The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade was honoured to host a high-ranking official from the Western Balkans once again. Mr. Josip Brkić, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina visited the Institute on 8th of March 2017 where he also held a public lecture entitled "Accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU and NATO - regional dimension".
The event was opened by Ambassador Márton Schőberl, Director of IFAT. By referring to the exchange of views during the “European Union and Western Balkans: confidence and continuity” conference held two weeks ago, he found it controversial that it was still necessary to draw attention repeatedly to the demand of increasing EU leverage in the Western Balkan region. He added that some positive changes might come as more and more decision-makers realised the negative consequences of the weakening credibility of the European perspective. To underline this, the Director cited the words of Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy: “[…] the door of the European Union is open for the Balkan countries. This is not an “enlargement” of our Union but a “reunification” – because the Balkans are part of Europe.” Furthermore, he highlighted the role of NATO in the region that significantly contributes to the stability and security of the region and facilitates its democratic transition.
After the opening remarks of the Director, Deputy FM Brkić first talked about the European perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the region. In his opinion, the challenges that EU enlargement toward the Western Balkans faces have changed enormously since the launch of the Thessaloniki Agenda in 2003. While earlier blame could be put on conflicts stemming from wars of the 1990s, today challenges are more complex, and often appear within the EU itself. He was aware that the promotion of EU enlargement is not a vote-winning topic in the EU member states but he underlined that if the EU does not want to strengthen its role in the Western Balkans, other potential partners would fill the gap. For this reason, he found the current visit of Federica Mogherini in the Western Balkans very important, though it came a bit late.
2016 - as HR Mogherini also put it - was a monumental year from the perspective of the Western Balkans’ European integration process. BiH submitted its membership application in February 2016 though many tried to persuade it to refrain from doing so. Deputy FM Brkić was particularly grateful to Hungary for its strong support for the accession process of BiH and the entire region. Since then BiH has received the questionnaire from the European Commission and he hoped that they would be able to send their answers back until the end of June. Their ambitious hope is that they receive a confirmation from the European Commission and the Council by the end of the year.
While he briefly he elaborated the state of the accession process of the Western Balkan countries, he pointed out the case of Macedonia where the negative impact of the weakening credibility of the European perspective became obvious and led to a serious domestic political crisis. In Brkić’s point of view, the EU cannot be stable and secure without the integration of the Western Balkans. Positive impacts of the integration have already occurred starting from the change in the foreign policy of Serbia to the strengthening regional cooperation supported by the Berlin Process.
Regarding the approach to NATO, he explained that there is still no full public support for NATO membership in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is the reason why they focus on the Membership Action Plan (MAP) that is acceptable for all political actors. The MAP was agreed in 2010 but NATO members determined conditionality for its entry into force. The majority of the conditions, such as participation of BiH in NATO missions have already been met, which also demonstrates that BiH is not only a beneficiary of this cooperation but a contributor. However, the state level registration of defence immovable properties has not been accomplished yet which is also a condition for MAP. Just like toward NATO partners, the Deputy FM emphasised that slowness of the registration is a consequence of technical issues and that this does not limit the access of state level institutions to these properties. He closed his speech by expressing his hope that any positive development in the EU accession process would contribute to changes in the NATO decisions too.
After the speech of the deputy FM, the members of the audience raised several questions. In his answers, Mr. Brkić elaborated more about the increasing number of investments of China (for example in the energy sector), but he also mentioned the growing interests of Arab states in BiH, particularly in the field of tourism. Concerning the Trans-European Networks highway projects, he explained that the construction would be very expensive as a consequence of the topographic characteristics of the country that complicates the implementation of the project. A question about the extension of rights of Croats in BiH was raised too but as a state official, Mr. Brkić could not elaborate on that but added that the amendment of the electoral code is of much bigger importance from the country’s perspective. He also answered a question on foreign fighters by introducing legal and other measures that resulted in the abolishment of travels of foreign fighters to conflict zones (mainly to Syria) and that support the reintegration of returnees.
Regarding the EU coordination mechanism and the probable difficulties in answering the questionnaire of the European Commission, he underlined that only this mechanism can lead to a compromise solution. Any other imposed solution would just generate further problems. Concerning the question on recognition of Kosovo’s independence, he stressed the domestic character of the debate about recognition which however does not influence the cooperation between the two countries. Finally, he expressed his views on the operation of the Office of High Representative that he found currently still necessary but he also pointed out that no international partner would take Bosnia and Herzegovina seriously as long as OHR is there so eventually it will need to be closed. The intense discussion was ended in the hope that the messages that had been delivered by EUHR Federica Mogherini on her most recent Western Balkan tour will become true and the enlargement process will gain new momentum.