EU leaders agree on opening membership talks with Bosnia, but with many strings attached

A giant European Union flag hangs from a building as smaller ones adorn a main street in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Thursday, March 21, 2024. European Union leaders meeting in Brussels are expected to give a greenlight to Bosnia and Herzegovina to open membership talks once certain conditions are met. (AP Photo/Eldar Emric)

A giant European Union flag hangs from a building as smaller ones adorn a main street in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Thursday, March 21, 2024. European Union leaders meeting in Brussels are expected to give a greenlight to Bosnia and Herzegovina to open membership talks once certain conditions are met. (AP Photo/Eldar Emric)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders agreed in principle Thursday to open membership negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though the Western Balkan country must still do a lot of work before talks can begin.

The 27 leaders gave the political green light at a summit in Brussels after the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — last week agreed to start talks in spite of deep lingering ethnic divisions in the nation with 3.2 million inhabitants.

“The European Council has just decided to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Congratulations!”, EU Council president Charles Michel said.

“Your place is in our European family.”

Michel followed it up immediately with a warning that a lot of work remains to be done before the country can join.

“Now the hard work needs to continue so Bosnia and Herzegovina steadily advances, as your people want,” he said.

In the summit’s conclusions, leaders emphasized the need for Bosnia to keep on taking “all relevant steps set out” by the Commission that include economic, judicial and political reforms as well as better efforts to tackle corruption and money laundering.

Bosnia is riven by ethnic divisions, even decades after the 1992-95 war that tore the country apart, leaving more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced.

In 2022, Bosnia was granted candidate status. In order to join the EU, candidate countries must go through a lengthy process to align their laws and standards with those of the bloc and show their institutions and economies meet democratic norms.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said upon his arrival in Brussels that a lot of work still needs to be done before Bosnia can really get into the thick of negotiations with the bloc.

“It’s crucial that Bosnia will fulfil all the necessary actions in the Commission’s report so that you really will have ticked all the boxes,” Rutte said.

Gitanas Nauseda, the president of Lithuania, said he supports Bosnia’s candidacy, but with strings attached.

“We have to respect the rules, rules of game, implementation of all necessary requirements,” he said.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of six nations from the region — the others are Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia — which are at different stages of the EU membership process.

Their entry to the bloc has been stalled for years. But after Russia’s war on Ukraine, EU officials are more keen on trying to lure them away from the Kremlin’s influence.

In addition to the incomplete internal reforms damaging its bid, Bosnia is still ethnically and politically divided, and is perhaps the most fragile of the Balkan countries.

Separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is pro-Russia, continues to undermine the presidency and other political functions in the country. In December, Dodik told The Associated Press that he intended to keep weakening the country to the point where it fell apart.

The latest US intelligence annual threat assessment published last month noted that Dodik “is taking provocative steps to neutralize international oversight in Bosnia and secure de facto secession for his Republika Srpska. His action could prompt leaders of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population to bolster their own capacity to protect their interests and possibly lead to violent conflicts that could overwhelm peacekeeping forces.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “very much for” moving a step forward “after the many efforts that have been made in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“As a whole, the states of the Western Balkans also must be able to rely on us,” he said. “The promise that they would be able to become members of the European Union was made … more than 20 years ago in Thessaloniki, and now we need the next steps.”

In anticipation of a positive outcome, EU flags could be seen hanging throughout Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo, where citizens and officials alike hailed the prospects of their country moving forward in its bid.

Adnan Balvanovic, a resident of Sarajevo, believes EU integration is “something Bosnia needs, to make its way forward, to develop. It can finally become a normal state like its citizens want it to be. It is also good for us, young people who want to stay in Bosnia Hercegovina.”

Pensioner Jasmina Kadusic agreed “it would be nice” if Bosnia joined the EU but warned that the process has already taken too long and that “our politicans are not doing enough to make it happen.”

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Eldar Emric in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.

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