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Bosnia: whose state is it anyway?

The European Union is in denial about its undemocratic domination of this tiny Balkan republic.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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This week at the United Nations, Bosnia’s EU-appointed international administrator argued that the international protectorate is coming to a close. According to High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, Bosnia now will have ‘the opportunity to be a fully independent sovereign state’, with responsibility for its own political reform and economic development. Schilling urged the international community to ‘stand back and allow the Bosnian authorities to take decisions’, in order to allow a sustainable democratic culture to develop (1).

After 10 years of living under an international protectorate, it would be a good thing if the people of Bosnia were to be free to determine their own political future. However, it doesn’t look like Bosnia’s ‘independence’ will bring an end to international rule and the denial of democracy in the tiny state.

At the level of international institutional regulation, a formal handover is planned in 2007 from the ad hoc Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the group of states and international institutions involved in overseeing the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, to the European Union. This process of external institutional change has been facilitated by the fact that since Lord Paddy Ashdown’s appointment as PIC High Representative in May 2002, the EU’s Special Representative to Bosnia has assumed the ‘double-hatted’ post. The present occupant is former Austrian minister Schwarz-Schilling, who took over from Ashdown at the end of January 2006.

The more that the EU has assumed direct regulatory control over Bosnia, the more it has sought to downplay the power of the international administration and talk up Bosnia’s independence. The EU seems embarrassed by the power it has accumulated over the Balkan region, and over Bosnia in particular, and clearly finds it difficult to legitimise its authority. This has resulted in attempts to represent Brussels dictates as policy choices, and to exaggerate the nature of its European ‘partnerships’ and the ‘ownership’ that pre-accession states have over the enlargement process (2).

Étienne Balibar describes the EU as the ‘vanishing mediator’; rather than overtly asserting its power, as the United States does, it seeks to portray itself as a mediator rather than an actor in its own right (3). It would prefer ‘not to refer to itself in terms of power at all’ but merely as a facilitator and partner (4). The current institutional changes in Bosnia clearly reflect the way that the EU seeks to project its power at the same time as denying its position, presenting itself merely as a mediator or facilitator.

To all intents and purposes Bosnia is a member of the EU; in fact more than this, Bosnia is the first genuine EU state where sovereignty has in effect been transferred to Brussels. The EU provides its government; the international High Representative is an EU employee and the EU’s Special Representative in Bosnia. This EU administrator has the power directly to impose legislation and to dismiss elected government officials and civil servants. EU policy and ‘European Partnership’ priorities are imposed directly through the European Directorate for Integration (5). The EU also runs the police force, having taken over from the UN at the end of 2002, and the military, taking over from NATO at the end of 2004. And the EU manages Bosnia’s negotiations with the World Bank.

One look at the Bosnian flag – with the stars of the EU on a yellow and blue background chosen to be in exactly the same colours as used in the EU flag – demonstrates that Bosnia is more EU-orientated than any current member state (6). However, the EU has distanced itself from any responsibility for the power it exercises over Bosnia; formally Bosnia is an independent state and member of the UN and a long way off meeting the requirements of EU membership.

After 10 years of state-building in Bosnia there is now a complete separation between power and accountability (7). This clearly suits the EU, which is in a position of exercising control over the tiny state without either admitting it into the EU or presenting its policy regime in strict terms of external conditionality. The EU has performed the role of a ‘vanishing mediator’ between the international protectorate and Bosnian ‘independence’ – and the more it has played this role, the more the lines of political accountability have been blurred.

Bosnian people are unlikely to view their ‘independence’ under the EU as any different to their subordination under the international protectorate.

David Chandler is professor of international relations in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, London. His next book, forthcoming in July, is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building. Order this book from Amazon(UK).

Read on:

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(1) Envoy urges UN to end Bosnia role, BBC News, 19 April 2006

(2) David Chandler, The European Union and Governance in the Balkans, European Balkan Observer, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2003

(3) Étienne Balibar, ‘Europe: Vanishing Mediator’, in We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 201-235

(4) See, for example, Kalypso Nicolaidis, ‘The Power of the Superpowerless’, in Tod Lindberg (ed.) Beyond Paradise and Power: Europeans, Americans and the Future of a Troubled Partnership (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 93-120

(5) See, for example, the 280 page document outlining the timetable for implementing the EU’s medium priorities, the European Partnership for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Medium Term Priorities Realisation Programme [pdf]

(6) See further, Jos Poels, Bosnia and Herzegovina: A New ‘Neutral’ Flag, Flagmaster, No.98, (1998) pp.9-12

(7) See David Chandler (ed.) Peace without Politics? Ten Years of International State-Building in Bosnia (London: Routledge, 2006)

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