Europe’s Betrayal of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo in 2018. Photo: Txetxu via Flickr

An internal battle is currently underway within the European Union (EU) about the best way to understand the Western Balkans. To vastly over-simplify: one view is that the Western outside what we can truly think of as Europe, and will always be unstable and backward; the opposing view is that the Western Balkans is part of Europe and must be brought into the European family in order to ensure peace and stability. My contention is that the EU has made a major, perhaps fatal, error in not forcing through the integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) into Europe and granting the country EU membership, despite all the challenges that would involve. The EU has had substantive reasons to delay and problematize its membership negotiations with BiH. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the EU has betrayed BiH. This betrayal will be of greatest consequence for BiH, but it may also turn out to have major repercussions for the EU.

Europe and Balkanism

In 1997, the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova published a book titled Imagining the Balkans. Citing travel literature, literary fiction, journalism, political documents and other sources, Todorova showed how European perceptions of the Balkans evolved from the 18th century onwards, taking on their modern form in the pre-World War I era. To other Europeans, the Balkans represented barbarism, violence, superstition and political intrigues. Todorova coined the word “Balkanism” to describe this view of the Balkans, and she makes clear her view that Balkanism is a distortion, a lie. Understanding Balkanism is important, because the concept has political consequences. It had consequences in the run-up to World War I, but it has also been significant for the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans, not least Bosnia. When the Cold War ended in 1989, this same compelling narrative re-emerged, and helped shape at least some of European and American political thinking about the region. When Yugoslavia broke up and war broke out, both the EU and the UN stood on the sidelines and washed their hands of the problem, which in reality lent support to the Serbs’ large-scale ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniacs.

Balkanism was promulgated in books, debates, media reports, speeches and policy documents in Western Europe and the United States during the war that broke out following the dissolution of Yugoslavia (Hansen 2006). National leaders and journalists described the wars of the 1990s and the genocide of the Bosniacs as the legacy of ancient hatreds. The wars and atrocities were seen as a manifestation of the region’s perceived barbarous and uncivilized nature, a manifestation of an unchangeable culture centred around feuds and violence, a culture that was completely “other” to that of Europe. Many commentators also referred to what they believed was Bosnia’s fate as a violent crossroads between the Ottoman and Christian civilizations. This latter idea was widely popularized in Samuel P. Huntington’s landmark essay The Clash of Civilizations? Elements of the same discourse continued to influence the relationship between the EU and BiH in the aftermath of the war.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU

Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted its application for EU membership in February 2016. In September of that same year, the European Commission submitted its opinion on the application to the European Council and the European Parliament, in accordance with Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). At that time, BiH had been a “potential candidate country” for many years, and had been engaged in dialogues and initiatives that pointed in the direction of future membership. The most important of these initiatives was the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Thessaloniki in 2003, which concluded with a Declaration stating that the EU and the Western Balkans countries all shared European values including democracy, a market economy, the rule of law, and respect for minority rights. The Declaration also stated that the EU reiterated “its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European ”

15 years after the Thessaloniki Summit, the EU and the Western Balkans countries gathered once again to discuss the region’s future in the EU – this time in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. In the Declaration following the Sofia Summit, Donald Tusk, the then-President of the European Council, claimed that the meeting had been a success and that the EU and the Western Balkans countries continued to agree that the countries’ futures lay within the EU. But if we now look back from 2020 – 25 years after the Srebrenica genocide and the Dayton Accords – the phrases from the meetings and the strategic documents about the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans generally, and BiH in particular, start to sound a little absurd. There is continual repetition of agreement about shared futures and shared values, but at the same time – naturally enough – responsibility for putting domestic political and economic situations in order is placed firmly with BiH and the other Western Balkans countries. But what is the actual meaning of all this talk about shared futures when the years are passing and the goal of membership is no closer? In May 2019, the European Commission published a new opinion on the status of BiH’s application for membership. The Commission concluded that in a number of respects the country was nowhere near fulfilling the EU’s demands for political and economic reform. In the Commission’s view, BiH was quite simply not ready to start negotations on EU membership in spring 2019.The Thessaloniki Declaration gave most of the people of BiH hope of a future with better political institutions and economic growth. If we look at Eurobarometer’s figures for 2018, we see that the number of people in all the Western Balkans countries who favour EU membership has increased in recent years. 2018 was the first year when well over half (56 percent) of respondents were in favour of EU membership, up from 49 percent in 2017. At the same time, the percentage of people in these countries opposed to EU membership fell to 12 percent in 2018. There are significant differences between the different countries, however. Respondents in Serbia had the least positive attitudes to the EU, while Albania and Kosovo were the most positive, not least because people in these countries have much to gain from membership in terms of economic growth and greater freedom of movement in Europe, for example. The people of BiH occupy the middle-ground in their views of the EU, although there are major differences in attitudes between Bosnian Serbs and the other ethnic groups in the country. But the people of BiH are also the most pessimistic in the region to the extent that they are the most likely to respond that EU membership will either never happen or will take a very long time. This is a reaction to a process with the EU that has been ambiguous and long-drawn-out.

