Foreign Minister Steinmeier and the UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday (16 January). During talks with the country’s political leaders in the capital, Sarajevo, they called for a fresh start in the reform process. This comes after Steinmeier and Hammond presented a joint initiative at a Berlin conference on the Western Balkans in November. An important part of that initiative is a commitment to reform on the part of the country’s own political forces.
The trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina initially went less smoothly than anticipated, as unfavourable weather conditions and dense fog meant Steinmeier’s and Hammond’s aircraft both had to be diverted to Mostar. The two ministers headed to Sarajevo from there by car, where they eventually arrived somewhat later than planned on Friday afternoon.
A visit in difficult times
Steinmeier and Hammond were able to gain a first impression of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina during their drive to the Balkan capital.
The view out of the car window made it clear that the two foreign ministers were visiting the country at a difficult time. In spite of major and visible investment in infrastructure, economic development is lagging behind that of other Balkan countries.
Unemployment is officially at over 40% and even at more than 60% among the young. The country was hard hit once again by disastrous flooding last year.
Overcoming the crisis, getting on with reform
Bosnia and Herzegovina is furthermore still suffering the effects of the war which split the country along ethnic lines between 1992 and 1995. Around 100,000 people died during the fighting. Twenty years after the end of the war, this Balkan country of four million people is still divided by distrust among its various ethnic groups. The upshot has been political and economic stagnation and a lack of badly needed reform.
Steinmeier and Hammond are keen to see reform restarted. Appearing together in the Parliament in Sarajevo on Friday, the two ministers called decisively for closer alignment between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union.
The German Foreign Minister used his speech to the Parliament to emphasise the fact that the German-British initiative had opened a door for Bosnia and Herzegovina to move towards the EU. He urged those responsible in politics and society to use that opportunity. Steinmeier continued:
We, the EU and its member states, stand ready to provide help and support. But only Bosnia and Herzegovina can actually walk that road towards the EU; the will and the determination to enact reforms need to come from its own society and political sphere. The responsibility lies in your hands, in the hands of this country’s politicians!
The German-British reform initiative
In his speech to the Members of Parliament, Steinmeier also pointed out that the European Union supported the German-British initiative and was developing it further. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini visited Sarajevo last December and expressed her support for the initiative alongside EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn. They made it clear that progress on its implementation would have a positive effect on the process of closer alignment with the EU.
Before leaving on his journey, Steinmeier had announced his intention to pick up where that visit had left off and to join the UK Foreign Secretary in calling “for commitment to reform in many talks with the country’s significant political and economic forces”.
Intensive talks with the Presidency and party leaders
Steinmeier and Hammond held one of those talks with the three members of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Presidency: Mladen Ivančić, Bakir Izetbegović and Dragan Čović. The two European foreign ministers called on the three politicians, who represent the Bosniak, Croat and Serbian ethnic groups in the Presidency, to work for a commitment to reform on the part of the country’s political forces and society. Steinmeier and Hammond emphasised that this would be answered by a swifter process of alignment with the EU.
Afterwards, Steinmeier and Hammond spent more than 90 minutes speaking to the leaders of the parties which have parliamentary representation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here too, the two men called for their interlocutors to take the initiative. They appealed to the “political will” of the country’s leadership to seize the proffered opportunities for reform and closer alignment with the EU.
Essential need for the courage to take difficult decisions
At the press conference that followed, Steinmeier said, “Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot and must not simply carry on the same as before.” What had to happen now, he said, was for a reform plan to be drawn up that would “improve conditions for the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina as quickly as possible”.
Steinmeier underlined his and Hammond’s firm belief in the country’s European perspective. It was up to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said, to take the opportunity. Addressing the country’s political leaders, Steinmeier said this would take constructive cooperation and the courage both to think in new ways and to take difficult decisions.
After their joint press conference, Steinmeier and Hammond headed home, convinced that their initiative and the talks had made a contribution to help Bosnia and Herzegovina to successfully restart its reform process and move closer to the EU. But there was one thing they made very clear during their trip, namely that the next move now had to come from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s own government. It now has what may be its last chance to reform the country to make it fit for further stages of the EU alignment process.