Once again, Bosnia is a wake-up call for Europe

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The EU should shift from a reactive diplomacy and crisis management to sustained engagement and nation-building.

As Ukraine unravels, Bosnia implodes

Nowadays, foreign policy is often about reactive diplomacy and crisis management from Cairo, to Kiev, to Syria. The appetite for sustained diplomatic engagements and heavy-lifting nation building, with most energy sapped on the economic front, seems a luxury of other decades. Hence diplomats are tasked to look for easy patch-ups and fixes, as domestic demands take precedence, or focus on overriding geopolitical priorities, seizing opportunities to close files and put long-standing dossiers in the drawer. Bosnia and Herzegovina has long been in one of these European and American drawers, even as it drifted to international mission shrink and slow-motion political, social, and economic collapse.

If Europe is also struggling there, where the EU’s transformative power should wield maximum clout, then there is a fundamental problem of approach.

The European Union’s credibility as a security actor will not only hinge on its neighbourhood, it will also hinge on its ability to minimally manage hard-core files under its direct responsibility, particularly of those countries that have an official European integration perspective. If Europe is also struggling there, where the EU’s transformative power should wield maximum clout, then there is a fundamental problem of approach, beyond the specific challenges of context – an approach that thus must be revisited, in the context of the strategic stock-taking EU leaders agreed for 2015.

Bosnia confirms such a fundamental problem of approach. In this light, years after an unofficial change of command from American/NATO leadership around Dayton to European tutelage through enlargement, the country’s relevance cannot be sufficiently overstated – not least because its 1990s descent into the abyss was a catalyst for efforts towards a European foreign and security policy in the first place. The risks of reputational loss are huge, although foreign ministers are naturally reluctant to again take a look at the Bosnian quagmire. Whereas strategic persistence has seen the EU start to deliver progress in Serbia and Kosovo, such persistence could be a shorthand for strategic atrophy in Bosnia.

Alas, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s global political awakening has come into play and could trigger opportunities as much as uncertainty. Indeed, organised masses keen on self-empowerment have debunked core foreign policy and strategic assessments not only in Ukraine or Egypt, but in Bosnia too. At the same time that the anti-Viktor Yanukovychrevolution reached its climax, Bosnia suddenly witnessed violent riots, the torching of government buildings, and the organisation of plenums. Unlike Kyiv, it is noteworthy that the craving for a European perspective has not been a key driver in the so-called Bosnian Spring. Rather, the trigger has been the absolute destitution of whole segments of the population by the established system in a country fully under the usual EU intensive management associated with enlargement.

Europeans should be able to relate to core demands essentially put on the table by the ongoing popular mobilisations: greater accountability, good governance, and participatory democracy.

Europeans should be able to relate to core demands essentially put on the table by the ongoing popular mobilisations: greater accountability, good governance, and participatory democracy. Notwithstanding, an EU diplomacy inevitably centred on managing the country’s elites (and European divisions) and the deteriorating situation on the ground have for years developed in separate worlds, until the brewing disaffection with the system exploded. The disconnect between a political system smothered by daily populism, ethno-nationalism, corruption, and cronyism, and the collapsing society underneath the system, is a driving factor behind the protests. And so are basic social needs – encapsulated in a common motto by activists: “Europo, nasa djeca su gladna” (“Europe, our kids are hungry”).

International mission shrink: a lose-lose situation

In Bosnia, the domestic system and the post-war international arrangements are intertwined in toxic ways. International actors on the ground are hostage to too many game-shaping factors that they have little control over, such as:

·         Local elites that have generally mastered the art of playing the victim, playing divide-and-rule, and playing European as suits their interests.

·         The broader paralysis of a post-Cold War European security. As Americans disengage, Europeans struggle to work on joint agendas and live up to their newly assumed responsibilities in regional security. In Bosnia, continuing divisions among international stakeholders (and among Europeans) translate into a status limbo between spent post-conflict stabilisation mechanisms, such as the Office of the High Representative, with limited legitimacy and effectiveness, and an EU-led conditionality, which is not working either.

·         Overall fatigue with the Balkans and state-building notions of the 90s, particularly in times of austerity and shrinking resources.

·         Lastly, internationals are hostage to an assistance dependency fostered over 20 years of bumpy international stewardship. This dependency has turned them into domestic actors prone not to live up to expectations of what can be achieved. Worse, they are often perceived as passive accomplices of elites.

With these basic factors remaining unaltered, internationals muddle through a system in they cannot decisively change the power balance and basic calculations. It is the “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” mantra: if they meddle in domestic politics, they achieve little sustainability empower elites, foster dependency, and then get burned in the process; if internationals stay away, as a self-fulfilled prophecy, things spiral out of control and they will not be spared any criticism.

The EU’s policy creep

The EU has become deeply wedded to this mission shrink. But it has arguably created its own mission creep. The standoff in Bosnia brings to the fore the problems of the EU’s general approach to peace building, modernisation, and “Europeanisation” of countries east and south of its borders. It also shows the counterproductive impact of the politics of enlargement on European policy objectives and on European power as a whole.

For all the talk of “fair and rigorous conditionality”, EU enlargement politics often result in a sort of status first/standards later approach.