To make a long story short: the EU and BiH have been going back and forth about possible EU membership for 20 years, and the main result is frustration among most people in BiH. A clear symptom of this frustration is the surge of young people leaving the country to look for work and a new future in other European countries. The perception among many ordinary Bosnians, as well as among some researchers and experts who have followed the process, is that the EU imposed high demands on BiH at the outset, demands that have become even more stringent over time. It is reasonable to assert that the European Commission imposed such high standards on BiH partly to set an example for the EU’s member states.

The EU’s closed door – Balkanism in practice?

It is perhaps tempting to respond to this type of criticism of the EU by asserting that the process of becoming a member is concerned only with the applicant country’s ability to implement reforms of its political, judicial and economic institutions. But such a view is too simple. Since the EU formulated its Copenhagen Criteria (Accession Criteria) in 1993, it has also become obvious that the EU has limited capacity to absorb new members. We can point to both external and internal aspects of this capacity for absorption or integration; the internal capacity involves the EU member states’ perception of the EU’s ability to integrate a new member. Accordingly there are important criteria for membership that relate to individual member states’ perceptions of the EU, and those criteria are of course completely outside the control of an applicant country. In addition, these internal criteria provide scope for individual EU member states to influence accession processes to reflect their own perceptions of the EU’s ability to absorb new countries. In a report about the increasing power and willingness of certain member states to make EU expansion a national political issue, in 2010 Christophe Hillion wrote:

“Beyond their craving for control, Member States have also been showing less scruple in instrumentalising enlargement for domestic political gains. The EU Member State-building policy is thus increasingly dominated, if not held hostage, by national agendas.”

There is much to suggest that this dynamic has become stronger in general and in the EU’s relationship with the Western Balkans countries in particular, not least with BiH. When the EU, at the instigation of France, the Netherlands and Denmark, slammed its door in the faces of Albania and North Macedonia on 18 October 2019, at least to some extent the cause was national considerations. The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the decision a mistake of historic proportions, and a number of other national leaders in the EU were also very critical of the decision. In November 2019, the French President Emmanuel Macron, in an interview with The Economist, claimed that BiH was a “ticking time-bomb” because it was home to so many returning jihadist fighters, who were simply waiting to travel to Western Europe to carry out terrorist attacks. The French president’s concern about jihadists from Bosnia is surprising. Macron is himself the leader of the European country that has perhaps the biggest problem of all with jihadist terrorism, while the actual threat from jihadists in Bosnia must be considered relatively small. It is also frightening to see allegations that Croatia has attempted to undermine the stability of BiH by planting “evidence” of jihadist activity in Bosnian mosques. But both Macron’s comments and Croatia’s alleged planting of “evidence of terrorism” form part of the same larger narrative of BiH as a hotbed for jihadist terrorists posing a threat to Europe. One could perhaps discount Macron’s remarks as an excuse to shelve a political process that he dislikes or does not want to prioritize. But it is also reasonable to assert that his remarks are a manifestation of Balkanism. France’s official explanation for blocking membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia in autumn 2019 was a desire to reform the EU’s accession process. The French wanted a more efficient process, and they wanted to lower the threshold whereby the EU could change its mind if applicant countries fail to fulfil accession criteria. In spring 2020, the European Commission met Macron halfway by making changes to the accession process, and France responded by saying that it would no longer block accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. This generated cautious optimism. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to interpret scepticism about EU expansion in France, the Netherlands and Denmark as a manifestion of ideas about how Europe should be understood in a cultural sense, and of concerns about what sorts of societies can be incorporated and integrated into the European family. Austria, the Netherlands and Finland are other examples of countries where both parliaments and the general public have expressed clear scepticism about EU expansion towards the south-east. My assertion is not that such attitudes alone provide a complete explanation for why BiH does not seem any closer to EU membership, but this scepticism in EU member states must be seen as part of the explanation for why the process of European integration in the region has stagnated (Kmezic, 2017, p. 55).

