European leaders advise Bosnia to accelerate reforms for EU membership talks

  • The European Commission has advised Bosnia to continue with reforms and pursue accession negotiations with the European Union before a parliamentary vote in June.
  • Bosnia was granted candidate status in 2022, and negotiations can start once the required compliance level is achieved.
  • The European Union is offering a $6.4 billion package for Western Balkan countries to encourage reform.

The European Commission chief and the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Croatia told Bosnia on Tuesday to press on with reforms and seize a chance to begin accession negotiations with the European Union before the 27-nation block holds a parliamentary vote in June.

The three officials said at a news conference in Sarajevo that while Bosnia has made progress in achieving the criteria to formally start the talks, the troubled Balkan nation must do more to win a positive recommendation in March from the European Commission.

“We have seen some progress, we have seen a real commitment to the accession goal with important laws adopted,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. “And the more you deliver, the more convincing you are and the better it is, the more you help me to produce a report that reflects this movement forward.”

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Bosnia was granted candidate status in 2022 and the European Council said last year that the accession negotiations can start once the necessary degree of compliance is achieved. There will be “no shortcuts” for Bosnia, said Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

Borjana Kristo speaks

The President of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Borjana Kristo, speaks during a joint press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Jan. 23, 2024. European leaders have told Bosnia to press on with reforms and seize a chance to begin accession negotiations with the EU before the parliamentary vote in June. (AP Photo/Armin Durgut)

“EU accession has to be and always will be a merit-based process,” Rutte said. “Unfortunately, at the moment … we have to see what happens in the next six weeks.”

Bosnia is among the six Western Balkan nations that have been seeking EU entry following a period of wars and crisis in the 1990s. The process was stalled for years but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled the prospects. EU officials are now offering a $6.4 billion package for Western Balkan countries to encourage reform.

“It’s a huge opportunity to increase the prosperity of this country,” von der Leyen said. Bosnia, she said, could expect 1 billion euros in funds from the package when it carries out necessary economic reforms.

Reform laws that Bosnia still needs to pass to begin the accession talks relate to fighting corruption and money laundering, judicial reform and the rule of law. Bosnian Prime Minister Bojana Kristo promised “we will remain focused and work hard” to achieve the goals.

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Bosnia is still ethnically divided and politically unstable long after the 1992-95 war that left more than 100,000 people dead and displaced millions. Pro-Russian Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has repeatedly threatened secession of the Serb-run half of the country from the rest of Bosnia.

Western officials fear that Russia could try to stir instability in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans to divert attention from its attacks on Ukraine. They have said that stepping up the bloc’s engagement with Western Balkans nations is more crucial than ever to maintaining European security.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic urged Bosnia to grasp what he said were “tectonic” changes in EU policies because of Ukraine. He warned that “if we miss March, the whole year will be lost” because of the expected vote for the European Parliament on June 6-9.

“My message, my appeal to all our friends and partners, is to use this opportunity, this window that has been opened,” he said.

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