The EU risks losing Bosnia and a lot more

Commentary

Despite having signed an SAA, Bosnia may no longer exist in ten years. More EU attention, not less is needed to fix things

The mirrored, twisted skyscraper reaches into the Sarajevo sky like a Balkan version of London's gherkin. When completed, it will be the region's tallest building.But despite the appearance of progress and a decade of internationally-supervised peace implementation - which has seen the government initialing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (the first step to joining the EU) the country may no longer exist in a few years.

Its three ethnic groups hold conflicting views of the past and the future.  In the Serb-dominated part of the country, one-time basketball star Milorad Dodik reigns supreme.  Having defeated the Serb nationalists and supported the EU's candidate for President in Serbia, he holds Brussels over a barrel.

His long-term policy seems clear: peaceful secession of the Serb province like Milo Djukanovic did it in Montenegro. For now, he tears strips of the fledgling Bosnian state, gradually transferring power to his provincial capital while he bides his time. Last year, he forced the EU to back down over its demands that the country reform and centralize its police. "Why", his deputy Igor Rodojcic asked me while on a lobbying tour in London, "should Scotland be allowed to secede and not Republika Srpska"?

The Serb cause is helped by a dead-lock between Croats and Bosnian Muslims in the other part of the country: Bosnian Croats still look towards Croatia proper while Bosnian Muslims - led by war-time leader Haris Silajdzic - cling to a pre-war dream of a centralized, multiethnic country.

With the three ethnic groups at odds, economic and administrative reforms are stymied and the political discourse is now more reminiscent of the rabble-rousing pre-war 1990s than that of a modern European country.

Stuck in the middle is Europe and its man on the ground, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajčák. With no clear orders from Brussels, little interest in major capitals and caught between the U.S and Russia, he struggles to find a way through. His immediate mission is to close the Office of the High Representative (OHR) - the protectorate-style office he leads - and give way to an EU-led mission, which can assist the country pass through the hoops required for EU accession.

But the country has become used to living with the international community as the final arbiter of decisions. Closing the OHR will mean Bosnia's politicians have to take charge and begin making compromises.It would also mean Bosnian politicians preparing the electorate for rigors of the EU integration process, which can produce short-term set-backs as the public sector is slashed and customs revenues cut.

Free-market policies and ensuring the rule-of-law are key to get through. So is having an effective state. But support for these polices is limited on all sides. To date, the Bosnian Prime Minister has only met his EU Minister three or four times. Even more tellingly, Bosnia's international helpmates are preparing to extend the terms of expatriate officials inside Bosnia's courts; no Bosnian is yet willing to prosecute high-profile criminals.

For the international community, moving towards an EU-led operation presents problems as well. A new EU set-up would see Mr. Lajčák's role as EU Special Representative merge with that of the EU Commission.

But with the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, the merger of the Council Secretariat and the Commission's DG Enlargement into a new External Action Service is on hold. This may slow-down efforts to ‘double-hat' Mr. Lajčák, or his successor, as both EUSR and Head of the EC delegation.

Besides hiring a few secretaries, little preparation is underway for the EU to build-up its role; there is even talk of closing down the EU military and police missions in 2009 and 2010. Officials in the European Commission, in turn, look forward to seeing OHR's back. Only then, they believe, can the rules of the EU's technocratic, apolitical enlargement process be made to do their magic.

But even if Bosnia's problems could be solved by adopting the Active Implantable Medical Devices Directive, given the state of Bosnian politics time may not be on the EU's side. It can certainly not be on both the EU's and Milorad Dodik's side. And many analyst worry that the SAA process - unlike the process for candidate countries - does not paint a realistic picture of what Bosnia needs to do, while preventing the country from moving forward.

To prevent matters from getting worse and the EU from proving that it cannot, as Mort Abramowitz wrote a few years ago in Foreign Affairs, "hack the Balkans", things need to change.What is needed is more EU, not less.

In Kosovo, following the March 2004 riots Norwegian NATO ambassador Kai Eide was asked to recommend changes needed to make NATO more credible. The same is now needed in Bosnia, but before rather than after any crisis. As the Council Secretariat, OHR and the Commission seem unable to supersede their bureaucratic concerns, Javier Solana, the EU's perspicacious  foreign policy chief, should ask an independent official - for example Giuliano Amato - to propose a new EU set-up, which can lead to a post-OHR phase of deeper and broader EU involvement.

It should also examine a new EU Balkan set-up in Brussels, and what adjustments are necessary to the EU's accession process: would it, for example make sense to have Bosnia submit a candidate application and move to the screening process?

The independent report could be discussed by EU foreign ministers under the Czech EU Presidency, which begins in 2009. Prague could also form a "Friends of Bosnia" among the EU-27 - liek the EU group that guides Ukraine policy - who can drive the Union's Bosnia policy and keep the necessary attention on the country. Such a set-up would be well-served by including the U.S and Russia too.

As its first tasks, the group could re-examine the possibility of replacing the Bosnian currency with the Euro, as British peer Paddy Ashdown sought to do when he ran the OHR; and of lowering the bar Bosnia has to jump over to get visa-free access to Europe. Nothing would make the EU prospect more tangible to ordinary Bosnians and change the country's centrifugal politics. Neither policy will damage the EU: Bosnia's Marka is already tied to the European currency and it is hard to believe that Bosnians would represent a greater security and immigration threat than, say, Bulgarians.

Post-Irish referendum, the EU's foreign policy will be, above all, a Balkan policy. And while attention has recently been on Kosovo, Bosnia remains a key challenge. To solve the problems, more not less EU is needed. New thinking is needed to figure out what form this takes. The tallest building in the Balkans will one day be a symbol of progress. Today it is the exception. The difference can only be made up by Bosnians. But only with the European Union's help.

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.

Read more on: ECFR Council, Wider Europe

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