News article

Implementation of the Reform Agenda: Good start but more to follow

Article by UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on socio-economic reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A year ago, we visited Bosnia and Herzegovina together. We came to promote and to explain our plans to support your country move forward on a positive, European path.

The essence of our initiative, which has been adopted by the European Union as its renewed approach for your country, was, and remains, to improve the lives of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We believe passionately that every citizen of your country, like those of our own, deserves the right to a prosperous and secure future. That includes a life free of corruption with the protection of the rule of law; a decent job offering an honest wage; and a labour market that provides opportunities for the next generation to prosper. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s young people are a crucial asset for your country’s economic transformation. You cannot afford to force them to build their futures elsewhere.

We asked your politicians to commit to an ambitious reform agenda, focused on tackling these social and economic problems, which so many people in BiH face on a daily basis. In return, we promised to unblock the EU accession process, which had been stuck for seven years.

A year on, where do we stand? There are reasons for optimism. The BiH Parliament endorsed the written commitment to reform after our visit in January last year. The State and Entity Governments have since developed an ambitious initial agenda for reforms followed by a detailed action plan, and have implemented the first reforms. It has been particularly encouraging to see how the State and Entity-level Governments have been working closely and constructively together, and they deserve credit for this. In truth, the reform agenda is more ambitious than we had at first thought possible. The European Union was right to say in its annual report in November 2015 that BiH is back on the reform path.

We welcome the progress that has already been made. But it is too early for those reforms to have made a tangible difference to the lives of most BiH citizens. The process needs more time. At the same time, Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t just need new laws. It needs better laws.

We also call on political leaders on all sides - in government and in opposition - to work together, as they promised us they would, and to make use of international and domestic expertise, including from civil society, to ensure that these reforms bring BiH as close as possible to European standards. More hard work is needed if political leaders on all sides are to demonstrate to the citizens of BIH and to the EU, that they are irreversibly committed to modernisation and reform.

That’s why we and many other EU partners continue to insist that meaningful progress on reforms is a pre-condition for a credible EU membership application, together with the establishment of the Coordination Mechanism and the adaptation of the trade provisions within the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. This is not new; this is what the EU agreed in December 2014 and we have repeated it on several occasions in meetings with the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other interlocutors.

The immediate task is to maintain focus on the implementation of the reform agenda. Now is not the time to start switching attention back to the complex and divisive political disagreements that have held BiH back from achieving its potential during the last decade. Electoral reforms can wait. The priorities must remain to stabilise the economy, to create new jobs and to tackle injustice and inequality in society.

We believe that the EU’s new approach can succeed in BiH. The achievements of the last 12 months prove it. We have seen governments facing common challenges, and working together to address them. We have seen the SAA finally come into force, seven years after it was originally signed. If progress continues, a credible membership application in the near future is a realistic prospect, but getting it right is more important than timing.

The biggest risk to progress lies in the challenges to the authority of key State-level institutions. The EU has made clear that the threatened RS referendum is unconstitutional and an unhelpful distraction from reforms. A better life is possible for the citizens of this country, whether they live in the Federation, in Republika Srpska or Brcko District. But it requires the political leadership in both entities to fully concentrate on the reform process, not seek political advantage by distracting from it. And it requires everyone to work within the political system, not against it. In practice, that means respecting the fact that sovereignty and statehood reside at the State level exclusively, while also acknowledging that a broad range of competences and the bulk of responsibility for reform lies with the two Entities.

Let us be very clear: neither the European Union’s renewed approach nor the reform agenda challenge the existence of the entities as defined in the Dayton Peace Agreement in any way, or change the role the entities play in Bosnian politics. There is no threat whatsoever in the EU’s renewed approach to the current constitutional framework. Respect for the constitutional division of competences was at the heart of last year’s written commitment. If political leaders stick to these principles, then we can be optimistic about the future. But otherwise, we fear a return to stagnation and confrontation that will benefit no-one.

So as we enter 2016, we extend from the citizens of the UK and Germany to those of Bosnia and Herzegovina our warmest wishes for a peaceful and prosperous 2016. We call on your leaders to work together constructively, and with mutual respect. And we reaffirm our own commitment to continued support as you progress towards a brighter, European future.