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Bosnian people holding banners reading "we are hungry , we want job", "we want our salaries" and "low, true and justice" gathered in front of municipality building in western Bosnian town of Drvar. Amel Emric/AP/Press Association Images

Column Straight talk on Bosnia has been sadly lacking during Ireland’s EU presidency

Ireland can no longer afford, financially or morally, to go along with the EU’s current hopeless policy in Bosnia. Now is an opportune time for a fundamental rethink of how the EU should deal with the political situation there, writes Patrick Nulty.

LAST WEEK, THE EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton visited Bosnia and Herzegovina for the second time in less than a year.

The country’s political leaders have been unwilling to agree on how to implement a European Court of Human Rights judgment that requires them to amend the country’s constitution to allow all citizens an opportunity to run for the presidency and the upper chamber of parliament.

Affiliation needed to stand for election

At present, one must declare affiliation with one of the “constituent peoples” – Bosniaks, Croats, or Serbs – to be eligible to run. Ashton said she was “really disappointed that no real progress has been made since [she] last came,” blaming politicians for adhering to party or ethnic interests rather than the public interest.

The EU delegation in Bosnia, along with the European Commission’s Directorate for Enlargement, has increasingly expressed desperation for a deal – any deal – that would allow them to proclaim progress. Whether that progress is real seems a secondary concern.

Irish legislators have been more attentive than most of their counterparts in the EU to the deteriorating situation in Bosnia – and the demands of justice for the 100,000 who were killed in that country’s 1992-1995 war. The forthright inquiry of TDs and Senators from across the political spectrum on Serbia’s lack of full cooperation in the hunt for Srebrenica massacre architect Ratko Mladic played an important role in Serbia’s decision to finally “find” him two years ago.

War crimes grilling

We have punched above our weight in the EU on these matters by remaining true to our principles. The grilling that Irish parliamentarians gave then-Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic on the war crimes accountability issue surprised and gratified Bosnians, who applauded such seriousness and directness.

Such straight talk on Bosnia has been sadly lacking during Ireland’s EU presidency. Ireland is merely going with the flow, as defined by Berlin and Brussels. European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton stated that she wanted to inject some momentum into the enlargement process in the Western Balkans. But in Bosnia’s case, the momentum is all in the wrong direction.

For seven years, the EU has had the undisputed lead in directing international policy toward Bosnia. The failure to get what the EU has termed “credible effort” toward enacting the European Court’s ruling should signify the bankruptcy of the current approach.

Joining the EU

That approach is based on the assumption that Bosnia’s politicians actually want to join the EU – and that their citizens can hold them accountable if they fail to deliver. After all, that’s the way it worked in Central Europe. But Bosnia’s peace agreement, which also includes its constitution, was built around the wartime power brokers. Warlord politics is institutionalised, albeit with a pseudo-democratic veneer. This narrow stratum runs everything in Bosnia – politics, business, organised crime, media, and academia – and holds the levers of both patronage and fear.

There is little to no upward mobility. I have numerous constituents who, while proud Irish citizens, would love to go home at least part time to try to build their homeland’s future. Yet they typically return demoralised, seeing no avenues to make an honest living or prospects for their children. The idea that this political elite would willingly abandon the prerequisites of power for the good of the country is naive. But that remains the EU’s policy. Irish taxpayers are going along for the ride as the EU attempts to postpone with money what it will not prevent with sound policy.

Holding politicians accountable

Now is an opportune time for a fundamental rethink of how the EU should deal with Bosnia. We have interests there – Croatia’s membership as of July will give the Union a 1000 km border with Bosnia. We can’t wish it away; containment will only come back to bite us. Luckily, the interests of EU and Bosnian citizens completely coincide. By protecting our own interests and resources, we can better enable Bosnians to hold their politicians accountable.

Only external actors can negate the ambient fear that permeates all issues in Bosnia today. Doing so would be simple and relatively cheap – and certainly less expensive than allowing Bosnia to continue to slide toward violence. No new tools or institutions would be required; only a new strategy of how to marry the EU’s soft power instruments to the hard power tools that exist to prevent collapse – the international High Representative and the executive EU for military mission.

Addressing the problem

The elephant in the room is that the carrot of EU membership will not address Bosnia’s problems alone. All EU foreign ministries know it, but don’t want to address it since they are implicated. So they instead tell their political masters they have things under control, and that any problems owe to Bosnia’s (predictably self-serving) political class. Short-term bureaucratic self-preservation and careerism within the EU is the biggest hurdle to changing the dynamic in Bosnia.

Ireland can no longer afford, financially or morally, to go along with the EU’s current hopeless policy in Bosnia. A reassessment of the EU’s Bosnia policy and the development at long last of a coherent international strategy, the goal of which would be a Bosnia which could serve its citizens and ultimately meet the EU’s legitimate conditions for membership, is long past due. Maintaining the current policy is untenable; it will not survive honest scrutiny. For our own interests and values, Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore must demand this discussion with his EU peers.

Patrick Nulty is Labour TD for Dublin West.

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