Will Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidate status be sufficient motivation for the authorities to seriously begin working on European integration?

Author: Denis Čarkadžić

In mid-December last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was granted candidate status for membership in the European Union (EU). Emphasising the “current geopolitical context”, the Council of the EU underlined in their decision the urgency for BiH to move forward on the EU path, primarily by fulfilling the 14 key priorities for opening EU accession negotiations that have been identified in the European Commission’s Opinion on BiH’s application for membership of the EU.

Prior to this, the recommendation of the European Commission in the BiH 2022 Report singled out 8 of the previous 14 key priorities to be implemented without delay.

The “priority” priorities are adopting amendments to the Law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) and adopting new legislation on the HJPC, adopting new legislation on conflict of interest, and taking decisive steps to strengthen the prevention and fight against corruption and organised crime. Furthermore, BiH is asked to urgently improve the work on ensuring effective coordination, at all levels, of border management and migration management capacity, as well as the functioning of the asylum system, and prohibiting torture while designating a national preventive mechanism against torture and ill-treatment. The list further includes guaranteeing freedom of expression and the media and the protection of journalists, but also ensuring a track record in the functioning at all levels of the coordination mechanism on EU matters including by adopting a national programme for the adoption of the EU acquis.

The aforementioned eight priorities are the task of the state level, mainly its legislative component, but also, in part, the executive. However, despite the fact that six months have passed since BiH’s candidate status, and more than four since the appointment of the new Council of Ministers, there are still no concrete results.

On the other hand, as in previous years and mandates, there are promises. One such promise was given in mid-May this year by the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH, Denis Zvizdić, who confirmed that tentative dynamics for the adoption of the laws pertaining to the eight priorities is in place and that their adoption is expected by August this year.

The BiH 2023 Report will be published in the fall of this year, as stressed by Edin Dilberović, the current director of the Directorate for European Integration (DEI), in one of his recent media appearances; according to him, it is crucial to make some changes in BiH by that time. As Dilberović said, the European integration process in BiH is very broad and all levels of government have their share of work. According to him, “the momentum and the energy to move things forward are evident” and he believes that BiH is heading in the right direction for now.

Although DEI, together with the BiH Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organised on 24 May 2023 in Sarajevo the closing event of our country’s one-year chairmanship of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative – the EU Strategy for the Adriatic-Ionian Region (EUSAIR) Forum and the annual meeting of the Council of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (AII) at the level of foreign ministers – it is difficult to escape the impression that over the past few years the role of DEI in the reform processes has been minimised.

Why this is so is a question for decision-makers in BiH, but also for the DEI management. It is noteworthy that the public vacancy call for the leading civil servant in DEI of the BiH Council of Ministers was open until 27 April 2023 and that we still do not known who will take over the duties of Director once the recruitment procedure is finalised.

In any case, the state apparatus of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a serious job ahead of it, and the public in our country rightly expects some positive assessments to be finally presented in the report on BiH progress on the EU path. Especially because the next report will be the first report on Bosnia and Herzegovina as a candidate for membership, carrying special importance and weight.

A lot of work is to be done at the entity level as well

When it comes to the reforms that our country needs to implement under the European integration framework, the public usually focuses on the part the state level is tasked with. Although it indeed includes the key steps and processes, the entity level also has its own tasks. However, things are not moving as fast as they should at that level either.

More precisely, they are stalling and many laws, for example, in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), remain “stuck” in complicated parliamentary procedures for years, waiting for some other majorities or governments to see the light of day. There are many examples, one of the most famous being the FBiH Law on Conflict of Interest, which is inconsistent with European rules because, among other things, the commission responsible for implementing the law is made up of members of the FBiH Parliament, with a similar legal solution applied in the Republika Srpska as well.

The adoption of the law on the protection of whistle-blowers is also a priority law for BiH’s approximation to the EU, and it only “managed to reach” the form of proposal in August last year, by the now former FBiH Government led by Fadil Novalić. Furthermore, more than eight years have passed since the adoption of the FBiH Law on Combating Corruption and Organised Crime, and it is still not applied because the necessary departments within the FBiH Prosecutor’s Office have not been established or capacitated.

Judging by the announcements, the draft FBiH Law on Public Assembly may be withdrawn, and new solutions proposed by it, while the draft FBiH Law on the Protection of Civilian Victim of War, adopted in 2022, is full of shortcomings, as pointed out by civil society organisations.

As for the draft Law on Amendments to the FBiH Criminal Code, the BiH Institution of the Human Rights Ombudsmen informed the public in their media release at the end of 2022 that the FBiH Ministry of Justice informed them at the beginning of October that “the activities are underway of the Working Group of the FBiH Ministry of Justice preparing the draft Law on Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that these amendments will harmonise the criminal legislation of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the provisions of the Lanzarote Convention and the Istanbul Convention”.

The Law on Uniform Principles and the Framework of Material Support for Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the FBiH Government in October 2022 as a draft and submitted to the parliamentary procedure, is awaiting adoption by the FBiH Parliament.

After the expert discussion held in December 2022, the FBiH Same-Sex Partnership Law is also far from being adopted, pending FBiH Ministry of Justice’s preparation of the draft and its submission to parliamentary procedure. This list is not exhaustive, clearly showing that the new convocation of the FBiH Government, as well as the new majority in the FBiH Parliament, have serious work ahead of them that has been waiting too long to be completed.

It has been a month and a half since the appointment of the new FBiH Government; only the 3rd regular session of the House of Representatives of the FBiH Parliament – as stated on the official website of the legislative body – should be held on 21 June 2023. The proposed agenda does not include any of the aforementioned legislative acts – apparently, the adoption of European standards at the entity level will have to wait.

Meanwhile, BiH citizens, running out of waiting time, increasingly fulfil their desire to live in regulated democratic societies by leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina for the EU.

The views expressed in this text do not necessarily reflect the views of the Initiative for Monitoring European Integration’s members or the Initiative itself.