Bosnia-Herzegovina: the road ahead

3 April 2006

Prime Minister Adnan Terzić said the improvements in the entire Western Balkans region had become obvious since the carrot of EU membership was held out at the Thessaloniki summit less than three years ago. Croatia and Macedonia had become candidate countries, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro had both started negotiations on Stabilisation and Association Agreements. The entire region was how enrolled in the process of European integration.

For Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2005 had been a turning point. Not only had it marked the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre and of the signing of Dayton agreement that brought peace to the country, but it was also the year when the nation’s European expectations and optimism peaked with the first contractual definition of the relationship between Bosnia-Herzegovina and the EU: “encouragement and conditions” from Brussels, and reciprocal commitments on reforms from Sarajevo.

Landmark reforms, completed far quicker than requested by the European Commission, included the establishment of a single economic space in the country, a single customs entity (instead of two departments), a state-level sales tax law and the democratisation of the intelligence services under parliamentary supervision.

In parallel, the conditions for joining the NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) programme were met by streamlining a state-level defence ministry, and the country is awaiting the PFP green light. Defence reforms continue, with the goal of securing NATO membership by 2008.

What had been happening, explained the Prime Minister, was the implementation of the country's own “alphabet code”. The Commission had started with C for consolidation, conditionality and communication. Then came the current Plan D for democracy, dialogue and debate. But Mr Terzić had opted for what he called the Triple A - “action, achievement and accountability”.

As of the start of this year, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a single VAT rate, contributing to the consolidation of a business climate which will be attractive for foreign investment. GDP growth was almost 6% in 2004 - an “absolute record” for the region and a trend which was maintained last year.

There have been judicial reforms, meeting the standards of European best practice, and the country is the first in the region to satisfy the standards required for processing war crimes through domestic courts.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is also the biggest exporter of energy in the region, with reforms leading to the creation of Energy Community of South-East Europe (ECSEE) - the first formal connection of the region with the EU, helping achieve stable economic development.

The Prime Minister also highlighted significant changes in the foreign military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina: the recently-launched “Operation Althea” involved reducing that presence to just one tenth of its size a decade ago. Mr Terzić said the mandate of this mission can be understood from its motto: “from stabilisation towards integration”.

Overall, there is agreement across the political spectrum that the key to long-term stabilisation is integration into the European family - with that 80% of Bosnia-Herzegovina supporting the prospect of EU membership.

The country does not have “Euroscepticism” as such, but one issue which could trigger it is the current visa regime. This, said Mr Terzić, was the biggest challenge: both a psychological and economic barrier for the country's people, an obstacle to the free movement of people and ideas, and a barrier to the exchange of experiences and economic cooperation and development.

What is needed urgently is a final list of standards to be fulfilled to end the visa regime altogether - but, added the Prime Minister, “we know that won’t happen overnight”.

Overall, the vision for a “European Bosnia-Herzegovina” is a nation with a single economic space, Schengen-like borders, an independent judiciary, efficient policing, internationally recognised school diplomas, a credible healthcare and social security system, a professional media and, finally, fully functional democratic institutions guaranteeing equality for all citizens.

Recent agreement on a range of constitutional changes in Bosnia-Herzegovina reflected the government’s willingness to make even more reformist political decisions which would accelerate EU accession.

The Prime Minister said his message to all Eurosceptics was that continuing EU enlargement is the key to European reconciliation, stability, development, growth and prosperity.

Encouraging and supporting the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina signalled to the Western Balkans generally that democratisation and the adoption of European standards were goals in themselves, as well as being indispensable for achieving a “common European future”.

Michael Johnson, Registrar of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said the Prime Minister had been too modest about his country’s achievements - the judicial changes made in just a few months had been nothing short of “miraculous”.

Gaining the recognition of the International Court in The Hague as having met the required standards to deal with war criminals - and in such a short time - was an extraordinary achievement. The country now had one of the best justice sectors anywhere in the world - so good that Mr Johnson predicted that Bosnia-Herzegovina's judicial leaders would soon be travelling the world showing other nations how to introduce similar reforms.