Bosnia’s disillusionment with the EU is dangerous

The perceived EU disengagement with Bosnia is encouraging separatist politics.

Members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Chairman Šefik Džaferović, Željko Komšić and Milorad Dodik pose with European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell ahead of a meeting at EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on September 30, 2020 [File: Reuters/Olivier Hoslet]

After attending the inauguration of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny in early October, the former grand mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Cerić, took to Facebook to reflect on his visit. As the leader of Bosnia’s Islamic community for almost two decades, he was known for his headline-generating proclamations, but this post was seen as particularly controversial.

Evidently impressed by what he saw in Grozny, Cerić noted how Russia integrated Chechnya after the Chechen wars but “Brussels did not and, it seems, does not want to integrate Bosnia into the European Union”. He went on to advise the EU leadership to “come here to Grozny, in Chechnya, to see and learn how Vladimir Putin works in cooperation with Ramzan Kadyrov”.

His words were seen by many as a dramatic about-face for a Muslim community leader who was known for his pro-Western views. In 2006, Cerić famously penned A Declaration of European Muslims emphasising the commitment of European Muslims to European values, and two years later led a Muslim delegation at a high-level meeting of Catholic and Muslim leaders at the Vatican. He also used to publicly emphasise the Western orientation of Bosniak Muslims with his oft-repeated statement: “Our sultan is in Brussels.”

Cerić’s statement reflects a growing trend of Euroscepticism among Bosnians, who have traditionally seen EU integration as the only way to resolve all the problems of post-war Bosnia. These attitudes reflect Brussels’ own integration fatigue and inconsistent policies towards the Western Balkans. However, losing hope for EU membership could be a dangerous prospect for Bosnians.

Waning support

In 2003, the EU held the Thessaloniki summit at which it promised Western Balkan countries European integration if they met certain admission criteria. In 2016, Bosnia finally applied for EU membership and three years later, Brussels outlined 14 requirements the country has to fulfil in order for the accession procedure to be launched, but since then the process has stalled. In early October, an EU summit in Slovenia failed to produce a clear timetable for Bosnia’s accession to the union.

It is by now obvious that declining support among EU citizens for continuing enlargement of the union is influencing EU decision making and its willingness to proceed with integration.

These negative signals out of Brussels are inevitably affecting the Bosnian public, which is starting to perceive the integration process as unfair and inconsistent. In a 2020 poll by Bosnia’s European Integration Office, 75 percent of respondents said they are in favour of joining the EU. Just six years earlier, this number was 85 percent.

The downward trend is also apparent in various public spheres, including in academia, intellectual spaces and even politics. I have been teaching at university level in Sarajevo since 2014. In this capacity, I used to sit through a considerable number of MA theses defences on Bosnia’s European integration process every year. But over the last year or two, there has been a marked decline in student interest in writing on or researching the EU.

I have seen a growing disinterest in EU politics even among my colleagues. Academics who once regularly lectured and consulted on European integration are now reorienting their work and focusing on Russia, the far-right, and illiberal politics. Likewise, non-governmental organisations that used to focus on EU membership have also moved on to other fields.

Key public figures in the political sphere have also seemingly lost their passion for EU integration and sound more and more disillusioned in their public statements. Reuf Bajrović, for example, who founded the Civic Alliance party and has advocated civic-based politics to counter ethnic politics in Bosnia, has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of the EU.

He, like other prominent figures, has argued that Brussels is biased against Bosniaks, who make up slightly more than 50 percent of the Bosnian population, and does not want to admit countries with large Muslim communities within the union.

While this argument was almost unheard of in Bosnia’s public sphere five to 10 years ago, it is now increasingly accepted as a plausible explanation for the EU’s inconsistent policies towards Bosnia. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Brussels is also raised as a possible reason behind the sluggish progress North Macedonia and Albania have made towards membership; Muslims constitute respectively 36 percent and 59 percent of their populations.

Adding to the growing scepticism among Bosnians is the perception that the EU integration failed to transform the politics of other Balkan countries. Corruption and dysfunction continue to plague Balkan nations which joined the union over the past 17 years. This is challenging the conviction that the EU could resolve Bosnia’s problems.

The dangers of EU disillusionment

For Bosnia, like other Western Balkan states, the prospect of EU membership was a driving force for political reform. Now with membership an increasingly distant prospect, momentum for reforms has declined.

This has inevitably affected the sway the EU has over Bosnian politics. Bosnian politicians are increasingly challenging EU positions, calling the EU’s bluff and walking away with no consequences. Take, for example, Bosnian Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik. He has been continuously undermining the Dayton Peace Accords and destabilising the country.

In July, Valentin Inzko, the then UN High Representative who holds some executive powers in Bosnia, imposed a ban on denial of the Bosnian genocide, which is widespread in Republika Srpska. In retaliation, Dodik instructed Bosnian Serb representatives in state institutions to stop their work, thereby effectively blocking their decision-making processes, as input from all three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) is needed for them to function.

Since then, he has escalated further his violations of the peace agreement, announcing his intention to set up alternative institutions for Republika Srpska, thus rejecting the authority of state-level institutions. He also recently declared the formation of Republika Srpska armed forces, separate from the unified Bosnian military.

In his aggressive posturing, Dodik appears confident that the EU will not impose sanctions on him and recently went as far as declaring that if they were to be imposed, that would usher in “the independence day of Republika Srpska”. Bosnian politicians like him know that the EU is too divided to act.

Dodik’s escalation has worried many Bosnians, who see the establishment of a Serb army as a major step towards Republika Srpska’s secession and another war. The moves he is making are reminiscent of those made by Bosnian Serb leaders in the fall of 1991, just before the war broke out.

The EU’s response to Dodik’s threats was to send Claudio Graziano, Brussels’ top military official, to Sarajevo where he expressed his support for the Bosnian armed forces. It is clear that the EU cannot be relied upon to provide security for Bosnia, given its ineffective response in the 1990s and the limited presence of the European Union Force (EUFOR) in the country, which numbers just a few hundred troops.

However, what the EU can do now is to impose a prohibitively high cost for any move that endangers the peace and security of the country. The EU needs to make a clear stand against separatist politics in Bosnia by imposing sanctions on Bosnian leaders that violate the Dayton Peace Accords. To ensure that sanctions are effective, it can ask the United States to join the effort and extend these measures to cover not just politicians, but also their associates and businesses that they own or that are controlled by their cronies.

Bosnia also needs a strong reaffirmation of its European future – one that puts it clearly on a path towards EU membership. Since the country applied for EU membership in 2016, there has been no momentum-generating EU decision. Now is the time for the EU to grant Bosnia a candidate status.

Failure to act early and decisively could invite pernicious actors to escalate their destabilising politics. If Bosnia is pushed over the edge, it will not be only its people that will suffer the consequences, but the whole of Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.