Opportunities for the EU to build long-term peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina

What is happening?

On Monday March 5, QCEA and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) held the first of a series of events that link peacebuilding with geographic case studies. This one looked at the role of the EU in building long-term peace in the Western Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The event bridged EU policy makers and security officials focused on the Western Balkans, Bosnian civil society, and Europe’s future foreign policy leaders interested in the topic.

A key part of the discussion included a lively debate regarding the diverging views of the European Commission and Bosnian civil society on the EU enlargement process. Recently, the Western Balkans have featured on the EU agenda after years of enlargement fatigue. In the 2017 State of the Union address, Commission President Jean-Claude Junker named enlargement as a priority for the EU. Enlargement is also a priority for the Bulgarian EU presidency. The EU’s new strategy for the region proposes new initiatives where the EU can engage.


QCEA Peace Programme Lead Olivia Caeymaex speaking at our Western Balkans event with YPFP, which took place on March 5 in Quaker House Brussels. Credit: Kate McNally

While civil society in the region welcomes EU support to structural reforms, an open letter to the EU highlights areas of concern where civil society perceives that the EU is not paying enough attention. The letter notes that the strategy overlooks how some proposed economic reforms may further limit the social rights and services that populations are able to access. It also sheds light on the socio-economic situation of citizens in the region, and calls for reforms that will support sustainable livelihoods through accessible, quality services such as health and education.

Both the new EU strategy and civil society’s open letter emphasise the role of this generation in terms of transforming socio-economic and political developments. The EU strategy notes that becoming a member of the EU is more than a technical or institutional process, but requires societal transformation. On the other hand, civil society points out that the EU largely negotiates with political elites but that many citizens do not see them as credible, accountable representatives. Change may take generations but the entry point is a strategy for peace that is inclusive and accountable to different populations.

While discussions regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina often focus on conflicts and complexity, there are ways to build long-term peace through initiatives that take into account peacebuilding principles such as inclusiveness and addressing power relations. A variety of these initiatives can be found in QCEA’s recently published a report entitled Building Peace Together, that makes the case for peacebuilding and demonstrates that building peace requires many sectors to be involved. The report emphasizes that long-term change hinges on transformation across multiple levels of society.

Considering the enlargement process as one of the soft power tools of the EU, the situation in the Western Balkans provides a unique and important opportunity to build sustainable, locally owned peace within the borders of Europe through credible and accountable economic, political and social change.


What can be done?

Developing accountable governance

The discussion on 5 March underscored that there are layers of complexity that make structural reforms particularly challenging in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Commission reported that it recently received the country’s responses to a questionnaire that will help the EU advise Bosnia-Herzegovina on its reforms for EU accession. The process took almost 15 months, much longer than for other candidate countries, and the Commission received 3 times as many pages of responses than other cases. One of the reasons for the lengthy process is due to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s burdensome administrative system, which was set up as part of the peace process in the 1990s. Bosnia-Herzegovina consists of one state; two entities, one of which is subdivided into cantons; and an additional district. The result is a fragmented civil sector.

Furthermore, the political sphere is highly polarised. There is a widespread sense in Bosnia-Herzegovina that political parties are not addressing the needs of populations but rather exploiting them. Corruption and nepotism are rife, undermining accountable governance and trust between citizens and government representatives. In some cases, citizens feel disenfranchised due to lack of access to legal services or democratic processes, such as in Mostar where there have been no local elections since 2008. These issues underscore mistrust between many layers of society in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One of the peacebuilding principles put forward in Building Peace Together is accountable governance, where population groups have the means to provide feedback on and propose reforms. Accountable governance can open lines of communication between government officials and populations, it can reduce the likelihood of tensions by creating channels to address grievances.

Tools that can pursue accountable governance include political debate and active citizenship initiatives, constitutional reform, political party support, and anti-corruption initiatives.

YPFPBosnia Credit QCEA March2018c.jpg

From left: Dilia Zwart and Olivia Caeymaex (QCEA) with Goran Bubalo from the Bosnian civil society organisation Network for Building Peace. Credit: Andrew Lane

Supporting community-based security

The cumbersome administration is not the sole issue stalling Bosnia-Herzegovina’s progress to join the EU or to overcome legacies of the 1990s war. According to a representative of the EU military mission it’s presence is still seen to be necessary today, now focusing on stockpile management and demining -two issues that remain from the war. The presence of weapons and mines can undermine community safety and freedom of movement, but can be addressed by community-based security projects that bridge a range of actors to enhance the security landscape and build trust between security services such as the police and communities.

Addressing socio-economic factors

At several moments the discussion on March 5 brought to light how socio-economic issues are at the root of deep-seated grievances in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unemployment is high, particularly for youth. This and poverty are some of the causes for high rates of ‘brain drain’ as well as for the protests that swept across the country in 2014.

A number of initiatives can address socio-economic needs that reflect local realities and generate fair, transparent systems. For example, entrepreneurship, economic partnerships, micro-finance can address lack of employment and ensure sustainable livelihoods. Management of land and property rights can also be conducive to improving quality of life and contribute to peace when structures are transparent, credible and fair to different population groups.

Initiating inclusive education and cross-cultural exchange

Youth exchanges can play a positive role in building trust and fostering new connections. Such exchanges can nurture existing pockets of peace, as many youth are already engaged in or have ideas for creative alternatives. As segregated education remains a divisive issue in Bosnia-Herzegovina, initiatives can be designed to create spaces for youth to meet to share a coffee or engage in extracurricular hobbies. Such engagements can be conducive to peace by supporting the next generation of active citizens that make choices for a peaceful future.


Dilia Zwart is QCEA’S Peace Programme Assistant

%d bloggers like this: