European Commission’s new structure and the elections that took place in October in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have pointed to the new relations between the European Union (EU) and the Western Balkans, and more precisely with BiH. Yet the events of recent months have changed those relations. The conflict between the EU and Russia, which is at its peak for the first time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has consequences for BiH.
In mid-summer 2014, the current President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker , said he does not expect any enlargement of the EU in the next five years. “When it comes to enlargement, I fully recognize that this has been a historic success that brought peace and stability to our continent. However, the Union and our citizens now need to digest the addition of 13 Member States in the past ten years. The EU needs to take a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved among the 28. This is why, under my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective, but no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.”
This statement underlined two potential interpretations of the EU policy towards the Western Balkans. The first is that the EU is turning to its own problems and that the Western Balkans is not on the priority list. The second interpretation is derived from the doubt that it will slow down the process of fulfilling the membership conditions for Western Balkan countries. On the other side politicians of Western Balkan will use this shift of the EU policy as an excuse for failure of the goals.
During this time in BiH, the whole political situation was at peak when the elections took place in October 2014. After some years of political deadlock everyone eagerly awaited the election results and the EU repeatedly pointed out the importance of establishing a government rapidly and effectively. It is important to stress out that the last major steps of BiH towards the EU were in 2008 when the Stabilization and Association Agreement was signed. Today the situation remains still the same. On the one side this lies on the absence of external pressure on the institutions, while local politicians on the other side are unwilling to compromise. This begins to raise skepticism regarding a possible post-election crisis. However, Europe has not given up yet.
The sudden change of the EU course is a response to a series of events that have occurred in the last six months. The consequences of the distressed relations between Russia and the EU on Ukraine and energy issues are reflected on the Western Balkans as well. It is important to emphasize that the Western Balkans dependent on Russian gas, with no other alternative for the time being. On November 12th, Russia abstained during the voting in the Security Council of United Nations when it came to the question of extension of the EUFOR mission in BiH. A month later the Russian Ambassador in BiH declared that NATO and the EU are not the only option for the future of BiH.
As a response, the EU launched a series of diplomatic visits to the BiH. Ambassadors from the Political and Security Committee of the EU visited the country at the end of November. Few weeks later, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, visited BiH to get familiar with the political situation and show their support for the reform process. On January 16th foreign ministers of United Kingdom and Germany visited BiH in order to emphasize that the EU has given a helping hand to BiH and that this opportunity must be rightly utilized. Furthermore, a few months ago, the same two ministers presented a reform plan and new way of approaching BiH towards EU.
The peak moment occurred during the second visit Federica Mogherini to BiH in February, when the parliament confirmed the commitment of BiH towards the EU. Against this background, the EU wants to reduce the influence of Russia on prospective and candidate countries. Moreover, the complicated relations show how BiH in January had to give up selling arms to Ukraine for the amount of five million EUR. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that BiH should not sell weapons used for killing of civilians to Ukraine. The reason for this pressure is that the only source of gas for BiH comes from Russia via Ukraine. Unlike neighboring countries BiH does not have storage capacities of gas in the event of a crisis. BiH has no right on any alternative gas line too.
The European Union is the most important foreign trade partner of BiH, because of the largest shares in imports (58.92%) and exports (72.19%). In order to reprint money, BiH imported from to the EU goods worth around 4.5 billion EUR, while within the EU exported goods worth little more than 3 billion EUR. In comparison to Russia, imported goods worth about 650 million EUR, while BiH’s exported goods worth approximately 25 million EUR. Such an imbalance is created mainly due to the import of gas.
Discouraging is also the fact that the authorities in BiH/ Entity Republic of Srpska obstruct the introduction of alternative sources of gas. More precisely, they forward the supply Russian gas exclusively. There is a project of additional gas direction from Croatia which is suspended. The Croatian side has completed its part but in BiH it remains under slow construction.
The commitment of BiH towards the EU is not questionable. Questionable is the process, method and speed of accession. A great responsibility lies on local politicians as well as on external influences and political activities. The dependence of EU and BiH on Russian gas will last for a certain period in the future. The EU will have to work intensively to find alternative routes of gas. Gas from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan could be an alternative.
When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is imperative to realize the connection of Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP) in the future. In the meantime, EU from its side, must put additional pressure on authorities in the BiH/ entity Republic of Srpska to stop obstructing the gas line from Croatia.
It is expected that the conflict of interests between the great powers has consequences. It is expected that the conflict in one part of the world has consequences on other countries. Finally, it is expected that the EU needs stronger and more determined attitude when it comes to the protection of its own interests and those interest of its future Member States.