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Can the EU Reunite a Dividing Bosnia?

By Risa Grais-Targow

Can EU accession unite a divided nation? That is the hope in Bosnia, where ethnic tensions have resurfaced, leaving the country's population divided and its politics in a stalemate. Over the past several years, postwar momentum toward a stable and unified Bosnia has slowed, leading members of the international community to speculate about renewed conflict or the dissolution of the state. The only thing that anyone in Bosnia seems able to agree on is that EU integration is the solution to its economic and political woes.

The Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war in 1995 created a power-sharing government between the country's Serb, Bosniak, and Croat populations, and a decentralized government consisting of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republika Srpska. The resulting political structure is a divided country with three distinct constituent peoples and political parties whose platforms are solely focused on national identities. The three constituents simply cannot agree on a shared vision of their country.

This is particularly evident in Bosnia's education system. Bosniak, Serb, and Croat children attend the same schools, but once they arrive, they attend separate classes according to national identity, where they learn different versions of history and different languages. One reason for this discrepancy is the particular way in which the war ended; a peace agreement brokered by the international community rather than a clear victory for any side. The fighting stopped, but the war itself did not.

In addition to issues of ethnic division, there are significant problems with the constitutional structure that make Bosnia's accession to the EU difficult. The emphasis on power sharing in the two entities has created a highly inefficient government that has 186 different ministries but little to show for its sprawling bureaucracy. Though Bosnia has continued to grow steadily at 6% annually, the country currently spends 40% of its GDP on its bureaucracy. Further, separate tax codes in the two entities create barriers to foreign direct investment.

Since the end of the war, members of the international community have supervised Bosnia's rebuilding, directed by the Office of the High Representative and the Peace Implementation Council, both established by the Dayton accords. Yet international actors working in Bosnia are increasingly pessimistic about the country's future. As a Western official explained, "failure is not inevitable but success will be challenging."

The only hopeful solution that everyone can agree on is that Bosnia should be integrated into the European Union. Ironically, the very governmental body in charge of EU accession is currently subject to the very same conflict between the three constituents. The Directorate for European Integration is currently without a Director, due to the fact that the three constituent parties cannot agree on which ethnic party the representative should be from. Still, the country is taking steps toward EU integration. In June 2008, Bosnia signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union, which is the first step towards EU candidacy. If the country's leadership can make necessary compromises to fulfill EU membership requirements, then perhaps EU accession will indeed be Bosnia's saving grace. National unity may not be the EU's primary goal, but Bosnia's alternative options look bleak.


Risa Grais-Targow is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

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