The Odd Couple: the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Nikki Ikani | 16 November 2011

To quote this document: Nikki Ikani, “The Odd Couple: the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 16 November 2011,, displayed on 02 April 2023

Everyone had seen it coming, but when it finally happened it was nonetheless shocking. Last year’s political crisis on a possible referendum in Bosnia and Herzegovina was yet another painful sign of the ongoing political stagnation of the country. The EU’s standard rulebook for the Balkan countries matches uneasily with the peculiar political situation of Bosnia. Not only should the EU step up its efforts, but it should also increase its legitimacy in the country.

Not all is well that ends well

The EU progress report on Bosnia and Herzegovina for 2011 was clear in its wording. After more than a year of political strife, the political crisis in the country is far from over. There still is no political agreement on the formation of a government, which leaves executive and legislative posts to be filled. The complete lack of a shared vision among its leaders on the future and preferred institutional setup of the country reinforces the gridlock. The Law on Household and Population Census, crucial for the country’s socio-economic development, has not been adopted.

The crisis seemed to have reached its boiling point when last year Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, sparked one of the biggest riots since the signing of the Dayton Agreement when he prompted a referendum to assess the support for the international high representative, as imposed under the Agreement after the war. This referendum was said to be a prelude to Dodik’s final goal, secession of the Republika Srpska. Dodik’s statements and the harsh responses by his Bosniak counterpart Izetbegovic worsened the political deadlock, and sparked anxiety among many in the country. How deeply rooted is this post-war crisis, and what does this crisis mean for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina? In the following these questions will be elaborated, discussing how the EU should play a role.

In the beginning there was…the Dayton peace Agreement

In order to grasp the wheelings and dealings currently going on in Bosnian politics, one has to understand the peculiar political and societal setup that characterizes the country since the end of the war in 1995. Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter: Bosnia) is divided along the lines of distinct religious and national cleavages that divide the country between the Bosniaks, Croats and the Serbs. The Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 ended a war that tore apart the Yugoslavian republic between 1992 and 1995, which resulted in ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and over 100,000 deaths.

Dayton has offered a regional solution to end the war, as well as a constitutional framework to regulate ethnic relations (Sebastian, 2007). It established a confederation comprising of the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, each with its own constitution, president, government, parliament, judiciary and police force. Both federations are in turn highly decentralised in multiple cantons. In 1999, the Brcko district, an administrative unit established as a neutral area under joint Bosniak, Croat and Serb authority, was added to these entities. On the state level, Bosnia is organized in a tripartite rotating presidency, with a Council of Ministers, a bicameral Assembly and a judicial branch. The central state institutions have very limited power, mainly concerning trade and foreign policy (Kasapović, 2005).

Mixed results

The Dayton Peace Agreement has led to a high level of security, facilitated the return of refugees and displaced people, and laid out the basics for economic growth (McMahon & Western, 2009). Moreover, Dayton created the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international institution overseeing Bosnia. Its main tasks are implementing the civilian facets of the agreement.

Meanwhile, the Agreement has some disadvantages. The federation it created has a very complex organizational structure, with multiple cantons and municipalities whose competences overlap. The atypical entity Dayton shaped has not eased the definition of ‘statehood’ nor the search of its identity. Moreover, the division of power that Dayton imposed on the country has proved to be a source of political crises.


From poster child to political crisis

After the 2010 elections, the overarching tripartite presidency in Bosnia is divided as follows: Radmanovic is the Serb member, while Komsic is the Croat member and Izetbegovic the Bosniak member. The presidency rotates every 8 months. Meanwhile, each federation has its own president. The president of the Republika Srpska is Dodik, while the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is presided by Budimir.

Bosnia once may have seemed the poster child for post-war reconstruction. Fifteen years after Dayton, however, we see a country that has been stagnating for years, struggling with one political crisis after the other. This is partly due to the Dayton Agreement, as the decentralisation it triggered sowed the seeds of instability. Political parties find it hard to agree on a basic political structure for Bosnia. Many, especially in the Republika Srpska, believe that the Agreement poses an infringement to its sovereignty.

The biggest problem after the 2010 election has been the formation of a government. Currently there is still no agreement between political representatives on the appointment of the State-level Council of Ministers. The referendum debacle showed that the Republika Srpska still threatens the stability of the country. While secession remains unlikely, the federation seems determined to solely limit the cooperation within the three parts of the country to coordination. It wants complete autonomy on all other parts. The referendum was eventually cancelled, but it briefly brought the risk of war back to Bosnia.

The international community

One could argue that the international community should mediate in Bosnia to solve the political crisis. But this raises issues. The international community has mainly been represented by the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR has always been an extraordinary political reality, as it is an international authority that is able to overrule all of the democratic institutions of a sovereign member state of the United Nations (Knaus and Martin, 2003). One of its additional problems is that during the recent crisis on the referendum, the OHR was one of the clashing parties. The OHR acting as a mediator in a crisis it was part of proved problematic.

