The Maastricht Journal of Politics & Economics
Bosnia and Herzegovina as an EU ‘Candidate’ – What Does That Mean?
By Winona Kamphausen
On 15 December, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was officially granted European Union candidate status by the European Council since its application in 2016. This widely welcomed new status marks a major milestone in the country’s path towards closer integration with the European Union and potential future membership. BiH still has many challenges to overcome but being an EU candidate is a step towards a brighter future, especially amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. But what exactly does it mean for BiH to be an EU candidate member?
1. Bosnia’s long Path to EU Candidacy
Bosnia and Herzegovina's path to EU candidacy has been a long and winding road associated with decades-long stagnation. The country was first considered as a potential membership candidate in 2003 for the EU. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) – a requirement for applying for membership – was initiated in 2005 and, after vetos and delays, entered into force in June 2015. This agreement outlines the steps BiH must take in order to join the EU eventually.
BiH applied for candidate membership in February 2016, following a long period of political and economic progress and reform. In order to be eligible for EU candidacy, Bosnia and Herzegovina had to demonstrate its ability to adhere to the fundamental values of the EU, such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities. This was achieved through various reforms, including constitutional changes, economic reform, anti-corruption measures, and judicial reform.
In 2019 and 2020, the EU formulated its opinion on BiH application and adopted plans to bring the Western Balkans to the EU. However, negotiations stagnated again until June 2022, when the European Council affirmed its willingness to grant the status of a candidate country together with the implementation of reforms in areas of key priorities. Several reasons come together, which made it possible for BiH to be granted candidate status. Firstly, BiH has made continuous advancements in reforming and meeting the EU’s criteria.
Additionally, perhaps more decisive is the geopolitical factor. The EU has shown interest in strengthening its European security amidst the war in Ukraine, which woke the EU up to end the stalling period and make progress in the enlargement process. It did so by granting Moldova and Ukraine candidate status (and now Bosnia and Herzegovina) and advancing with existing candidates such as Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
2. What does EU ‘Candidate’ Status Mean?
Bosnia and Herzegovina's path to EU candidacy has been a positive journey. The country has made significant progress in meeting the criteria required for EU membership and has strongly committed to the EU's fundamental values. It remains to be seen whether the country will eventually join, but the progress it has made thus far is encouraging.
Every country in Europe is eligible to apply for membership in the EU; however, certain criteria must be met. Firstly, having EU candidate status means the country can now apply for EU membership. This means that BiH can now submit an official application to join the bloc, and its citizens will be able to enjoy the benefits of being part of the European Union – likely first with restrictions until all membership criteria have been completely fulfilled – such as the free movement of people, goods, and services, as well as access to the European Single Market.
It also entails that the country must meet the membership requirements. This includes implementing the reforms necessary for meeting the Copenhagen criteria, which are the standards of democracy and human rights that the EU demands of its members. For this, the country must adopt legal and institutional reforms to meet EU standards. The move also comes with certain financial benefits through the pre-accession assistance funding, which can differ in amount and scope. This funding aims to strengthen the candidate’s rule of law, the green agenda or good governance and can benefit specific groups such as farmers, students or media organisations.
Now that BiH is an official candidate, it will potentially undergo several years-long negotiation processes involving various issues and showing its readiness to implement EU legislation to become a full member of the EU. Once negotiations are complete, the European Council must unanimously adopt Bosnian membership. If accepted, BiH will participate in the EU decision-making process and receive economic assistance and benefits.
© Euractiv, Alexandros Michailidis
3. What's Next?
The country mostly meets the Copenhagen criteria. BiH is taking steps to strengthen its democratic institutions, including improving the functioning of its legislative, executive, and judicial systems. For example, BiH has adopted a public administration reform for a comprehensive and countrywide finance management system and the improvement of professional training in state institutions.
The government is also working to improve transparency and accountability and has adopted measures to combat corruption, fight against organised crime and protect human rights; even though the country has – as of now – failed to commit to a full judicial reform leading to inadequate functioning of the legal system has continued to jeopardise citizens' enjoyment of their rights. The country is also taking steps to improve its economy, including reducing unemployment, increasing investments, and increasing financial access.
These measures will prepare Bosnia and Herzegovina for the competitive nature of the European Single Market. In addition, BiH is working on improving its infrastructure, including roads, ports, and airports. It has maintained good neighbourly relations while actively participating in regional cooperation. Finally, the Bosnian government is working to ensure that it can implement EU laws and regulations; for example, the EU stressed that alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy has made progress.
Further steps need to be taken to ensure that the country can meet the requirements of the European Single Market. In total, the fourteen key criteria need to be fulfilled does BiH want to become a member state.
Although BiH is now an EU candidate member, it still has a long way to go to become an EU member state. It has joined other countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Montenegro as candidate countries this year. When BiH and other countries are able to join, the EU is still open and will be determined by the implementation of the criteria. The EU, or more precisely several member states, have shown their renewed interest in the Western Balkans and the enlargement process this year.
During the West Balkan Summit in Berlin in November, German Chancellor Scholz declared that the Western Balkans belong to the EU and that he is very committed to welcoming them into the European family. Germany’s commitment is backed by French President Macron, who, during his EU Council Presidency, came up with a compromise to discourage Bulgaria from further blocking expansion talks with Western Balkan states, in this case especially North Macedonia.
This shows how the EU member states renewed commitment and willingness to compromise, which gives hope that the stalling period of enlargement is at an end, also as a geopolitical signal towards Russia. Nevertheless, being an EU member will only magically solve some of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s problems, and it needs further development to become a member state.
Sources: Reuters, European Commission, NATO, Die Bundesregierung, Euractiv
Written by Winona Kamphausen