EU leaders are set to agree on opening membership talks with Bosnia. Many strings are attached

European Union leaders are set to agree on the opening of membership negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though the Western Balkan country must still do a lot of work before talks can begin

Samuel Petrequin
Thursday 21 March 2024 14:32 GMT

European Union leaders were poised to agree in principle Thursday to open membership negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though the Western Balkan country must still do a lot of work before talks can begin.

The 27 leaders were expected to give the political green light at a summit in Brussels after the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — last week agreed to start talks in spite of deep lingering ethnic divisions in the nation with 3.2 million inhabitants.

In the latest version of the draft summit conclusions, leaders said that “the European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The draft emphasizes the need for Bosnia to keep on taking “all relevant steps set out” by the Commission that include economic, judicial and political reforms as well as better efforts to tackle corruption and money laundering.

Bosnia is riven by ethnic divisions, even decades after the 1992-95 war that tore the country apart, leaving more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced.

In 2022, Bosnia was granted candidate status. For candidates to join the EU, they have to go through a lengthy process to align their laws and standards with those of the bloc and show their institutions and economies meet democratic norms.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said upon his arrival in Brussels that a lot of work still needs to be done before the country can really get into the thick of negotiations with the bloc.

“It’s crucial that Bosnia will fulfil all the necessary actions in the Commission's report so that you really will have ticked all the boxes,” Rutte said.

Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, said he supports Bosnia's candidacy, but with strings attached.

“We have to respect the rules, rules of game, implementation of all necessary requirements,” he said.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of six nations from the region — the others are Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia — which are at different stages of the EU membership process.

Their entry to the bloc has been stalled for years. But after Russia’s war on Ukraine, EU officials are more keen on trying to lure them away from the Kremlin’s influence.

In addition to the incomplete internal reforms damaging its bid, Bosnia is still ethnically and politically divided, and is perhaps the most fragile of the Balkan countries.

Separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is pro-Russia, continues to undermine the presidency and other political functions in the country. In December, Dodik told The Associated Press that he intended to keep weakening the country to the point where it fell apart.

The latest US intelligence annual threat assessment published last month noted that Dodik "is taking provocative steps to neutralize international oversight in Bosnia and secure de facto secession for his Republika Srpska. His action could prompt leaders of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population to bolster their own capacity to protect their interests and possibly lead to violent conflicts that could overwhelm peacekeeping forces.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “very much for” moving a step forward “after the many efforts that have been made in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“As a whole, the states of the Western Balkans also must be able to rely on us,” he said. “The promise that they would be able to become members of the European Union was made … more than 20 years ago in Thessaloniki, and now we need the next steps.”

In anticipation of a positive outcome, EU flags could be seen hanging throughout Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, where citizens and officials alike hailed the prospects of their country moving forward in its bid.

Adnan Balvanovic, a resident of Sarajevo, believes EU integration is “something Bosnia needs, to make its way forward, to develop. It can finally become a normal state like its citizens want it to be. It is also good for us, young people who want to stay in Bosnia Hercegovina.”

Pensioner Jasmina Kadusic agreed “it would be nice” if Bosnia joined the EU but warned that the process has already taken too long and that “our politicans are not doing enough to make it happen.”


Eldar Emric in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.

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