The role of the OHR has been intertwined with that of the EU. Europe’s role in the region can be characterized as being an uneasy mix of soft and hard power. Its hard power has been shown in its military and police presence on the ground. The mission to oversee the implementation of Dayton, EUFOR Althea, has long been the EU’s biggest military operation. Later on, the EU Police Mission (EUPM) has been launched, immediately becoming the object of critique. Critics such as the International Crisis Group argue that crime has increased throughout the country, and that EU police officers are asked to run administrative reform, an area in which they have little or no training. Its mandate to ‘monitor, mentor and inspect’ has largely failed.

Soft power Europe

In pursuing its ‘soft power’ goals, the Union has greatly intervened in the region over the past decade, with significant economic assistance, crucial to the country’s development. The European aid in institution building has also proved to be valuable. The EU has been trying to position itself as a big normative power in the region. In 2008, the EU and Bosnia agreed upon the Stability and Association Agreement, which was supposed to continue the spread of ‘soft power Europe’, through exporting its norms and values within a possible integration process.

But problems arise. The membership carrot cannot be offered yet: one of the issues with regard to the possible integration of Bosnia into Europe is the weakness of centralized state institutions in the country. The internal divisions that decentralize the country threaten the sovereign status of the country. State-level institutions are non-existent or very limited.

Meanwhile, the EU has always been very clear in saying that Bosnia must become a self-sustaining state based on the rule of law in order to ever become part of Europe. “This is a pre-condition for further progress. To achieve sustainability there must be a recognition among all sections of the Bosnian population that their future lies with each other and within Bosnia.” (SAP Report 2002). We clearly see that Bosnia does not ‘fit’ with the standard image of a third country the EU usually deals with. Its complex political structure make it hard to apply the standard rules of the game in EU integration.



Towards a possible solution

Since 2002, the OHR also serves as the EU Special Representative to Bosnia (EUSR). In 2008, objectives have been set out to facilitate the closure of the OHR and the transition to the EUSR, something especially wanted by France and Germany. When thinking about a solution wherein the EU could possibly play a bigger role it is important not to make the same mistakes as in the past. While the EU might need to be more proactive and a stronger player in Bosnia, it would be wrong to replace one imposed external authority (the OHR) with another.

It is therefore primordial that the political parties in Bosnia agree upon the role that the EU will play in the region, in order to make it as legitimate an actor as possible. Moreover, in order to prevent the EU from making the same mistakes as the High Representative did, the EUSR will have to make sure its executive authority does not conflict with its role as a mediator when problems arise.

The uneasy mix of hard and soft power makes it hard for the EU to continue to act as a civilian force in the region. Moreover, Bosnia has shown the limits of the EU’s soft power. This soft power has fundamentally always been based on the EU’s ‘power of attraction’, which has been the set of policy instruments used for EU integration and EU enlargement. The EU’s main strategy of offering carrots of trade and aid is supposed to draw countries closer to the EU, while providing them with conditions for reform.

But Bosnia is a country that substantially differs from the rest of the countries the EU deals with. The lack of a common identity and the weak statehood of the country that consists of separate entities with separate identities makes Bosnia not ‘fit’ for the standard approach. This poses a problem, as the EU has not developed a single strategy for Bosnia, nor has it tried to tweak its standard approach to the country’s peculiarity. It is mixing traditional soft power instruments with hard power tools, as its military missions underline. While military stability has been more or less guaranteed, the state of democracy and institutions in Bosnia is poor.

What the EU should do is redefine its strategy towards the country. It should foster clarity in its relations with Bosnia by not mixing its executive authority with its mediating power, and the political guidelines on how Bosnia could come closer to the Union should be more clear. Finally, the EU not only has to realize that complying with EU rules entails significant costs for Bosnia’s politicians, but also has to ensure that its presence in the country is perceived as legitimate by all actors in the Bosnian political arena.

To go further

To read

  • European Commission. The Stabilisation and Association process for South East Europe - First Annual Report. COM/2002/0163 final, 2002
  • KASAPOVIC, M. Bosnia and Herzegovina: Consociational or Liberal Democracy? Politička misao , 42 (5), 3-30, 2005
  • KNAUS, G., & MARTIN, F. Travails of the European Raj. Journal of Democracy , 14 (3), 60-74.
  • McMAHON, P. C., & Western, J. The Death of Dayton How to Stop Bosnia From Falling Apart. Foreign Affairs , 88 (5), 69-83, 2009
  • SEBASTIAN, S. Leaving Dayton Behind: Constitutional Reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina. FRIDE Working Paper , 1-27, 2007
  • United States of America Department of State. (1996). Agreed Measures On Dayton Agreement Compliance. The Dayton Peace Agreement:, 1996

To see

  • Documentary  Disappearing World, Bosnia: We Are All Neighbors by anthropologist Tone Bringa