Bosnia granted 'candidate status' for EU membership

European Commission outlines 14 priorities Bosnia must meet before next round of negotiations

European Council President Charles Michel after the EU leaders' summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday. EPA
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EU leaders agreed on Thursday to offer Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status to join the block, putting the volatile Balkan nation at the start of a long road to membership.

After years of stasis and the war in Ukraine, the EU has become more willing to consider admitting more of its eastern neighbours.

Bosnia is now the third country after conflict-ravaged Ukraine and Moldova to be granted candidate status in the past six months.

The EU is concerned that powers such as Russia or China might spread their influence into the Balkans if countries hopeful of joining the bloc are thwarted.

EU leaders gave their approval for Bosnia to become a membership candidate at a summit in Brussels.

European Council President Charles Michel called the step "a strong signal to the people, but also a clear expectation for the new authorities to deliver on reforms".

"The future of the Western Balkans is in the EU," Mr Michel wrote on Twitter.

There have been long-standing concerns over the political situation in Bosnia, a country of three million people burdened with ethnic divisions since its devastating war three decades ago.

It remains partitioned between a Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation connected by a weak central government.

It has a dysfunctional administrative system created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the conflict in the 1990s but largely failed to provide a framework for the country's political development.

The EU's executive branch, the European Commission, has laid out 14 priorities for reform it insists Bosnia must make before it can move on to the next stage of opening formal accession negotiations.

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The Bosnian member of the country's tripartite presidency, Denis Becirovic, said the decision was an "an opportunity we must not miss".

"The authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina must take advantage of this hand extended by Brussels to speed up the country's march towards full EU membership," Mr Becirovic said.

The EU has complained that an internal stand-off caused by Bosnia's Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, has led to "virtual paralysis" in the reform process in recent times.

There are also concerns over calls by Serb leaders for closer ties with Russia, and the entity's nationalist President Milorad Dodik has vowed to stall the push towards the EU if it means more centralisation of power in Bosnia.

Mr Dodik welcomed the EU's decision while deriding the bloc for "wasting 20 years with empty stories".

"It is time for the EU and us in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the entities to finalise this process together and as partners," he wrote in an internet post.

Bosnia joins seven other nations with candidate status: Turkey, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Moldova and Ukraine.

The process to join the EU can take many years as candidates introduce reforms that have to be rigorously evaluated by Brussels.

It can also grind to a halt, as is the case with Turkey's bid.

Bosnia's candidacy was accepted as Kosovo on Thursday became the latest country to apply for membership in the bloc when it formally lodged an application to join.

Kosovo, which has fractious ties with Serbia, faces a particularly hard path on its quest to get into the bloc.

Pristina declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade, along with its key allies Russia and China, still considers it a part of Serbia.

Five members of the EU — Greece, Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus — do not recognise Kosovo as an independent country.

Updated: December 16, 2022, 12:57 AM
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