A report sent by the EU delegation in Sarajevo about a meeting with Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has prompted members of the European Parliament to question if he represents EU’s official position on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European perspective.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a potential candidate country in the Western Balkans, was plunged into a constitutional crisis last year after Milorad Dodik, the nationalist leader of the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska (RS), refused to accept a law which would criminalise denial of genocide and threatened to break up the country by unilaterally withdrawing from its state institutions.
In an attempt to de-escalate the political tension, Commissioner Varhelyi visited the country on 24 – 25 November last year and met political leaders to discuss ways to overcome the political crisis. In the leaked report, which has been seen by The Brussels Times, the head of the EU delegation reports about a debriefing meeting with EU heads of missions in the country.
According to the summary of the report, “a fragile political package agreement seems to have been reached” which would achieve a double objective: halting the implementation of unilateral withdrawal by Republika Srpska and the deblocking of state-institution bodies to enable their work on EU reforms.
This did not satisfy the 30 MEPs who last week sent an open letter to European Commission president von der Leyen expressing their concerns about the escalation in political tension fuelled by the leader of Republika Srpska. They found the content of the leaked letter disturbing and alleged that the Enlargement Commissioner “openly colluded with Dodik to potentially break up Bosnia and Herzegovina.“
“For many Bosnia watchers, the leaked document serves as evidence that Varhelyi has not only been appeasing the Bosnian Serb nationalists but openly colluding with Dodik in breaking up the country,” Samir Beharic, a graduate of the university of Sarajevo and a researcher at The Balkan Forum, wrote recently in an op-ed.
The Commissioner did not reply to a request from The Brussels Times for comment and to clarify the issue at stake.
According to a Commission statement, he was informed by Dodik during his visit in November of the latter’s intention to call a session of the national assembly of Republika Srpska to begin a process of withdrawing competencies, “but this does not in any way imply assent or acceptance of these plans”. Such a step would take the country further away from alignment with EU law and put the EU path on hold.
In fact, the development since Varhelyi’s meeting has not been promising. In the beginning of the new year, on 9 January, the entity celebrated its national day in remembrance of its establishment in 1992, with a semi-military parade and invited guests from Russia, China and the government of Serbia, a candidate country which already is conducting accession negotiations with the European Commission.
In an interview afterwards, Dodik did not make a secret of his intentions to achieve independence for Republika Srpska and to join Serbia. If it would happen, it would spell the death knell to both Serbia’s and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambitions to ever become EU member states.
Asked about the leaked report at a press conference last week, the Commission spokespersons replied that it was against its policy to comment on leaked documents. As regards the open letter from the MEPs, they replied that the MEPs would receive a response in due time. They also declined to name which candidate country had participated in the celebration in Banja Luka.
“There is no need to single out any country,” said Peter Stano, EU lead spokesperson for foreign affairs. ”They know that we know who they are. Their behaviour threatens regional stability and will affect their efforts to get closer to the EU.”
He referred also to a statement (10 January), where the EU condemned “the negative, divisive and inflammatory rhetoric used by Republika Srpska (RS) leaders during the celebrations of 9th of January this Sunday.”
“Such rhetoric and actions have further heightened the tensions among communities throughout the country and are further escalating the ongoing political crisis. They jeopardise the stability and prosperity of the country, and are in complete contradiction with its EU perspective, which can only be based on a single, united and sovereign Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
RS celebrations are also not in line with the BiH Constitution, as ruled by the Constitutional Court of the country, he added. EU urge all leaders, including the leadership of Republika Srpska, to bring unacceptable divisive steps to an end and return in full to the work of State institutions.
The bottom line is that EU is committed to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and rejects any proposal that would undermine the constitutional framework of the country. Should the situation further deteriorate, the EU disposes of a wide toolbox, including the existing EU sanctions framework, and a review of the overall EU assistance, Peter Stano warned.
So, was the leaked report just badly formulated giving a misleading impression about Commissioner Varherlyi’s policy and its consistency with official EU policy? Could be.
According to the report, a first step in the de-escalation process would be to find a solution to state property with the help of experts from the Office of the High Representative to the country. In the meantime, Varherlyi has apparently agreed with Dodik that the RS national assembly will decide on a 6-months moratorium on passing any legislation on unilateral withdrawal from state institutions.
Has there been any progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the Commissioner’s visit there, in particular as regards the regulation of state property?
“The rule of law, including respect of court rulings, is a cornerstone in the accession process,” a Commission spokesperson replied on Monday. “This relates also to state property which should be regulated by a state law discussed and agreed by all parties in the BiH parliament.” Whether discussions have already started is not clear. It would require the return of RS to the work of the state institutions.
The Brussels Times