Europe at Crossroads: Austria's Push for Bosnia's EU Accession Negotiations

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: March 19, 2024; 17:20 ♦ (Vindobona)

In a new phase of European integration and geopolitical strategy, attention is turning to the Western Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the heart of these discussions is Austria's committed plea for the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia, a move that has the potential to shape Europe's political landscape in the long term.

Austria's key issue is at the EU Summit whether Bosnian heads of state approve EU accession negotiations following EU Commission recommendations. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons / Julian Nitzsche [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

While the recent Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels focused on the Russian war of aggression and the precarious situation in the Middle East, the issue of EU enlargement, particularly concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina, emerged as a key topic. Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg emphasized the urgency of integrating the Western Balkans more closely into the European family. "The Western Balkans are not just a neighborhood, but the inner courtyard of the EU," Schallenberg explained, underlining the strategic importance of this region for Europe's security and stability.

In a parallel development, Chancellor Karl Nehammer underlined Austria's position ahead of the EU summit by pointing out the importance of accession talks with Bosnia and warning of the consequences of hesitation, as reported by "DiePresse". "Not entering accession negotiations would be a big mistake," emphasized Nehammer, who also pointed out the continued support for Ukraine and the need for further sanctions against Russia. His warning about the separatist tendencies of Republika Srpska in Bosnia illustrates the complex internal challenges that need to be overcome on the path to EU integration.

At the meeting of European Affairs Ministers in Brussels, European Affairs Minister Karoline Edtstadler emphasized that the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia was of crucial importance not only for Austria but for the entire dynamic in the Western Balkans. "When, if not now, is the time to make things happen," said Edtstadler, referring to the "great progress" that Bosnia has made according to the latest report by the EU Commission.

The French European Secretary of State Jean-Noel Barrot sees things differently, as reported by ORF. Bosnia has made "limited" efforts since the December summit: "The Bosnian leadership must continue to be encouraged to make an effort to achieve the goals." In the short term, however, he is in favor of a "positive signal" from the EU.

In a letter with six member states, including Italy and Croatia, Austria appealed to the Belgian Council Presidency and EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi last week for the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia at the EU summit.

Urgency in Bosnia

The urgency of EU enlargement to include Bosnia is also reinforced by the geopolitical situation. The recognition of Bosnia as a candidate country could not only promote internal reforms and democratization but also serve as a counterweight to external influences such as those of Russia and China. The significance of this enlargement therefore goes far beyond mere regional integration and touches the very foundations of European security and foreign policy.

The discussions in Brussels and the positions of leading Austrian politicians reflect a strong commitment to the enlargement of the EU and the stabilization of the Western Balkans. While the approval of the EU heads of state and government is still pending, Austria's decisive stance illustrates the strategic importance of Bosnia on the path to a more united and secure Europe.

However, the dispute over Bosnia's EU accession threatens to end up in the same situation as the other Western Balkan states. Although the problems in the Western Balkan countries are well known, many EU member states have no interest in European integration of the Western Balkans, and the latter is becoming not only a pawn in geopolitical discussions but also a pawn in internal European debates.

Bosnia at the EU gate

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has recommended the opening of EU accession negotiations, a development that could have far-reaching consequences for the country and European integration as a whole. This proposal, which is now being considered by the EU Council, has raised both hopes and skepticism, not least because of the complex political dynamics within Bosnia itself.

Von der Leyen was impressed by the progress Bosnia has made in a very short space of time, describing it as unprecedented in recent years, as reported by "DerStandard". However, while this development is seen as a success at the EU level, it also reveals the political division within Bosnia. Prominent Bosnian politicians, including the controversial far-right politician Milorad Dodik, already seem to be chalking up this step as a personal success, even though Bosnia still has some hurdles to overcome.

The EU has set clear conditions for the start of negotiations, including the adoption of anti-money laundering and conflict of interest laws as well as a judicial law. While the first two conditions have been met, the court law has yet to be approved, with Dodik making specific demands that could affect the political balance in Bosnia.

Despite this progress, critics accuse the EU of lowering its standards to suit geopolitical interests. EU enlargement, particularly at a time of heightened tensions with Russia, is seen by some as a political tool that eclipses the actual track record of candidate countries. This has led to concerns that the EU is empowering local politicians to take undeserved credit for progress that may not be as profound as it seems.

The political landscape in Bosnia, particularly in the Dodik-dominated Republika Srpska, also shows signs of reprisals against critics and restrictions on freedom, raising questions about the country's commitment to European values and standards. Despite these concerns, the EU seems willing to turn a blind eye to move the accession process forward.

Dodik is using this opportunity to strengthen his position both within Bosnia and on the international stage, leading to criticism of an upcoming event in Vienna where he has been invited to speak. Critics accuse the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna of offering a platform to people known for controversial political views and call for the event to be canceled.

Despite these controversies and challenges, the EU Commission's recommendation is an important step for Bosnia on its path to EU membership. The coming weeks will show whether the EU Council will give the green light and how Bosnia will use this opportunity to push ahead with the necessary reforms and prove itself a worthy candidate for the European community.

Austrian MFA