As the news comes out from Brussels from the latest “agreement” (on principles) how to move ahead in the Bosnia and Herzegovina – EU accession talks, and on the eve of a debate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe tomorrow I gave an interview to a Bosnia paper. Here is the English version. I also discussed the issue a few days ago in another interview in Dnevni Avaz. A full ESI report analysing the issue is coming out this week.
The goal is a Bosnia where it is normal to be a Catholic Serb, an Orthodox Bosniak, or a Muslim Croat.
Interview with Gerald Knaus
Political representatives of Bosnia are meeting commissioner Fule to discuss the Sejdic – Finci issue. How do you see that issue and some models of resolving it?
This issue raises a fundamental question for the country: What does it mean to be a „Bosniak”, a „Croat“ or a „Serb“ in 21st century BiH? I do not think that the categories of Bosniak, Croat or Serb will ever disappear in Bosnia. I also do not believe the solution lies in creating a fourth millet, such as another caucus in the House of Peoples or a seat for „ostali” in the presidency. I think the very concept of „ostali” is strange and not very pleasant. The pragmatic way forward lies in changing the meaning of what is a Bosniak or a Croat or a Serb. For this you do not need foreign diplomats and political leaders finding ever more complicated formulas. It can be done by all citizens, including intellectuals and civil society – today.
How can people change this when politicians have failed to agree for so long?
The goal is a Bosnia where it is normal to be a Catholic Serb, an Orthodox Bosniak, or a Muslim Croat. It is normal today to be a Muslim German or a Buddhist French. The parents of David Alaba, the most prominent player on the Austrian national football team, are from the Philippines and from Nigeria. Yet he is Austrian. This is what modernity means: identities that are fluid, open to change. This is what nationalists in the past have always tried to suppress. But modern Europe has to have a place for Catholic Greeks, Christian Turks, and Muslim Austrians.
What does this mean concretely for Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci? Can they become president without constitutional changes?
Yes, of course. I hope they run for president in the next elections. I hope they redefine what it means to be Croat or Bosniak. If Jakob Finci would say, „Look, I do not feel Bosniak today, but in the Bosnia of the future a Jewish, secular, European Bosniak should be normal … and I contribute to this now.” There are German Roma, French Roma, Italian Roma, etcetera. There should be Croat Roma, and Serb Roma. This would implement Sejdic-Finci, transform the country and give hope to others who feel uncomfortable about narrow ethnic categories. And I would hope that many people vote for them.
Is the EU’s approach to Sejdic-Finci right or wrong?
I have heard some Europeans suggest that it only takes “a little bit of political will” to implement Sejdić and Finci. Have they forgotten how politics works in Belgium? Or in South Tyrol, where you declare officially whether you are part of the German, Ladino or Italian speaking community? Identity questions are always hard. People care about their identity, and to consider them and the politicians they elect backward or incompetent is a sign of arrogance.
Are there specific issues where the EU is not treating Bosnia fairly?
Let me be concrete. The Sejdic-Finci judgement on the presidency relies on the fact that Bosnia ratified Protocol 12 against all forms of discrimination in 2002. You know how many EU members have ratified the same protocol? Eight. The EU also says that it will sanction Bosnia because it has not implemented a particular ECHR judgement. I checked the situation at the end of 2011. Do you know how many court decisions Italy had not yet implemented? 2,500. Bulgaria? 340. Bosnia? 17. What the EU should do is find ways to encourage Bosnia to accommodate all its different identities. The best way to do this is to open accession talks as soon as possible, and integrate Bosnia into Europe.
Recently you pointed out that there are some countries in the EU that have an even more flawed constitutional structure then Bosnia. If that is so, why do the EU and the Council of Europe insist on the Sejdic-Finci issue in case of Bosnia?
Look at Cyprus. It is an EU member. There are also Muslim Roma in Cyprus. Now imagine that Dervo Sejdic had been born there in 1956. Under the constitution of 1960 every citizen of Cyprus belongs to one of two national groups, the Greeks or the Turks. On account of his religion, Sejdic would have been placed on the electoral roll of the Turkish community. His family would have had no choice. But after 1963 members of the Turkish community were no longer able to vote in the Republic. So for his whole adult life Dervo Sejdic, a Cypriot, would not have been allowed to stand for office or even to vote.
And what did the EU do? It opened accession talks with Cyprus in 1997, and accepted it as a member in 2004. The European Parliament praised the Annan Plan, which included the same ethnic principles as the Cypriot constitution. It even suggested it as a model for other countries. And one month after Cyprus joined the EU the ECHR issued a judgement saying it was unacceptable for Muslim citizens of the Republic to be unable to vote! Bosnia today is already better than Cyprus, because in Bosnia you can freely chose your identity at eachelection. This is crucial, this gives this country the potential to move away from the Ottoman millet tradition and towards a modern society.
Nonetheless, the EU and the CoE are sending messages on their readiness to cut or curb relations with Bosnia if Sejdic-Finci is not resolved soon.
These threats are very unfortunate. A visa ban for Bosnian politicians? For all politicians, for all party leaders, for all parliamentarians who have not yet voted for constitutional changes? I find it hard to understand the logic behind these threats. Why should the Council of Europe punish Bosnia, but not Russia or Azerbaijan, which have dozens of political prisoners and no free elections?
The EU has to accept that identity issues are hard to resolve always and everywhere. In Belgium. In Northern Ireland. In South Tyrol. In Cyprus. ESI is publishing a new report on how the EU missed a step in Bosnia this week, and where we argue in favour of a different, more promising approach than empty threats.
Is it a time for a new EU approach to Bosnia? More engaged, less demanding?
To become a modern country that can join the EU Bosnia needs to fundamentally change its economy, its institutions, everything from schools to environmental policy. It also needs to respect all identities and be open to change. But the way to achieve this is to demand from Bosnia what the EU has demanded from other countries that wanted to join. I wish Bosnian politicians, when they are in Brussels next time, take time to go to a bar and decide that – whatever else they disagree on – they will submit an application for EU accession immediately, now, in 2013. I hope they tell the EU, with one voice: “If Serbia is ready for candidate status, if Cyprus is a member, if Turkey is having accession talks, then Bosnia is ready to submit an application.” And then, when they come home, I hope they prepare for a serious accession process to start next year.