In an interview for European Western Balkans Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, talked about steps and challenges that await BiH on it’s EU path after Council for General Affairs of EU accepted BiH’s application for membership and political and enomic situation in general.
Ambassador Wigemark, the local elections are behind us. You followed the elections, visited a polling station in Sarajevo. Although reactions of observers were generally positive, we have the example of Stolac, where happened the suspension of the electoral process, and there are talks about irregularities in Srebrenica as well. How do you comment on that?
As far as Stolac is concerned, we regret the violence and the incidents there. It’s very important now to, first of all, have any criminal behavior investigated, and there is a police investigation ongoing. We need to allow the police and any other legal or judicial actor to play their role without any interference. People obviously cannot take the law in their own hands. This is not just in terms of the elections. Secondly, it’s very important that Central election commission can also consider this, and hopefully reach a decision. I think they have already decided not to hold any rerun of the elections in Srebrenica and Bijeljina. That’s their decision. We respect that, and we support the CEC. We think they are trying to work according to international standards.
We did observe the elections here, but this was not an official election observation, the way we observed, for instance, the last national elections in 2014. It was more to support the whole democratic process. And I did have colleagues, two of them, who were in Stolac. So we do have some firsthand information on what happened. Clearly, the situation was very emotional, and heated. I think that the facts must prevail. I would say let’s try to see this, hopefully, as an isolated incident, and not make it into something more than it is. It’s clearly a serious incident, and needs to be treated as such. But it should not be blown out of proportion. Because, in general, the elections went well, in general it was smooth. There were some irregularities. We also support “Pod lupom”, the network of six NGOs. We have worked with them for several years now. We support them as an independent civil society network, and we do this in other countries as well. I went to see “Pod lupom” headquarters here in Sarajevo on the elections day, when they were receiving reports from all over the country. I think there were a total of 3.000 observers. These are citizens who are interested, including many young people. I think this is very important, very positive, that people involve themselves, and that elections are not just something for party machinery because you have some very strong political parties that are closely linked and use their role when they are in power, in terms of coverage of media issues. Public media are too often used by certain parties and political leaders to promote their own policies. There is a word for that – propaganda.
And as far as Srebrenica, it’s important that whoever is mayor, whoever is in the city council, in such a sensitive municipality as Srebrenica, must represent all of the citizens and all of the people in Srebrenica. Srebrenica will always be watched, not just by the people in Srebrenica, but by the people in BiH and by the rest of the world, because of what happened there. I think some other statements from the mayor elect there so far are positive, that he sees his role as representing all of the people of Srebrenica. This includes organization of important events, like 11 July commemoration and so on. But in no way should the mayor or anyone else elected, try to change the narrative of what we know for a fact happened there.
Parties that support Duraković fear, not only about 11 July commemoration, but about the status of Bosniaks in Srebrenica, if Grujičić wins. What do you think about that?
Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and on the basis of nationality, on the basis of gender, for us is unacceptable. I can assure you that, as European Union, we will be following this very closely, we will be following what the new mayor and his associates, the parties that seem to have gained the most votes, what they will do. But once you are elected to office, you have to represent all the constituents, all the people. So if there is any indication that they would start to discriminate against Bosniaks in Srebrenica, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, but in particular in Srebrenica, I think the spotlight will be on Srebrenica. I hope they understand this.
Case of Stolac produces even more issues. How do you comment the visit of the Croatian delegation to Stolac?
We have been told by our Croatian colleagues here in Sarajevo that this visit was in order to calm down the situation, in no way was it to increase tensions. I think it’s very important that this issue is left to, if not to the local authorities, but to the institutions of this country to resolve. First of all, elections should be left to the Central election commission. If there are any illegal acts, any physical assaults, as it has been alleged, then there are legal mechanisms to deal with that.
We, as European Union, will not interfere in this local issue. I think it’s very important that elections are held in Stolac as soon as possible. This should not be an excuse to make Stolac another Mostar.
People’s, national parties again received the most votes. How will this affect the further development of BiH?
I think now is the time to try to get back. Back to basics, back to business and, first of all, focus on the reforms that have been started over the past year through the Reform Agenda. This is still unfinished business. A number of important decisions were made, a number of important new laws were passed, and others have been amended. That work needs to continue. That is more important than anything else.
Secondly, we have the EU track, the Questionnaire that Bosnia and Herzegovina will receive, I think, by the end of November or early December at the latest, and which will involve a lot of work for the administration here at all levels. I hope there will be a joint effort, that the new coordination mechanism can be used whenever it’s needed, to find common positions and answers. This will be a process that will be useful for BiH. It’s not a one time off thing that you just fill in. It’s a process where we as European Union, in this case European Commission first of all, tries to understand better the situation here.
