European Union members should open talks with Bosnia on joining, the EU’s executive branch says

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivers her speech as part of the preparation of the European Council meeting of March 21-22 2024, Tuesday, March 12, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivers her speech as part of the preparation of the European Council meeting of March 21-22 2024, Tuesday, March 12, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive arm will recommend that member countries open accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday, despite lingering ethnic divisions in the Western Balkan country.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is among six nations from the region — alongside Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia — who are at different stages of the EU accession process following a period of wars and crises in the 1990s.

Their memberships have 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.

“We have realized that it is not enough to just wait for the Western Balkans to move closer to us,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers on Tuesday. “It is not enough to say that the door is open. We must also take responsibility, and support their path towards our Union in any possible way.”

EU leaders are expected to discuss the European Commission’s recommendation at a summit scheduled in Brussels next week. There is no guarantee that member states will endorse it as separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is pro-Russia, continues to undermine the presidency and other political functions in Bosnia.

Bosnia has been riven by ethnic divisions, even decades after the war that tore the country apart in the 1990s. In December, Dodik told The Associated Press that he intended to keep weakening the country to the point where it fell apart.

Dodik welcomed the commission’s recommendation but said “it doesn’t mean much” since there is no exact date for accession attached.

“The European path is important for us because it represents a fulfilment of a big national goal – Serbs living in a single economic and political area without borders,” Dodik said. He described Bosnia as a “small EU,” which can function “when no interest is excluded.”

“That is when we have a positive result,” Dodik said.

Bosnia was granted candidate status in 2022. For candidates to join the EU, they have to 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.

Von der Leyen said that Bosnia needs to do “more progress” to join the EU, but insisted on the “impressive steps” towards the 27-nation bloc that the country has already achieved.

“More progress has been achieved in just over a year than in over a decade,” she said. “First, Bosnia and Herzegovina is now fully aligned with our foreign and security policy, which is crucial in these times of geopolitical turmoil.”

She also praised the country for its efforts in fighting money laundering, the financing of terrorism and improving the control of migration flows.

“The country is showing that it can deliver on the membership criteria, and on its citizens’ aspiration to be part of our family,” she said. “The message coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina is clear. So our message must be clear too. The future of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in our Union.”

Bosnia is perhaps the most fragile of the Balkan countries. Ethnic tensions there have persisted, long after the end of the 1992-95 war that killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions.

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Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.

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