Local obstacles to meeting EU criteria

At the same time as the EU has betrayed BiH, there have been obstacles to progess within the country itself. Many people would no doubt say that BiH is itself to blame for what is perceived as a deadlocked situation. In general, the process whereby a country becomes an EU member state involves the country’s gradual adaptation to what are perceived as European norms. Much has been written about this adaptation as a prerequisite to successful membership. In BiH, the political elites have never completely understood, or succeeded in agreeing on, the implications of this prerequisite to EU membership. Accordingly, they have never succeeded in uniting behind a plan to fulfil the EU’s demands (Troncotă, 2017).

A clear sign of this failure to adapt is the much-discussed 2009 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdić and Finci. The background to the judgment was the fact that BiH’s constitution bestows rights of political representation on the country’s three “constituent peoples”: Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs. According to the constitution, these “constituent peoples” should be represented equally by a collective Presidency of three members, and elections should be run along ethnic lines. As a result, members of minority groups who do not belong to the “constituent peoples” are ineligible to participate in the democratic community. This structuring of the political system along ethnic lines is clearly in conflict with the values and laws of the EU, which the European Court of Human Rights recognized by stating that BiH’s constitution breaches human rights. In theory, there are several possible ways of changing BiH’s electoral system to abolish this inherent discrimination, and it is distressing that the country’s political elites have not been able to think or act constructively on this question.

The political system established through the Dayton Accords is poorly equipped to implement the measures necessary to fulfil the conditions set by the EU for the commencement of talks on future membership. In addition, some BiH political leaders have incentives to retain a weak political system in which economic monitoring and controls are poor. If a well-functioning political system and an efficient government bureaucracy were to be introduced, then several leading figures in both these areas would very likely be held to account for their criminal activities, and would lose both their political power and wealth. As a result, some of these same leaders see the use of radical nationalism as an expedient means to obstruct the development of an effective state.


The EU has betrayed BiH, but BiH has also betrayed the EU. The biggest betrayal has been committed against ordinary people, who need and want change. There are a number of justificable reasons why the process has taken time, and the country’s political elites have shown a basic lack of ability and willingness to meet the EU’s conditions. At the same time it is clear that there are a number of less justifiable reasons why the EU has long kept BiH at arm’s length. The basic tone of the EU’s documents is that BiH belongs within the European family, but such a tone is no help when both sides appear so helpless in staking out a realistic route to membership. When speaking to people in BiH, the vast majority downplay fears of a new violent conflict. That cannot happen again, they say. But what if nationalism in Republika Srpska (one of the two constituent entities of BiH, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) converges with the rapidly shifting picture internationally – an aggressive Russia, an unpredictable United States, and an ambivalent EU – to generate a storm that triggers a sudden attempt by Republika Srpska to break away from BiH, fulfilling the long-held fantasies of some Bosnian-Serb politicians. If Serbia and Russia were to become involved in such a scenario, what could the EU and the USA do? Contemplating such a situation is unpleasant, and perhaps the possibility is unrealistic, but it raises an important question: rapid integration into the EU and NATO – which will require certain compromises on all sides – is the only certain route to peace and positive development in BiH and the Western Balkans in general.


Hansen, L. (2006) Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War. London: Routledge

Kmezic, M. (2017). EU Rule of Law Promotion. Judiciary Reform in the Western Balkans. London & NY: Routledge

Troncotă, M. (2017). Post-Conflict Europeanization and the War of Meanings. The Challenges of EU Conditionality in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Bucharest: Tritonic


  • This is a short version of a piece that will appear in Internasjonal Politikk in June.
  • Translation: Fidotext
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