When it comes to the EU credentials of two countries of the former Yugoslavia, the New Year must appear to have started on a positive note, with a visit by the top EU official charged with overseeing future enlargement of the 28-member bloc. European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn was in Montenegro on Sunday and concluded his mini tour of the region by visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on Monday (9 January), writes Martin Banks.
Hahn reiterated the commitment of the European Union to support the country’s EU perspective.
But is such an apparently optimistic outlook really merited?
It is a pertinent question given the very questionable progress, or lack of it, made by both countries towards meeting the requirements for becoming the next members of the EU club.
Take, for example, Bosnia, the weakest state in the region, where both Serbs and Croats are mounting a concerted challenge to the Dayton peace accords, the delicate set of compromises that hold the country together.
Ethnic and political divisions in BiH deepened throughout 2016 as the country struggled to cope with continued political deadlocks as well as a number of controversial events, such as the illegal referendum held in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, as well as several high-profile war-crimes trials and arrests.
Bosnia, 20 years since the end of the bitter Balkans war, remains politically and ethnically divided country, with an equally divided media, in which all three ethnic groups have problems facing war crimes committed by their own members.
Even so, the European Union’s 28 member pledged in September to accept the membership application submitted by BiH back in February 2016. The avis, as it is known in EU jargon, will reflect the extent to which BiH succeeds in implementing much-needed reforms, especially in the area of rule of law and public administration.
On Monday, a European Commission spokesman said the results of last October’s local elections and of the referendum in Republika Srpska “serve as powerful reminders” of the potential traps still looming on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU track. There are, according to international High Representative Valentin Inzko, the peace envoy for Bosnia, also concerns that separatists pushing to split up Bosnia along ethnic lines could endanger its bid to join the EU and force international powers to intervene. He said: “We have on one side integration into Europe and at the same time disintegration at home.”
For BiH, several fundamental questions remain, including: How does Bosnia and Herzegovina plan to address on-going institutional and political dilemmas? What role should the EU and other international actors play in assisting the country advance towards accession?
The picture is hardly much brighter in neighbouring Montenegro where EU commissioner Hahn met the newly appointed PM Dusko Markovic and leaders of opposition parties at the weekend.
This, it should be recalled, is the same Montenegro where on last year’s election day access to two popular mobile messaging apps was shut down. As well as the temporary discontinuation of mobile phone messaging services, the autumn’s parliamentary election was marred by an atmosphere of instability and fear partly stemming from allegations of an attempted coup. Multiple electoral irregularities were reported (ballot stuffing, threats, physical abuse), leading the opposition to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the new government. Leaders from the Democratic Front even travelled to Germany to drum up support for their cause, meeting with Ditmar Nitan, the Bundestag’s rapporteur for Montenegro. Nitan expressed his deep concern at the situation in the country and bemoaned the treatment of the opposition in the elections.
Montenegro was the smallest republic of the former Yugoslavia (SFRY) and became an independent state only ten years ago. A constant feature of the country’s elections has been Milo Dukanovic, former prime minister and the leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and undoubtedly Montenegro’s most influential politician. He has been in power for the past 27 years, alternating between the post of prime minister and president. Following the October elections, Dukanovic stepped down in favour of his closest ally, Dusko Markovic, a former intelligence chief. Many expect Dukanovic to stage a comeback – as he did many times in the past – and run for president in 2018.
However, Srda Pavlovic argues that the post-election endorsement of Dukanovic by the EU and US is exacerbating distrust in western institutions among Montenegro’s civil society. Pavlovic who teaches modern European and Balkan history at the University of Alberta, said: “What we are witnessing in Montenegro is the slow build-up to a dangerous political, institutional, and parliamentary crisis. The congratulatory messages about “the democratic character of the election process” which came from Brussels (Johannes Hahn and Federica Mogherini) and from the US Embassy to Montenegro do nothing to disperse the view, increasingly rooted among opposition politicians and civil society, that the West is complicit in the highly dubious ruling methods adopted by Dukanovic and his party.”
Elsewhere, a report discussed only last month by the European Parliament’s influential Budgetary Control Committee revealed that the European Commission has wasted significant sums of money on fruitless projects in Montenegro. The document showed the Commission spent €640,000 on ‘anti-corruption’ projects, including an IT system the Montenegro authorities didn’t even use. In addition, €180,000 was spent on a year-long scheme collecting environmental data, which the authorities in Montenegro never used. Jayne Adye, director of cross-party Eurosceptic group Get Britain Out, said: “Time and time again the EU throws good money after bad. Notoriously corrupt Montenegro clearly has no intention of fixing its corruption issues, so why does the EU continue to funnel money to them?”
Her concerns are shared by the EPP group in the Parliament which reminded both BiH and Montenegro that the enlargement process requires “long-lasting commitment” from their side.
Sandra Kalniete, an MEP from Latvia and EPP group spokesman for foreign affairs, and Cristian Preda, a Romanian MEP, encouraged both countries to “deliver better on their commitments”, especially the observation of the rule of law. Kalniete said in November: “EU enlargement is and will be a long-lasting process requiring strong political commitment by the candidates and their ability to establish good neighbourly relations and to enhance regional cooperation instead of merely competing with each other.”
The EU, France and Germany have told leaders from both countries that the UK’s exit from the EU would not stop aspirant countries from one day joining the fractured bloc
But, clearly, the goal of EU membership for Montenegro and, in particular BiH, remains a very long way off yet.