How BiH faked its way to the threshold of EU membership
Six years ago, Brussels decided that a European Court of Human Rights decision must be implemented if Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to continue its process of joining the European Union. The court's 2009 decision in the famous "Sejdić and Finci" case found BiH's constitution to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because it doesn’t allow people who don't declare themselves as Bosniac, Croat or Serb to run for president or sit in the House of Peoples, one of the country's two chambers of parliament.
If BiH wanted to take the next step towards joining the EU -- that was ratifying and implementing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) -- it had to change its constitution and electoral laws so that "others", as the constitution calls them, are on an equal footing with "constituent peoples" when it came to the right to run for office.
The 2010-2014 term was marked by endless talks about the implementation of the ECHR's decision.
But few of those talks took place in parliament, which would seem an obvious setting for constitutional reform debates. Instead, negotiations were held between the political parties’ leaders at hotels, restaurants, and resorts.
This disregard for democratic institutions and processes was not at all discouraged by the EU -- its representatives even facilitated several such meetings. Additionally, the country’s continuous political instability set the scene for one of the major parties to completely hijack the issue, turn it on its head -- they call it "resolving the Croat question" -- and use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations about re-shuffling the coalitions ruling BiH and FBiH*. FBiH (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) is one of the two political entities that compose Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being Republika Srpska.
When none of it worked, the EU decided to put the whole issue aside. A few months after the country was hit with a short but forceful wave of socio-economically motivated protests in February 2014, Germany and the UK came up with "a new approach to BiH", which was officially adopted by the EU shortly after. It was supposed to temporarily put adopting the "Sejdić & Finci" decision on hold to focus on economic reforms. The governments of BiH and FBiH, as well as Republika Srpska, signed a "Reform Agenda" and then a "Letter of Commitment", expressing their willingness to join the EU. After that,
although none of the initial conditions were met, the EU activated the SAA in 2015, BiH applied for EU membership and received a European Commission questionnaire in December 2016.
When the time came to deliver answers to the questionnaire -- which allows the EU to assess BiH's readiness to become a member state -- all that had been swept under a rug resurfaced with a vengeance. The answers were to be delivered within six months, but, just weeks before the (unofficial) deadline, BiH Chairman of the Council of Ministers Denis Zvizdić delivered a surprising statement. He said state institutions weren’t able to translate the answers and that he would try to get the commission to accept the answers in Croatian, as it is, after all, one of EU’s official languages.
The statement was mocked by the public -- and met with considerable resentment by translation services providers -- and it soon became obvious that the supposed lack of skilled translators was just an excuse, while the real issue lied in the Republika Srpska’s authorities' refusal to submit their part of the answers.
Zvizdić then moved the self-imposed deadline to September and government officials assigned ministries and agencies a deadline to finish the job by 1 Sept. Soon after, Zvzidić hinted that it just might be a little later than that, October perhaps, but it will surely happen in the fall. When September came and the first deadline went, he announced a third one: we’ll have answers ready by the end of 2017.
Civil society in BiH has repeatedly warned against the artificially reached cornerstones on Bosnia’s road to the EU -- the letters, the agendas, the expressions of good will, the resulting SAA activation. These, it was stressed on numerous occasions, were all void of any meaningful changes, yet gifted the authorities with undeserved opportunities to show off their supposed successes.
And now, we have finally reached a point where no amount of "good will" can change the fact that they are simply not delivering a document, thousands of pages long, necessary for the EU to decide on BiH’s membership application.
So, once again, after a few years of unsubstantiated praise, forced optimism and pep-talks from the EU, the term "stalemate" is making a comeback in the discourse on BiH-EU relations, to the little surprise of anyone who has been watching closely.