Interview with Ambassador Peter Sorensen Head of EU Delegation and EUSR to BiH in Vecernji List “Europe Has a Vision for BiH”

Europe Has a Vision for BiH

– This year the European perspective for BiH will pick up speed and it is of outmost importance that in the course of 2012 the perspective be made more real – said Sørensen.

Written by: Jozo Pavkovic

How close to the European Union is BiH, what still needs to be done, how to achieve greater progress… is all explained in the interview with Ambassador Peter Sørensen, Head of Delegation of the European Union and the European Union Special Representative to BiH. Ambassador Sørensen especially comments on the current affairs, the political climate in BiH, the new composition of the Council of Ministers, the role of the EUSR, and the position of the Croats, as well as on the Federation of BiH.

The Croats, as the smallest of all the peoples, are concerned for their position in BiH. How do you see their fears?

This is one way to look at BiH, as the 1995 Peace Agreement establishes a state wherein emphasis is placed on ethnic background. Consequently, a lot of people choose to focus on this. However, sixteen years have passed since and BiH is now a Member of the Council of Europe, it has to observe the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Council of Europe is sending us messages underlining that the focus on ethnic affiliation is in contravention of the European Convention. Concurrently, the Decision of the Court of Human Rights puts stress on the fact that BiH is a country for everyone. What we are trying to achieve with this European project for BiH is to have the attention redirected to what should be a functional state where there is room for everyone and where everyone, regardless of their beliefs and tradition, can live freely.

Is that even achievable with this version of Dayton?

– You may have noticed that we’re not getting involved in any discussion which could be construed as a discussion about Dayton. That is the OHR’s job. The thing we always underline is that we support BiH joining the EU as a single state with preserved territorial integrity and present Constitutional setup. This means that if everyone would aspire to potential membership in the EU, the focus would inevitably shift to making this a country with no unemployment and with constant development. I repeat this whenever such matters brought up. Some say that it will never happen, but I say that it will. Not a single country has yet joined the EU without benefiting from it.

At their referendum Croatia said  “yes“ to the European Union. What will this mean for BiH?

In concrete terms, that means that the perspective of EU membership is clear, that the process of EU enlargement is alive and well, and that we’re sincere about the offer we’ve extended to potential Member States. We hope that BiH will accept the EU offer. 1.009 kilometres of border will now separate BiH from the EU and with a border that long BiH can’t possibly be closer to Europe. This fact implies certain obligations for the EU but also for BiH. 

What are the priority tasks of BiH authorities in the context of EU accession?

There are two exceptionally important political decisions to make in the course of this year, first being the agreement on the Global Fiscal Framework or rather how to spend BiH revenues, and the second reaching an agreement on the national European Integration Plan. These are two political papers that simply must be adopted in order to be able to deal with all other difficulties the country’s facing. Progress must be made with regards to these two areas!

Should the process of European integration for BiH get deblocked, when would it be realistic for the country to receive the candidacy status for EU membership?

That’s a good question! One thing is clear – there is no point in submitting the application for membership before the Stabilisation and Association Agreement enters into effect. This is something we’ve talked about with Croatia when it had reached the stage. Although those are two different processes, I’m of the opinion that it is imperative for BiH to have the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in effect for, as soon as that happens, the country will start monitoring the implementation of the Agreement and could, then, also start thinking about the timeframe for submission of application for membership. 

In what way will your office work this year, especially given the general perception that EUSR is still very much in the shadow of the OHR?

That perception is understandable since the OHR has been in this country for 16 years now. Our focus is the European future. This year the European perspective for BiH will pick up speed and it is of outmost importance that in the course of 2012 the perspective be made more real and the obstacles making the membership unreal be identified. The first step is to facilitate the entry into force and start of implementation of the SAA I hope to see already in the initial half of this year. Subsequently, we should focus on the documents I mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation, namely the agreement on the Global Fiscal Framework and the agreement on the national European Integration Plan. We are prepared to launch an assistance project in this direction. We hope that the EU debate in BiH will cease being strictly philosophical and become very concrete in the sense of what concretely needs to be done. In simple terms, exactly what Croatia has gone through already.

