Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, head of the European Union (EU) delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), on Wednesday delivered here the European Commission’s opinion on the country’s membership application.
The opinion stated that BiH is overall at an early stage regarding its level of preparedness to take on the obligations of EU membership and needs to significantly step up the process to align with the EU acquis and implement and enforce related legislation.
“Thank you for joining us here today for this landmark occasion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path to the European Union. As of today EU-BiH relations enter a new and more intensive phase”, Wigemark said.
Four years ago the Stabilisation and Association Agreement entered into force as a result of a written commitment endorsed by the Presidency, the Parliament all major political parties to work jointly towards EU integration. Three years ago Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership in the European Union. And in February this year the country finally completed the answers to the European Commission’s extensive set of questions.
The European Commission’s Opinion on BiH’s EU membership application for the first time provides a comprehensive road map for BiH to join the European Union.
“It confirms that BiH could join the European Union and outlines the steps necessary to open up negotiations for accession. The EU stands ready to support BiH to make this happen.
But for BiH to meet the political and economic criteria necessary for EU membership a clear commitment and willingness to undertake fundamental change at all levels of society is required. It is not enough to pay lip service and talk about what needs to be done. Concrete actions and change is necessary”, Wigemark explained and added “Based on the answers to almost 4,000 questions posed by the Commission as well as many other sources of information, including assessments by experts from all 28 Member States through so-called peer reviews, the Opinion includes an in depth analysis (the analytical report) consisting of more than 170 pages of the extent to which BiH presently meets EU standards. And I would encourage anyone seriously interested in understanding integration with the EU and what needs to be done by BiH to join the EU to read the Opinion, including the analytical report.”
The Opinion covers the main areas of the European integration process; that is, political criteria, economic criteria and the ability to assume obligations of EU membership (Copenhagen criteria).
The European Commission considers that accession negotiations with the EU should be opened with BiH once it has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria. Any final decision as to when to open negotiations will be taken by the EU Member States.
In this regard specific 14 priorities are identified in the areas of Democracy and Functionality; Rule of Law; Fundamental Rights and Public Administration Reform.
Let me highlight several of these priorities: Above all, progress in the rule of law is a must!
“BiH needs to improve the functioning of the judiciary; BiH citizens deserve a fully independent and professional justice system that can work effectively. This includes more effective cooperation among law enforcement bodies and between police and prosecutors offices, Rule of law also means to fight corruption and organised crime in a systematic way. A track record – not only of indictments but also of convictions – in high level cases of corruption and organised crime will be one of the benchmarks used to evaluate the effectiveness of the judiciary
Perpetrators need to be brought to justice irrespective of who they are or what function they hold. BiH citizens reporting corruption cases should be protected through improvements in whistle-blowers protection and conflict of interest legislation.
Anti-corruption bodies will have to be strengthened and legislation on public procurement needs to be fully aligned with EU standards.
In general, public administration in BiH needs to become more professional and depoliticised. Political parties and their representatives should not be involved in public administration.
To this end, many public enterprises will need to be de-politicized and restructured. And any privatization of publicly owned enterprises needs to be transparent”, Wigemark said.
The very first priority in the Opinion stresses that elections must be carried out respecting the same standards as in EU Member States. Local elections in Mostar will need to be take place and political party financing needs to be regulated.
To this end, citizenship rights must be ensured, meaning that any citizen, irrespective of his or her ethnic background or affiliation to a group, has the right to vote and be elected.
Equality and non-discrimination of all citizens must furthermore be guaranteed, including by implementing the Sejdic-Finci case law.
Freedom of the media and the protection of journalists are non-negotiable. BiH authorities need to guarantee safety and security of all media representatives and swiftly follow up on any threats and violence against media.
Likewise, vulnerable groups across the country such as people with disabilities, minorities or refugees and returnees deserve the protection and assistance they need from BiH authorities. In general the social dimension of EU policies will have to be adopted also by BiH. This includes improvements in the quality of health care, education and special assistance to those in need.
In this respect much more most also be done to promote equal rights for women in BiH, who are today filling the gap left by inadequate service delivery. I had a meeting this morning with a new Women’s Advisory Board representing all women in BiH and we agree that “there can be no EU integration without women’s participation!”
For civil society freedom of association and freedom of assembly needs to upheld. Nobody should fear to express their views in public in an orderly manner.
In terms of functionality, the coordination mechanism on EU matters needs to be strengthened at all levels, including by holding regular meetings between State and Entity Ministers. Coordination between local governments, in particular between Cantons, needs to improve in order to the requirements of EU integration. Many EU standards are implemented at local levels and municipalities need to have better capacity and the financial means to provide social services to citizens.
Moreover, a national program for the adoption of all EU acquis needs to be developed as a matter of priority.
The joint parliamentary committee between the European Parliament and the BiH Parliament must become fully operational.
To improve the functioning of the institutional framework of BiH there needs to be legal certainty on the distribution of competencies across different levels of government.
Moreover to provide legal certainty and before joining the EU, BiH will need to adopt a substitution clause allowing the State to temporarily exercise competencies of other levels of government in case they are in breach of EU law.
The Constitutional Court will need to be reformed, including addressing the issue of international judges. All judgements of the Constitutional Court will have to be implemented.
Finally, the Commission recommends that further socio-economic reforms are adopted by BiH in line with the general economic reforms agreed by all EU Member States.
The Opinion will now be forwarded to the 28 Member States of the European Union for their consideration, a process that is likely to take some time. The Commission recommends that Member States discuss the Opinion once governments at all levels in BiH have been formed.
In the meantime, it is essential that BiH demonstrates an ability to handle EU requirements. And those requirements cover all areas addressed in the Opinion, not only the 14 major priorities.
The transformation needed for BiH to join the European Union will not be automatic. It remains a matter of choice, demanding many steps and decisions. It requires political will and genuine commitment from all segments of society.
The speed of the process will be determined by how quickly Bosnia and Herzegovina is able to adjust and start to implement EU rules, standards and regulations.
“Nothing can replace the hard work and heavy lifting by political leaders and civil servants necessary to change conditions that are not in line with EU principles and standards. Civil society, including the business community, non-governmental organizations and media will need to engage much more than has so far been the case”, he concluded.
The EU is here to assist BiH throughout this process! With the Opinion as guidance, the EU will continue its support to BiH. We have allocated more than EUR 180 million as financial assistance for 2019-2020.