Third, and perhaps the most difficult is that despite some of this very strong rhetoric, and despite the reemergence of nationalism or ethno politics before the elections, that reason will prevail, that political leaders – and I speak of all sides – know that they can resolve problems only through dialogue, only by working together… This is a small country, with lots of potential resources, with lots of people willing to work hard, to stay in this country, people that would like to see a positive future. Political leaders have a responsibility towards the people who elected them. They have the responsibility to look after the interest of everyone. So I sincerely hope that some of the contentious issues, not just before elections, but others, can be resolved.
Next year you don’t have any elections, then in 2018 you will again have one. I know a year ago there was quite a long and important discussion about trying to change the cycle. I think there is a lot of sense to try to do that. But even if it’s not possible in the short term, the elections cannot interfere with work. I was surprised how much energy was wasted on these local elections. Much of the debate was not focused really on local issues. I think that now after elections are over politicians should look for opportunities to find solutions instead of exaggerating any disagreement, any problem they may have.
It is obvious that the international community let the political officials in BiH to agree on further reforms necessary for the country’s development, and its path towards the EU. However, due to the inability to achieve certain political agreements the EU adopted a new approach towards BiH that puts economic reforms on the first place. Political issues, however, will have to come to the agenda sometimes, and in the very conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council was remarked the necessity of implementation of the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights in the case “Sejdić-Finci”. Do you think BiH, that is, its government, is able to confront and overcome contentious political issues, especially to reach an agreement on constitutional reforms? Can we expect more direct involvement of the EU regarding this?
We are not only focusing on economic and social reforms. When we talk about this it is also clear to us that these reforms have to be undertaken by the institutions, by the political actors in the country. It’s not something we can impose on you. At the same time it is clear that without some of these economic reforms new, good jobs will not be created. Going back, it is sometimes good to remind why something was done. These reforms came out of the so-called ‘Compact for growth and jobs’ which was a direct response to the demonstrations, the riots that took place here in February 2014. That’s only two and a half years ago. I think a lot has happened in that period of time.
Again, we are not here to meddle in your politics. We can only say what we, as EU, need BiH to do in order to meet our criteria. We were very clear about this, over the past year and a half. We established three basic conditions or criteria. One was the Reform Agenda, another one was the adaptation of SAA, the third one was the coordination mechanism. Now we are moving into this new phase of trying to define in much more detail what BiH needs to do in order to meet EU standards, to become a candidate for membership.
Real change can only take place when it comes from within. I think it is clear to everyone living in this country and everyone coming as an outsider that you need change. What does this mean? I think one has to be realistic here, and I would say it’s a step by step approach. So far, I think this has been quite successful in the sense that you take a step, and then we evaluate it, and say ok, or not so good, you need to do this. And then we say ‘let’s go to the next issue’, rather than trying to do everything all at once. The fact that we emphasize the economics and social reforms so much is really a response to the very high unemployment here, the lack of economic prospects, people leaving the country. It wasn’t really anything having to do with your Constitution or politics in general, although I would say there was a great disillusionment with politics. The political agenda was not really responding to people’s demands. What people still want are better jobs, better conditions in terms of health care, education, local security.
Earlier representatives of the EU and other international organizations reported about “impressive progress” of BiH. This primarily related to the implementation of the Reform Agenda. However, according to the report of Bosnian NGO Centers for Civic Initiatives from May this year only 34 percent of measures from the Reform Agenda have been implemented. Specifically, 58 out of 172 measures. The fact that is perhaps more worrying is the failure to implement the most important reforms. Thus, measures for reducing contributions, improving the business environment and the stabilization of pension and health funds were never put on the agenda. In these circumstances, and let’s add political issues we discussed earlier, can we actually talk about real progress?
We have used the term “meaningful” in the Council conclusions. I don’t think we can talk only about European Union here, because the IMF actually has gone further than we have, and in their new programme, said that the Reform Agenda, and the reforms undertaken so far, after only a year, is the most significant set of the reforms in modern history of BiH, in the past 20 years.
The World Bank is very close to reaching an agreement. They are also rather positive in terms of the economic growth that has picked up undeniably over the past year and they project, that provided there is a continued momentum of reforms, around 4 percent growth for the next three to four years. Which is higher than any of the neighboring countries. So your country is growing faster than any other in this region. I want to dispel the idea that it’s just the European Union that thinks so, and that we think so because we want to give a positive evaluation of what is happening here.
