25 years ago, the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the bloodiest war in Europe after the Second World War. A devastating conflict that led to genocide, more than 100,000 deaths, and over a million refugees. The memories of this war, at the heart of our continent, will remain with us forever.
Looking back on the past 25 years, there has undoubtedly been a lot of progress towards building a stable and democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the journey is not finished. A lot of hard work remains to ensure that all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina can look confidently to a more prosperous future, based on a clear political perspective: EU integration.
The history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is European history and the future of the country and of the whole Western Balkans lies in the European Union. The 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement is an important juncture, which should inspire the political leadership and the country’s institutions to transition from the structures that brought an end to conflict, to the principles that accelerate progress for all citizens. In other words, the transition from Dayton to Brussels.
Today, there is no question that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future lies inside the European Union. With the European Commission’s opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership application endorsed by the Council last year in December, the country’s authorities have a clear roadmap of the reforms they need to implement to advance on the EU accession path, including constitutional reforms.
We cannot change yesterday, but we can shape tomorrow, together. EU integration is the single most important objective – with 80 per cent of BiH citizens in support – uniting BiH political parties and the general public alike. For years, in the absence of a clear positive vision for the future, young people – some not even born when the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed – have been leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina, to find a brighter tomorrow elsewhere. The EU integration process and the accompanying reforms might not convince everybody to stay, but it will certainly help cement prosperity and peace.
The EU is already BiH’s main economic and political partner – most recently in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic recovery from it. We are now working to put into action an unprecedented economic and investment plan and a green agenda paving the way for more connected, green, and people-focused growth in the Western Balkans.
Young generations everywhere, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina, expect leaders to deal with climate change, to come up with plans for sustainable growth, and a digital interconnected world. They want education that will allow them to succeed in life, flourishing in their own country. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs new ideas and contributions from young people. Their world should not be limited. Young people have the right to define themselves, to grow up free from prejudice and to be able to shape their own future.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU progress also needs to be underpinned by genuine reconciliation. Political actors should heed the example of how the majority of people of Bosnia and Herzegovina live – as good neighbours, colleagues and friends, and actively promote the ‘living together’. Regardless of divisive rhetoric that dominates the media and political discourse, it is evident that what unites the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina is far stronger than what divides them.
With its cultural, ethnic and religious mix, Bosnia and Herzegovina has traditionally been “united in diversity”, the same way the EU is. The war brutally disrupted that diversity but it did not destroy it: Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a culturally rich and diverse European country.
Because of the past, but most of all, for the future of this beautiful country and its people, using inflammatory rhetoric, historical revisionism and glorifying war criminals is unacceptable. The darkness of war in Europe should stay in history books. Let us learn from them and acknowledge the facts, while focusing on building lasting peace and a society based on democracy, rule of law, equality, non-discrimination and the full protection of human rights.
The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina demand this. They can count on the European Union to support their quest, but that quest remains in their hands.
By Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy