If it has any energy and commitment left to devote to Bosnia, the EU should work to restore its reputation in the country and pursue an ambitious plan for reform.  

Last month, the European Commission was preparing a revised EU methodology for the Western Balkans – a tool designed to re-establish a credible membership perspective for countries in the region. Yet most people living there were focused on other events. And they were impatiently waiting for 1 March.

This was the date that Germany’s skilled immigration act came into force, providing new opportunities to people across the Western Balkans, not least Bosnians. Germany’s scheme, based on a law called Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz, effectively opens the country’s doors to many citizens of non-EU countries. With more than 1 million job vacancies, Germany is able to absorb the most talented job candidates – and, in fact, it already does in many areas. Doctors, nurses, IT experts, plumbers, masons, and many other workers have already left the Western Balkans in search of employment. According to Eurostat, 230,000 people did so in 2019 alone. Most of them were citizens of Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Germany’s official statistics provide another glimpse into the scale of this emigration. According to the latest German census data, around 373,000 Bosnians live in Germany. It is estimated that, for every six doctors trained in Bosnia, one now works in Germany. (The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the serious problems created by this trend, with Bosnia suffering from a severe shortage of the medical staff so important to the country’s present and future.) In all similar studies, Bosnia is high in the rankings of countries that cannot retain their citizens. For example, a recent World Bank report entitled “Migration and the brain drain in Europe and Central Asia” refers to Bosnia as having lost almost half of its population since the early 1990s, including the period in which the country was at war. And there is no evidence that this trend will change any time soon.

It is estimated that, for every six doctors trained in Bosnia, one now works in Germany

But things were not always so gloomy. In the early 2000s, the situation looked very different. In 2003 and for years after, Bosnia’s newly established Directorate for EU Integration led a coordinated effort to support the country’s accession to the European Union. The directorate had an excellent reputation and quickly attracted young, talented, and smart Bosnians – some of whom had studied abroad as Fulbright or Chevening scholars. Many of them returned to Bosnia to be part of this positive story in the making. As Bosnian civil servants working in the directorate or agencies that helped prepare the EU dossier, they were motivated and full of expectations. There seemed to be clear route ahead and, even more importantly, Bosnia had people who could understand complicated EU procedures, were willing to learn, and produced high-quality work. In fact, hope was so prevalent – and the leadership so determined – that the country was widely expected to join the EU in a matter of years, not decades.

In November 2005, negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement officially began in Sarajevo, but a series of EU conditionalities (including a police reform that only applied to Bosnia) created tension and, eventually, led to political backsliding. Bosnia signed a pre-accession deal with the EU in 2008, a move widely seen as an important step in the country’s accession process. Two years later, the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council issued a decision that finally provided citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina with visa-free travel. But, aside from this distinct benefit, the EU accession process rarely aligned with developments on the ground. Designed for different countries, times, and circumstances, the process was largely divorced from the reality of life in Bosnia. Once again, Bosnia was sucked into a vortex of national issues and conditionalities, with no solution on a horizon. The international community that once offered an equal partnership with Bosnia became distant and often inconsistent.

The EU accession process, which once seemed capable of reinvigorating Bosnian politics and society, failed to capitalise on its initial achievements or recognise the contribution made by the people who excelled at supporting it. And, most importantly, the process operated under the misguided assumption that it would automatically succeed at the right time. But that time never came. The combined effect of new elections, Bosnia’s complicated constitution – which prevented institutions from functioning effectively – and a political crisis within the EU caused the accession process to lose momentum. In the years that followed, a resurgence in nationalist rhetoric and growing uncertainty within the international community left Bosnia unable to build on its early reforms.

Demoralised by the uncertainty, by national political elites’ unwillingness to compromise, and by mixed messages from the EU, many of the Bosnians who drove the reforms and led the EU accession process gave up. Disappointed and disillusioned, they emigrated – but, this time, never to return.

As a result, the EU accession process has been moribund for many years. Although the EU formally recognises Bosnia as a potential accession candidate, any discussion of the country’s prospects of joining the bloc in the near future is empty rhetoric, whether it comes from Bosnian politicians or their EU counterparts. Meanwhile, Bosnian citizens see their country as being decades away from any form of normalcy, let alone EU membership. Many of the civil society actors who once led discussions on EU matters now live and work in Germany, Austria, or the United States.

Years of ambiguity, ineffective conditionalities, never-ending policy experiments, and frequent changes within European states and institutions left Bosnia with very little hope of progress. Indeed, by 2019, just 50 percent of Bosnians favoured EU membership, compared to 86 percent of Albanians. Many Bosnians would say that their lives were better and more hopeful ten years ago. As it stands, only Bosnia’s political elites have profited from the events of the past decade. Consequently, last year, around 60,000 Bosnians left the country.

If it has any energy and commitment left to devote to Bosnia, the EU should work to restore its reputation in the country and pursue an ambitious plan for reform. One way to keep the best and brightest Bosnians at home would be to give them a seat at the table. More than ever, there is a need for international actors in Bosnia – especially the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and the EU special representative – to make a strategic decision to join forces with young, talented Bosnians at home and among the diaspora.

The key challenge is in creating incentives for Bosnians to either remain at home and meaningfully shape Bosnia’s future or return to the country under some scheme (temporarily or permanently) to contribute to its development. European leaders should immediately invite Bosnians who are sufficiently motivated to design EU instruments for Bosnia – instruments that would quickly create visible signs of progress. Moreover, the EU should invite young, talented Bosnians to take part in every high-level meeting between the bloc and the Bosnian government, and to assist in articulating a vision of progress for the country. Such an informal grouping could expand over time, help develop substantive policies for various economic sectors, and thereby change the course of the political debate in Bosnia.

This would not only improve the EU’s image in the country and give Bosnians new hope, but also create an opportunity to reduce the concentration of political power within Bosnia’s very small elite. Most importantly, these symbolic actions would send a strong message that the EU was able to invent, transform, and adapt – to take risks and provide committed leadership. If crafted well, this approach could have a long-lasting effect. In the best-case scenario, it would inspire young Bosnians to shape their country’s future. And it would even persuade many to return to Bosnia. Ultimately, there is a lot at stake in the way that the EU positions itself in dealing with the country. Unless it changes course soon, the bloc will have no partners left to work with in Bosnia.

Read more on: Wider Europe, European Power, EU instruments

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.