European Union's founding principles of human dignity and equality fall apart at the seams, especially when it has kept Muslim-majority Balkan countries at bay.
On 23 June, the Europan Council made a historic decision in awarding candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. This step brings the two countries closer to the EU and is seen as a strategic decision in the face of the Russian incursion in Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine applied soon after the February 24 attack and the European Council’s response was unusually swift. In addition to the different forms of support for Ukraine provided so far, this marks an important milestone.
Last month's summit of European leaders was also noteworthy for the decision it did not make. Ever since the Thessaloniki summit of 2003 which promised a European perspective for the Western Balkans, countries in the region had set their sights on Brussels. For almost two decades now, Bosnia and Herzegovina's European integration process has dominated the public discourse in the Balkan country. Bosnia's governing officials proclaimed in the early-to-mid 2000s that our country would join the EU by the end of that decade.
Joining the EU was framed as a top priority and accession a panacea for all the post-war challenges. The mantra of European integration was so pervasive that Bosnia does not have an anti-EU political party or any NGOs dedicated to opposing the EU. From erstwhile communists to religious leaders, the vast majority of public personas toed the EU line. There is hardly an evening news program without mention of Bosnia's path to the EU. So much was the Bosnian public attuned to the notion that the country would join the EU and resolve its problems that few pondered Bosnia's EU-less future.
More than six years ago, Bosnia applied for EU membership and has since been hoping for candidate status. Many Bosnian citizens expected this to materialize in late June. However, the European Council's decision to bypass Bosnia came as a surprise to many. The EU was right to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but why not Bosnia?
After all, Bosnia has been pursuing European integration for a longer period of time and is relatively stable. Compared to the ongoing war in Ukraine and separatism in Moldova's Transnistria, the situation in Bosnia - with all its challenges – makes this country far more credible for EU candidate status on its merits. If it was a strategic decision, the Balkans is no less important for Europe's security than Ukraine or Moldova.
For some time before the 23 June decision and certainly after that, another argument started gaining currency. What analysts and laymen in Bosnia and the Balkans are noticing is the elephant in the room.
At the latest EU summit, Bosnia has been bypassed for candidate status. Kosovo has not been granted visa-free travel to the EU. Albania's and North Macedonia's accession talks were blocked by France in 2019 and now by Bulgaria. Is it a coincidence that these four countries are continuously hampered on the path to the EU while others progress?
What these four countries have in common are sizable Muslim populations. An increasing number of people have started to believe that this is the reason for the limbo of the four Southeast European states. In Bosnia, this argument is most frequently voiced by former Federation energy minister Reuf Bajrovic. Recently, a well-known Bosnian investigative journalist Avdo Avdic expressed a similar view. I noticed that more and more ordinary Bosnian citizens are starting to share the views articulated by Bajrovic and Avdic.
The issue is not simply demography and numbers. Sizeable Muslim populations live in several EU member states. The key, according to this argument, is political power. Unlike Muslim populations in western Europe, Balkan Muslims exercise political power in the four countries. This sets them apart from demographically larger but politically marginal communities in the EU.
The French and now the Bulgarian veto and the bypassing of Bosnia and Kosovo keep these countries in a vacuum. Even without the present roadblocks, the four countries’ European integration process would likely drag on for years if not decades. Stated more bluntly, the EU's approach seems to suggest that full membership of these states is not on the table in the years ahead. Full membership would probably remain a distant ideal.
This effectively means that Southeast European countries with significant and politically relevant Muslim populations will be kept at bay. If these four states are facing these hurdles at this initial stage, what is to be expected if they were to come close to full membership? This painful conclusion is not the result of unfounded theories but a realistic reading of Brussels' intentions or the lack thereof.
This argument notwithstanding, it is still possible that one of the next European Council summits could grant candidate status to Bosnia, lift the visa regime for Kosovo, and press Bulgaria to lift its veto. While these would be welcome but belated steps, candidate status and accession negotiations can drag on for years. There would still be no guarantee that the European integration process leads to the benefits of full membership.
Now, it will be challenging for Balkan officials to tell this truth to the people. In Bosnia, having spent two decades talking up European integration, officials and leaders should start attuning the public to the new reality. The basic message that full EU membership is neither feasible in the foreseeable future nor a panacea would be a highly unpopular one.
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