In respect to these numbers, I think you cannot measure this in percentages, in terms of number of reforms. It’s not about percentages, it’s about the quality of reforms and the kind of reforms you are taking. The Labor Laws were very difficult, but these decisions were taken. And they were very important in terms of making more and more flexible labor market. But it’s still unfinished business. You still need to reduce the tax on labor. That’s why the excise tax is so important, because you need to shift the tax burden from labor, from the employer having to pay percentages on top of the salary. There was an agreement, there was an understanding when Reform Agenda was discussed between the state and the entities, that there should be an increase on excise taxes on alcohol, alcoholic beverages, tobacco and fuel. In respect to pension funds, I don’t frankly understand when someone says nothing has happened. There is a very comprehensive proposal on the table that has been adopted, I believe, by FBiH Government. It may still be in the Parliament. But the problem with the FBiH Parliament, in the sense that they haven’t meet for two months, is not something you really can pin on the EU or even FBiH Government. And certainly not on the authorities in Banjaluka or on the Council of Ministers. I see this again as a problem that is linked more to this balance of power between certain political forces, in particular, SDA (Party of Democratic Action), HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) BiH. They need to sort it out. Because it does slow down the reforms. In terms of business climate, I think a number of new laws have been approved, but they now also need to be tested. There is a new law on insolvency for instance, on bankruptcy as well.
In general, I would say that potential investors in companies, both inside and outside of this country, have noticed that something positive is going on here. Sometimes I feel like a lot of people in this country don’t want to see any improvement. I understand that an ordinary person does not see any change in his or her life. It’s very important that the next steps of these reforms focus on improving ordinary peoples’ living conditions.
Finally, the Reform Agenda is a three year program. And we are now into 15 months or so. So, we have passed little more than one third. So actually, if someone says 34 percent, I would say then you are right on target. At the same time some of the most difficult reforms were taken upfront, in particular the Labor Law. I think the next set of reforms needs to follow up on business climate. But we also need to focus on the questions related to pension reform, on conditions for creating new jobs. And there are too many people employed in public sector, we all know that, and of course, there has to be alternative for them or re-training. In particular, private sector has to be given space to grow.
SNSD (Alliance of independent social-democrats) is the absolute winner in Republika Srpska. Many attribute this to the referendum on the day of RS held only seven days before the elections. The BiH public is generally skeptical of the international community, including the EU, when it comes to guarding “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of BiH” and is afraid of new divisions and even new conflicts. What is your view on the held referendum, and the role of the international community, in particular the EU, to prevent it, given that the public generally expected the international response?
We said from the very beginning, the referendum itself was, first of all, not necessary. And, more importantly, it was also illegal in the sense of putting into question the decisions of the Constitutional court. The respect for the Constitutional court decisions in this country is not consistent, to put it mildly. Yes, there are thousands of decisions, but there are at least 80 or 90 decisions that have not been implemented. There is a tendency to put more controversial questions, questions that are more political in nature, and where political solution is needed. We think dialogue must be present in order to resolve issues. Using the Constitutional court for whatever purposes, by anyone, that are more political in nature is not helpful. I think Constitutional court’s work should be reserved, they should be allowed to focus on the issues that are of primary importance. Everyone knows that this is not leading anywhere except further disagreement, further controversy. I don’t think that ordinary people want this, that they even understand this. They want to get on with their lives, they want to have better jobs, security, better health care, better education, be able to travel freely, they want to became member of the European Union one day.
Please be honest. How long do you predict will it take for BiH to achieve candidate status?
I cannot predict this. Because we know normally that once you have received the Questionnaire it takes six to 12 months, just to do the initial round of answering. Once you’ve answered, there may be a follow up. And then European Commission will need to analyze these replies, and look at the conditions. And I am sure that they will not just look at the questions and answers, they will also look at developments in the country itself. That is why this set of reforms is so important, and I’m not just talking about economic reforms or doing what IMF or the World Bank said. But there is a sense of positive, constructive changes, and constructive spirit rather than the spirit of blocking tactics. This will create a much more positive atmosphere. Here I’m saying “yes”, when some of your leaders are very optimistic and talk about the end of next year and so on, I would say this is very optimistic. But on the other hand it is also very important to try to maintain this positive momentum and not try to put any sticks in the wheel to slow it down. Because I think we have been impressed by the fact that BiH was able to meet a number of these requirements, and that you have managed to get back on the EU track. We will evaluate very closely what happens in BiH and if you continue to move in the right direction I see no reason why you cannot go on to the next step.
EWB: Ambassador Wigemark, thank you for you time.