Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Dutch Diplo Talk

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU Membership Application: what happens next?

23 May 2016

While checking the media for public statements by politicians, pundits and press hounds on the EU membership application of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I came across quite a few misunderstandings and wrong assumptions about the way the EU will handle Bosnia’s bid for membership. I am sure unfamiliarity with the Brussels way of decision making, rather than deliberate deception, is to blame. Therefore, also in order to avoid unrealistic expectations, an attempt at clarification:

What happened on the 15th of February?

Two weeks ago, on Monday, 15 February, President Dragan Covic presented the application of Bosnia and Herzegovina for membership of the European Union to the Dutch minister of foreign affairs. In a short, but festive ceremony, attended by High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn, my boss, minister Bert Koenders, representing the Presidency of the Council of the EU, accepted the application on behalf of all member states.

In his words, the ceremony marked an encouraging start of implementing a highly ambitious agenda of reforms. He urged the BiH authorities to realize the many reforms without further delay. The positive momentum, set in motion by the irrevocable commitment to reform signed by all political parties of Bosnia a year ago, must be maintained, he said.

A bit of EU Speak

The presentation took place just before a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council was to begin. For those, not familiar with the Brussels jargon or with EU Speak: the Council of the EU, or ‘the Council’, represents the member states’ governments. It has 10 different ‘configurations’ of national ministers from each EU country, depending on the subject being discussed. These meetings are chaired by the minister of the member state holding the 6-month Council Presidency. This job rotates every six months among the Member States. At present, my country holds this position; on 1st July, our Slovak colleagues will take over. Next in line is Malta (January-June 2017).

The big exception to this rule is the Foreign Affairs Council, or FAC, which is chaired by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently Federica Mogherini. That morning the FAC was going to discuss extremely sensitive and complex items, such as the migration crisis, Syria and the ‘Brexit’. The fact that Ms. Mogherini, in spite of this daunting agenda, took the time to attend, was symbolic for the importance she attaches to BiH’s progress. Also joining the party was the Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn. He was there on behalf of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body that proposes legislation, enforces European law and sets objectives and priorities for action. Although there are 28 Commissioners, one from each EU Member State, the Commission is responsible for the interests of the European Union as a whole, not for the interests of individual countries.

For those who want more detail or want to improve their knowledge of the Brussels Enlargement jargon, here is a useful link:

What did it mean?

I think it is useful to recap what this ceremony, which brought together many of the key players of the EU enlargement policy, stood for: first of all, when to submit an application is up to a potential candidate for EU membership to decide. Secondly, a country can do this only once, so, it is a step it should not take lightly. After all, the application comes in the form of an official letter, signed by the country’s highest executive authority, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegowina, President Covic. In this letter BiH confirmed its commitment to respect, as well as to promote the values on which the EU is founded. BiH also pledged to undertake all the necessary steps to comply with the membership criteria.

It was an important step, not taken for short term political gain, I hope. In the end, the submission of the application implies that BiH wants to be taken seriously as a future member of the EU. So, the EU Commission and the 28 members of the Council, more than ever, expect BiH to make a serious effort of serious reforms.

Without a doubt, a reason to celebrate, a step in the right direction, which will encourage and mobilize the reform-minded and positive forces in this country. But it is, mainly, a formal and a symbolic step. The real work on preparing BiH for EU accession has only just started in earnest. In short: one step, in a series of many.

So, what happens next?

It is worth repeating here that, to be sure, the EU Presidency: now in the hands of my country, takes receipt of the application. The Presidency has no mandate to decide on its own about what to do next. For instance, the following move in Bosnia’s accession process could be proposing and preparing a debate on the credibility of the application. That discussion would take place during one of the monthly meetings of the General Affairs Council – the configuration of the Council that deals with enlargement issues. But the decision to have that debate is taken on the basis of consensus among the 28 members of the Council, hence the importance of unanimity.

As I hear rumors to the contrary, I would like to be very clear: no member state is categorically, or in principle, against BiH making progress. The point is that not all EU countries agree that BiH has already made the necessary ‘meaningful progress in the implementation of the Reform Agenda’. Nor is the Commission convinced that BiH has made sufficient headway up until now. But all members of the Council and the EU Commission want to see BiH advance.

This condition of ‘meaningful progress’ and the two enabling preconditions, required for the application to be considered credible, have been around for a while: most recently, they were spelled out in the conclusions of the General Affairs Council meeting of 15 December 2015.

In addition to proving ‘meaningful progress’, having a functioning and functional mechanism in place to coordinate the different domestic positions before interacting with the EU plus the full adaptation of the trade chapters of the Stabilization and Association Agreement would greatly enhance the quality and the authority of the Bosnia’s application. In spite of unexpected delays, second thoughts and last-minute political interference, it seems that fulfilling these two preconditions is a deliverable, maybe in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Honest Broker

As you may know, the duty of the Presidency of the EU Council is to keep all items on the agendas of all meetings of the Council in their various configurations moving forward. This role of impartial mediator between the member states, between the member states and the Commission and European Parliament leaves very little room for national standpoints. Of course, The Netherlands has its own assessment of the merits of Bosnia’s application. But it cannot, and will not be, a decisive factor in our dealings with the application.

So, up until the end of our Presidency on 30 June, we play the role of ‘honest broker’. The citizens of BiH can rely on The Netherlands to give the application the attention it deserves. This implies that my colleagues in The Hague and in Brussels will remain alert, will monitor developments closely and will sound out, at regular intervals, the other member states and the Commission to find out if they think that BiH has made enough ‘meaningful progress’. As soon as the outlines of a consensus start to emerge, the Presidency will not hesitate to propose to the member states to have a discussion on the credibility of Bosnia’s membership application.

It depends to a large extent on BiH‘s own efforts in the reform process how soon that will be. If member states all agree, this debate will be put on the agenda of a General Affairs Council without delay. The result of these deliberations determines the next step.

And what exactly the Council will decide about what to do next is, at this point in time, anybody’s guess. Forwarding the application to the European Commission with a formal request to prepare an opinion on the merits of Bosnia’s application is just one of many possible outcomes. This could also be the moment when the Commission will ask BiH to fill out the much talked-of ‘questionnaire’. However, granting candidate-member status and starting accession negotiations are decisions which will have to wait until the Commission has submitted this analysis-cum-advice, the famous ‘Avis’, to the Council.


On that Monday morning in February, senior officials, including the current Chairman of the Presidency Mr. Dragan Covic, expressed their expectation that BiH would manage to obtain candidacy status by the end of 2017. That is a laudable objective and a towering ambition. Because, for that to happen, minister Koenders reminded them at the same occasion, many concrete and irreversible results need to be delivered. Your country has 22 months to pull it off.

(This blog was posted earlier in

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About the author

Jurriaan Kraak
Written by Jurriaan Kraak

Dutch ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina

Jurriaan Kraak was born on 24 August 1951 in Jakarta (Indonesia). He started his diplomatic career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978. After postings to Mexico and Canada, he worked for twelve years in Brussels at the Netherlands Permanent Representations to the European Union and to NATO. Between 1991 and 1995 he was seconded to the Royal Household as Private Secretary of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix and HRH Prince Claus of The Netherlands and of HRH the Prince of Orange. Prior to his posting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Latvia. He is married and has two children.