External Publications

June 27, 2014

What Sarajevo means for Europe, 100 years later

Cornelius Adebahr warns that the EU must tread carefully as it seeks to continue its enlargement process

1914 is far away in a country with enough current problems of its own – from social unrest to political deadlock to the recent floods. Unlike then, when the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire set off the first World War, today there is no similar bone of contention between Belgrade and Vienna.


While the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina receives friendly investments from Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and other Gulf states, it is more of a pain in the neck of policymakers from Brussels to Berlin. The only invasion of sorts that could be registered during a recent visit there are government officials – especially from France – that help preparing the festivities of the centenaire.

Nearly two decades after the 1995 Dayton Agreement ended the first set of wars in former Yugoslavia, the Bosnian state remains dysfunctional. Political power is interwoven with local and international criminal networks, and there is no uniting Bosnian identity next to residual Croat and Serbian allegiances. 80% of its youth would leave the country if they could. This situation contrasts in especially stark terms with neighbouring Croatia, a country that also suffered from war during the first half of the 1990s but last year succeeded in its application for EU membership. The comparison is equally striking when thinking of Western Europe in the mid-1960s, roughly twenty years after the even more devastating Second World War had ended. Former enemies such as France and Germany had already co-founded the European Communities, working together to rebuild the continent. Nothing of that sort is visible in the Western Balkans, where each country is focused on its individual progress to what is now the European Union.

What is more, the EU – very often as short hand for the broader ‘international community’ – is put in an all-powerful position, being regarded as saviour and scapegoat at once. Nothing comes about, the accepted wisdom goes, without the EU pushing (hard) for results – witness the success of the Serbia-Kosovo talks which needed constant pressure to advance. At the same time, Europeans would surely like to see more local ownership but are loath to really let go the reins lest things worsen beyond the point of quick repair.

More concretely, it is the lack of any (organised) civil society worthy its name that has been identified as Bosnia-Herzegovina’s most crucial problem. Twenty years of political guidance and economic assistance have not overcome this deficiency, or indeed even contributed to it, as some would argue: How should politicians and citizens alike behave responsibly when there is always someone else to blame for one’s ills? This highly imperfect arrangement leaves national elites largely unaccountable, and has the ‘internationals’ eternally hope for a better government after the next elections. So far, these hopes have regularly been disappointed, and the upcoming polls in October are likely to make no difference either.

To make things worse, if there is a general ‘enlargement fatigue’ in the EU, then there is also an acute ‘Bosnia fed-up’ among Westerners who actually care about the country. They miss the will of the people to take matters from them into their own hands. The few Bosnians who would do just that, in contrast, are frustrated by their fellow citizens’ apathy who keep electing the same set of incompetent and corrupt politicians as well as by Western politicians’ lack of a strategy for how to deal with Bosnia.

This points to the crux of the matter from an EU’s point of view: While the long-term perspective on how it has stabilised the Western Balkans is likely to be positive (especially compared to other crisis regions in the world), it has become obvious that its enlargement policy – and by extension also its neighbourhood policy – is insufficient to deal with the challenges it faces. Indeed, more than ten years of a formal ‘association process’ with the countries have shown that it is mainly a fair weather policy apt for functioning states with a clear reform commitment. That’s why only Croatia has so far managed to join the club, while others are held back by disputes over their constitutional order (Bosnia-Herzegovina), their very name (Macedonia), or their international status (Kosovo). The EU still lacks a policy to overcome hard interests conflicts that cannot be wished away simply by the granting or withholding of economic benefits.

Still, Sarajevo today is not the city from 100 years ago. These days, Slovyansk in Eastern Ukraine risks more to provide the spark for a continent-wide conflict than the sleepy city surrounded by skiable mountains. The EU would do well to develop the tools to deal with all kinds of threats in its immediate neighbourhood, be it latent deterioration or violent disintegration.

Bibliographic data

Global Policy, June 26, 2014

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