Long Road to Accession

Both Bosnia and the EU must tread lightly on the path to Union membership in what is still a precarious region

News | Neira Dzabija | September 2009

A Jul. 15 decision by the European Commission excluded Bosnia - Herzegovina from proposed visa-free travel for citizens of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

If the Commission proposal is approved by the EU Member States by the end of this year, citizens of the Western Balkans will be able to travel to the Schengen countries in 2010, using only their brand-new biometric passports, thus bringing them one step closer to European Union membership.

The Commission cited Bosnia’s failure to meet all the conditions set out in the EU’s visa-roadmap as the reasons for the exclusion, however made clear that it would be willing to revise this decision, if the situation should change.

"In fact, the EU would like to make a proposal for visa liberalization for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2010, if you meet the conditions in the coming months," said Olli Rehn of Finland, Commissioner for EU Enlargement. "This is our goal and a concrete promise in return for concrete actions. You do your part, we do our part. This is fair play."

However, by Jul. 24, at a speech before Parliament in Sarajevo, Rehn made clear that this was not a fait accompli. These conditions include almost 50 different actions – from introducing new biometric passports, improving the country’s border controls, to fighting organized crime and corruption. In addition, the EU is pressing for the closing of the EU Office of the High Representative, which has provided oversight to the redevelopment of civil, legal and governmental institutions in the country in the years following the Bosnian War that ended in 1995.

Some local leaders remain uneasy about taking this step, fearing that loss of this oversight could lead to instability. A former member of the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and lawyer, Zaneta Begic, agrees:

"As the international community is interested in stabilizing its relationship with Bosnia, and Bosnia is also interested in European integration, it is necessary to assimilate Bosnian legislation to EU’s legislation."

Begic points out that the Office of the High Representative plays an important role in this process. A great number of political parties, which are active in Bosnia and have different political, national, religious, cultural, educational and ideological interests and attitudes, cannot forward all necessary decisions and changes in the country without the help of OHR, because of mutual misunderstanding and lack of tolerance.

These steps would not only help Western Balkan countries get closer to Europe, but would also put two decades of conflict to rest, according to Bosnian Ambassador in Austria, Haris Hrle.

"I support the idea of development of relations between Bosnia and its neighbors based on respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said. "Brussels can be of great assistance in this."

The ethnic complexity of the Western Balkans has a long history, with deep roots in several very different cultures, a mix that continues to affect it to this day. In classical antiquity the territory was populated by Illyrians, Greeks and Thracians. Even when the Roman Empire conquered the region in the first century AD, it still mostly remained under Greek influence. Later as the destination of migrating Slavs from Northern Europe, the Western Balkans became a meeting point of various cultures, a crossroads of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, a place where Christianity and Islam intersected.

All of this affected the future of Western Balkans and designated its very specific place on the political arena of the world.

During the Middle Ages, the region became divided into the kingdoms of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro – kingdoms that had the same roots, but spread different religions, and included Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and, in some areas, pagans.

One of the most significant events that left a huge mark on the history of Western Balkans occurred with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. By the end of 16th century, it had become a leading force in the region, strongly influencing the culture of these countries. Almost 400 years of Ottoman rule, however, left the Western Balkans the least developed region in Europe.

Things improved under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Western Balkan countries began to develop rapidly and found their place among other European states. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, followed in 1946 by Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, which consisted of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. The Republic dissolved with the fall of the USSR in 1990.

Tito united the region economically, socially and politically and strengthened its connections with most of Europe, especially with Germany, Italy and Austria. However with Tito’s death in 1980, the country was thrown into crisis.

Countries that had been held together for more than five centuries under three succeeding umbrellas of power  – the Ottoman, Habsburg and the Soviet Union – responded to cries for independence and self-sufficiency. The result was the Yugoslav war and related conflicts in various parts of the Western Balkans – dominating the decade from 1991 to 2001.

Seeking independence and self-sufficiency and then recovering from damages of wars and conflicts, Western Balkan countries lost their way to Europe.

However, the European community is willing to pull Western Balkans closer to itself. For example, at the same speech in Sarajevo Olli Rehn said:" We cannot travel the road to the EU for Bosnia and Herzegovina. But we can help, we will help, and we want this country to succeed in its journey from the era of Dayton to the era of Europe".

Ambassador Hrle also explains how the EU could help Western Balkan countries on their way to the better life: "EU is a pan-European project – a peace project without a precedent, it is economic, social and monetary standardization at the highest level. By becoming EU members Western Balkan states would overcome many internal and external difficulties and would have greater prospects for prosperity."

As an example, he cited the recent non-liberalization of the visa regime for Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have received liberalization of the visa regime, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina face the situation in which Bosnian Croats using Croatian passports and Bosnian Serbs taking Serbian passports can travel throughout Europe without visas, which is possible due to the possibility to obtain dual citizenships. However, it discriminates Bosniaks.

"So that is an example of extreme complication and illogical relations which would be overcome with all the Western Balkan states becoming EU members", adds Ambassador Hrle.

A crossroads of religions and cultures, the place where East and West meet – the Western Balkans is an essential part of what the expanded EU is becoming, according to the ambassador.

"The states of the Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe," he said. "They are already surrounded by EU member states. [So] the states between Slovenia and Greece, between the Danube and the Adriatic must be part of the EU."

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