspect. If we look back, the European Union has always threatened to block the Stabilisation and Accession Agreement in order to make local politicians do their work. As the threats did not have any effect on politicians, they blocked the full implementation of the Agreement. The European Union realised that the punishment did not have the wanted results; the country stagnated, people were unsatisfied, and it didn’t force local politicians to do what was required. Now the EU has changed its mind and allowed the implementation of the Agreement, hoping to achieve candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina in times to come. Will this be a lesson for our politicians or can we expect the same scenario from the EU in the months to come? Will our politicians do the work they were elected to do by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina or gamble with the possibility of having this country being blocked by the EU, again? Only to be unblocked in the years to come? Time will tell.