For all the talk of “fair and rigorous conditionality”, EU enlargement politics often result in a sort of status first/standards later approach. That is, tactical trade-offs to give carrots to acceding countries, whilst watering down core EU standards so as to overcome stalemate, create momentum, or anchor countries within the EU’s intensive management. Trade-offs are natural in the non-stop diplomatic haggling with local actors and within the EU itself, given member states’ differences. But sometimes, political pressures lead to the ticking off of items from the list or a declaration of “mission accomplished” instead of recognising failure – i.e. the botched police reform in Bosnia. Although many reform momentums hardly survive the departure of top EU officials from Sarajevo Airport (or Tirana and Prishtina, for that matter) and although the hollowness of “breakthrough fireworks” is obvious to many EU officials, institutional inertias, personal agendas, and EU divisions trump other considerations.

This self-defeating politics and barter-trading result in a two-fold loss for the EU: of leverage with local elites (disinclined to alter a system that suits them nicely) and of reputation with citizens (who see business as usual, state capture, obnoxious nationalist politics, and corruption). The EU hollows out its own soft power in the process.

The EU often over-invests in institution-building efforts that have little impact, over-invests in talks with politicians not really interested in the scrutiny associated with EU integration, and yet under-invests in areas that could make a difference, such as reconciliation. Adopting a purportedly technical and neutral approach to issues that are inherently political is a habit of all multilateral organisations – not just the EU – but in intractable cases, it does not work.

EU conditionality, without other levers of power, flies in the face of entrenched interests and illiberal cultures.

Ultimately, an enlargement policy-only template has serious limits when it comes to hard-core diplomatic files, whether by geopolitical curse or conflict legacies. EU conditionality, without other levers of power, flies in the face of entrenched interests and illiberal cultures. In scenarios such as Bosnia – which, in addition to these factors, is hardly emerging from a genocidal war – a one-way-only strategy is problematic.

The EU started to officially come to terms with these realities in 2013, when it declared that Bosnia’s integration path had stalled. But there is not yet sufficient momentum or will to draw the necessary implications. And this policy creep is aggravated by bad timing for a union in transition that is struggling within to prevent its own illiberals from packing the parliament, and from without, to handle a succession of burning crises. Bringing Bosnia, or other enlargement’s inconvenient truths, is a no-go in most chancelleries and Brussels. But Europe will only ignore this unfinished business at its peril.

Not back to business as usual: towards a new European agenda

The revolution in Ukraine and the still frail Bosnian Spring are different wake up calls to European foreign policy and to the very notion of Europe. They put to test Europe’s commitment to be a credible security actor. The irony would be that whereas perhaps “enlargement-lite” might eventually work by default in a new Ukraine, provided domestic actors turn out to be a constituency for change, proper enlargement is failing in Bosnia.

Bosnia cannot change overnight, so caution is warranted. The outlook of a still frail and inchoate Bosnian Spring is uncertain. Worryingly, as the country heads to elections later this year, the risks of deterioration are high, not least given the temptation to play destructive politics and the ethnic card.

It is probably unrealistic to expect at this juncture grand strategy-like efforts as those witnessed in the 90s.

But some things can and must change. The popular mobilisations could be a game-changer and one that the country (and region), international stakeholders, and the EU desperately need. More of the same recipes will not work, nor will a return to heavy-handed tools of the 90s. It is probably unrealistic to expect at this juncture grand strategy-like efforts as those witnessed in the 90s. But some good ideas are already on the table for a minimally sound strategy or, at least, a new agenda around which Europeans should unite.

In the short term, preventing a deterioration of the situation in the run-up to elections is crucial. Europeans need to send coherent messages to spoilers – beyond the usual diplomatic mottos (“express concern”, “welcome”) scorned by Bosnians and Balkanites in general. They must be backed up by credible signals that this time Europe means business, including eventual resort to targeted sanctions.

The chances for huge reform decisions now are slim. But the EU could try options to leverage conditionality in the public space, for instance, through naming and shaming mechanisms for officials who block specific EU reforms, putting them on the spot. That would reinforce the accountability beseeched by citizens and help create a certain European platform for the elections instead of just ethnic and shady interests platforms. Constitutional reform, specifically the implementation of the Sedjic-Finci ruling, must be kept on the table – it is discomforting that some member states are already toying with it as a trade-off. Opportunities for reforms in the Federation system could arise through popular pressure, which should be used. But any more ambitious reform is probably unfeasible and could be counterproductive. The EU should focus on measures to foster good governance (above all, tackling systemic corruption), accountability, and the rule of law.

If Europeans really care about transformation, deep democracy, and open societies, they cannot just do elite management.

This new agenda should also be about new forms of diplomatic and institutional engagement, more dynamic and less self-referential. Diplomacy is essentially an elitist business – ignoring elected elites will not do. But if Europeans really care about transformation, deep democracy, and open societies, they cannot just do elite management. These are times for a more grass-roots European diplomacy that goes beyond the smothering Sarajevo-Banja Luka circuit (or the Peace Implementation Council) and engages with the whole spectrum of Bosnian society and its problems.

Such a revamped European diplomacy should pursue more than EU conditionality or isolated institution-building projects. Together with other actors (chiefly, the US), without writing off enlargement tools, Europeans could work towards a more comprehensive strategy that invests more in post-conflict stabilisation mechanisms, addresses reconciliation, and ties conditionality to bold political objectives – beyond the tick-off-the-box template. Such a strategy should be regional too. Although revisiting Dayton does not seem a feasible option yet, Europe should explore ways to maximise positive developments in the region – chiefly, an EU-bound Serbia and the agreement with Kosovo – to help unlock stalemate in Bosnia.

Lastly, to achieve these goals against so many challenges, Europe needs to bring in coherently member states’ leadership (power Europe) with institutional tools (technocratic Europe). This is an untapped EU power with great potential, even in times of crisis and decline, to spur real transformation, whether in Kyiv or Sarajevo.

Read more on: Wider Europe

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