BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Commission recommended on Wednesday that Bosnia and Herzegovina be granted the status of candidate to join the European Union, on the understanding that it reinforces democracy and takes other steps.
“Wind of change is once again blowing through Europe and we have to capture this momentum,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm, said in a speech. “The Western Balkans belong in our family and we have to make this very, very clear.”
In its annual report on EU enlargement, the Commission said Bosnia should bolster democracy, the functionality of state institutions and the rule of law, tackle corruption and organised crime, guarantee media freedom and migration management.
Some Western Balkans countries’ patience in the EU’s waiting room is wearing thin, and critics of the slow pace of further enlargement of the bloc say it leaves space for Russia and China to extend their influence in the region.
Von der Leyen said the EU’s opponents look at the Balkans as “a geopolitical chessboard” seeking to “drive a wedge between the region and the rest of Europe”.
The Commision said five other Western Balkan states – Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – and Turkey which all have candidate status needed to make more progress in key reforms including rule of law, the fight against corruption and media freedom.
It urged Serbia which has been balancing between historical ties with Russia and its aim to join the EU “to improve as a matter of priority” its alignment with the bloc’s foreign policy. An EU candidate, Serbia still has not imposed sanctions against Russia.
The Commission also recommended that the visa liberalisation regime be given to Kosovo, the only European country which needs visas to travel to Western countries.
Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic said the decision to grant candidacy status to Bosnia was welcome and historic and that it would encourage reforms and fulfilment of the necessary conditions before the opening of EU membership talks.
“The reviving of this process is of vital importance for the citizens and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the stabilisation of the whole region”, Turkovic said on Twitter.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, commenting on the move to recommend candidate status for Bosnia, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had underlined the importance of EU enlargement and its geopolitical significance.
“It is a long-term investment into peace, prosperity and stability for our continent,” he said.
(Reporting by Marine Strauss, Charlotte Van Campenhout, John Chalmers, Daria Sito-Sucic, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Louise Heavens, Kirsten Donovan and Jonathan Oatis)