Bosnia and Herzegovina Struggles for EU Membership

December 13, 2013

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina Ana Trisic Babic visited CEU on Dec. 12 to discuss her country's struggles to prepare for EU membership and to heal the wounds of the brutal wars of the 1990s. Inclusion of ethnic groups that fall outside the main groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, is still a major issue as well as whether or not to centralize the nation's government.

Trisic Babic said the progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina is “not bright” if you look at a daily snapshot. However, she noted that, if you map the country's development over the last 20 years, it is “moving and positive.”

It was very difficult to 'restart' the country after the war, but we did it,” said Trisic Babic. “Citizens wanted a way to live together in one country and European integration is the main drive in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, the economy is not good – we have the smallest GDP per capita in Europe.”

In an effort to broker peace in the region during the wars of the 1990s, the new constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina called for equal representation for Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. However, this left people who do not identify as any of the three without constitutional representation. Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, who are Roma and Jewish respectively, sued Bosnia and Herzegovina in the European Court of Human Rights. As a result, the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina began a process of constitutional reform.

For the last three years, we've been dealing with the issue of citizens who don't belong to any ethnic group. Sejdic and Finci sued Bosnia and Herzegovina to get a chance of representation,” she said. “We had to amend our constitution and that opened a huge debate but, without this, we cannot even apply to be a candidate for EU.”

Also at issue is the way the government should run – as a centralized power or more of a decentralized web with departments and institutions maintaining their own internal autonomy. Bosnia and Herzegovina's political elites have, thus far, been remiss in sharing or dispersing power.

We have strong, powerful political elites,” she said. “Because of this, you can't start necessary reforms. Until we address crucial political questions, we will not move forward.”

Despite everyday life moving along as normal, with students in school and businesses running, she noted that no real movement or improvements have been made due mostly to the political elites, an uninformed and suspicious public, and vague EU conditions for membership.

I see Bosnia and Herzegovina joining NATO before joining the EU,” she said. “Reforms for NATO membership are much more concrete; for the EU, it's a little bit foggy. For example, they require us to 'reform the judiciary system.' That's not clear and different European countries have different systems.”

Citizens don't see it as a given that EU membership will improve life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said. In July of this year, Croatia became the newest member of the EU, and Trisic Babic noted that other Balkan countries are also moving toward EU membership.

It's difficult to sell the story to citizens – that EU and NATO memberships are a good thing. Croatia, which is both a NATO and EU member, still has issues and there is still no real investment in full NATO member states in the Balkans.”

The investment these days is, instead, coming from Russia and China. Trisic Babic noted that the country needs the investment in their infrastructure, but they can't yet get it from the EU since they aren't members. They are also lacking in specialized workers, so some Chinese investors have offered not only to tackle large projects but also to bring their own workers to complete them. However, she emphasized that people in Bosnia and Herzegovina feel they are European and want to remain connected to Europe.

Right now we are in the twilight zone,” she said. “We want everything but we have nothing. Everything looks normal but there are no concrete moves toward EU membership.”

The lecture, “Bosnia and Herzegovina on the path towards the EU: The Way Forward,” was sponsored by CEU's Center for EU Enlargement Studies (CENS). Professor Peter Balazs, CENS director, introduced Trisic Babic and moderated the discussion. For more information on CENS, visit https://cens.ceu.hu/.