Τhe EU has attempted to push forward essential reforms for the stabilisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, presenting them as conditions for progress towards EU accession. However, this Europeanisation approach has not produced the expected results. Nikolaos Tzifakis investigates the causes of EU policy failure in Bosnia and claims that the EU has not managed to deal successfully with three main challenges: adjusting the process to the needs of an ethnically divided state; preserving the credibility of accession conditionality; and conveying the proper message on how to comply with EU rules.
The reform process has stalled in Bosnia and Herzegovina during recent years and provocative actions have endangered even the progress made so far. The EU has not managed to deal successfully with the following three challenges:
1) Adjusting the process to the needs of an ethnically divided post-war state
The EU underestimated the implications of the fact that Bosnia is an ethnically divided country in which there are not one, but three different cost-benefit calculations concerning EU membership. While all three ethnic groups rhetorically embrace the European perspective of their country, they are not eager to sacrifice much of their hold on power for the sake of EU accession to the same extent. Moreover, given that the views and expectations of the three ethnic groups diverge over the country’s political organisation, the gains and losses from most reforms are not equally distributed among them. To the extent that most of the prescribed reforms necessitate the transfer of authority along different policy domains from the cantons and the entities to the level of state institutions, they coincide with the Bosniak demands and are viewed with suspicion by the other two communities.
The image of the EU as a biased partner is aggravated by the fact that its prescriptions for Bosnia have at times extended to domains where there is no acquis communautaire (e.g. constitutional reform) or where the corresponding national practices of the EU member-states diverge substantially (e.g. police reform). Altogether, the perceived partiality and low legitimacy of EU-inspired policies substantially raise the political cost of compliance and challenge the level of support of the corresponding societies to EU accession.
2) Preserving the credibility of accession conditionality
The credibility of the EU’s accession conditionality has been severely weakened for several reasons. First of all, the Bosnians do not believe that they have a credible short-term membership perspective. They understand that there is not much appetite in the EU for new entrants and they are aware of their country’s structural problems. Therefore, the ‘time lag’ in EU conditionality is acute. While Brussels demands from Bosnia structural changes that are outside the country’s constitutional framework, it has very little to offer instantly as a reward. Furthermore, the EU has frequently sent contradictory signals to Bosnia. The High Representative and EU Special Representative (HR/EUSR), the European Commission (EC) and the EU member-states have occasionally expressed divergent views on the importance of certain reforms. Admittedly, the EU’s ambivalence and lack of unity undermines its credibility and, thus, the Bosnian leaders are offered the possibility of picking and choosing where and how to comply. Last, but not least, the credibility of EU conditionality has received a blow from the way the EU has mismanaged its ‘gate-keeping’ authority over the process of Bosnia’s accession. While Brussels conditioned every step towards membership on the implementation of specific reforms, it repeatedly retreated on the scope of its demands to settle for cosmetic changes.
3) Conveying the proper messages on how to comply with EU rules
In terms of social learning, the Bosnians have had the opportunity to come in greater contact with EU actors (i.e., the HR/EUSR, European Union Police Mission, EUFOR/Althea, European Union Monitoring Mission, and the EC) than any other aspiring member-state. Though the EU has adopted a large array of responsibilities in Bosnia, this has not been reflected at all in the impact of its policies on the local leaders’ perception of European norms and values. The Bosnians have indeed learnt ‘how not to comply’ with EU rules. The HR/EUSR rule of Bosnia as an international protectorate was instrumental until 2006 in the adoption of several important reforms. However, the Bosnian elites adopted a passive attitude towards their country’s problems. They learnt that their country’s progress towards accession did not necessitate consensus-building or compromise solutions. The international community could eventually assume any political costs on their behalf.
The HR/EUSR has subsequently diminished its role in Bosnia’s governance in order to promote local ownership and increased accountability of the reforms. Nevertheless, once the Bosnians were given greater responsibility over their country’s destiny, they quickly discovered that the EU was divided and anxious to observe and reward even minimal compliance. Hence, the Bosnians learned that if they were persistent enough, the EU would eventually not insist on its requirements. In addition, the EU has advanced most reforms under extra-institutional emergency procedures undermining the Bosnian authorities’ appreciation of democratic procedures. Therefore, the Bosnians have not been acquainted with the mechanisms of compliance.
To conclude, Europeanisation is an insufficient mechanism for the stabilisation of Bosnia. Compliance with EU instructions requires constant interethnic consensus and similar levels of support for membership in the EU in all the ethnic communities. Furthermore, accession conditionality is not very efficient beyond the limits of the acquis communautaire and it is devoid of any sticks to compel compliance or deter intransigence. In addition, accession rewards are remote and cannot instantly compensate for the adaptation costs of reforms.
The faltering of the EU approach towards Bosnia is also owed to the mismanagement of Europeanisation policies. The EU has repeatedly failed to pronounce a single common position and the Bosnians have viewed the EU retreating from its initial demands on several occasions. Therefore, the latter have learnt that EU conditionality can be disregarded. The EU should not simply consider enriching its policies of conditionality with some more carrots and sticks. It has to reflect on how to make the Bosnians take the Europeanisation process and its associated policies more seriously. Otherwise, the so far negative track record of EU policies towards Bosnia might turn into a legacy that is too heavy to overcome.
For a longer fully-documented version of the article see Nikolaos Tzifakis (2012). Bosnia’s slow Europeanisation. Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 13(2), 131-148.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Nikolaos Tzifakis- University of Peloponnese
Dr. Nikolaos Tzifakis (PhD Lancaster University) is Lecturer of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Peloponnese. He has research interests in International Relations theory, contemporary developments in the Balkans and EU external policies. His edited book International Politics in Times of Change was published in 2012 by Springer.