Although your office and you personally enjoy strong EU support, one gets the impression that Europe doesn’t have a single position on the issues in BiH. How much of a burden is this to you?

I believe that there is a vision of BiH future in the EU, as so explicitly communicated by the Conclusions from March 2011. I believe that the focus should be on ensuring that the political debate in BiH is directed towards the potential membership in the EU. I’m not suggesting that this would resolve all the problems stemming from the conflict in BiH but 85 to 90 percent of the problems of this country will indeed be resolved through this very debate on the EU. To name just a few examples, the difference of opinion as to what constitutes the justice system in BiH. Citizens now feel that there is no state of law and this is something that will be sorted out as part of the European integration process. Equally, the issues resulting from the lack of single market in BiH, with one set of procedures used in FBiH and another in the RS, are also something that will be discuss as part of the European integration process. We believe that a great deal of issues will be discussed as part of this process and that, ultimately, perhaps only several difficult questions will remain unanswered. However, our experiences with other countries show that this approach will earn us some extra time and more room to deal with those open questions as well.

Do the EU and the U.S.A. have the same position with regards to BiH matters?

My answer is – yes, we in BiH have a great cooperation. Croatia is soon to learn that when you’re sitting in a 28-members-club it takes a long time to arrive to what can be considered the joint position on something but once you’re there it is nearly impossible that the position will change. Once we had reached that point, and I believe that our American friends would agree, we make a powerful partner. Having said this, it is imperative that coordination on the ground is good for that makes it easier for the higher instances to form a uniform approach. I believe that we do have that in BiH. 

What are the difficulties you’ve been facing in terms of coordinating the positions of the U.S.A. and of the European Member States locally represented by Ambassadors?

The difficulty I’m constantly facing is that I have a technical task which cannot be compared to what is a job of any other Ambassador here – I have to get much deeper into the matter of this country’s accomplishments. It is my job to assess whether BiH as a country is able to compete based on clearly set standards. To a great extent, when we have the same objectives and ideas the actual coordination on the ground is excellent, but there’s always the question of who do you call when you want to call the EU. What we’re trying to do at the moment is to set up that single telephone line and I think we’re much more successful in the effort than many have expected.

So far you’ve employed the so called ‘quiet diplomacy’ without resorting to the ‘Bonn powers’ such as the OHR used. Are you convinced that you can make the BiH politicians believe the European project in this way? Do you have any alternative mechanisms available should that fail?

The mechanisms I have at my disposal are extremely powerful but they are reserved to react to threats to territorial integrity and security of the country. It is a management instrument for crises situations. But the mechanisms are there and we can use them just as we’ve been using them in other parts of the world. In the present day BiH they could be used to support the OHR. However, we have a much stronger weapon in our hands. You all saw it in relation to visa liberalisation. We have something that the citizens of BiH want and that is access to our market, investments that only the EU membership can bring, creating new jobs as a result of foreign investments, access to our education system, etc. Based on what I could hear the politicians are positively responding to what is a will of over 70% of BiH citizens who say they want to be in the EU. That will is so powerful that it is bound to help deal with the challenges the history is bringing upon BiH. Therefore, a short reply to your question would be – yes, I am convinced.

You are about to enjoy a relatively positive working climate with the imminent establishing of the new Council of Ministers early February. This would give wings to your projects. What will be your first moves after the establishing of the Council of Ministers?

What is clear is that once the Council of Ministers set we’ll have a year of catching up to do. They will have little time to deal with backlog from the year past. We intend to follow up on the developments with regards to the two key documents I had mentioned and expect to have all BiH leaders agree on the European Integration Plan. That is a political matter we are going to work on. The Global Fiscal Framework is also important to us for it de-blocks some crucial processes but also because it reaffirms the commitment to have BiH integrated into the EU.