Learning from the experiences of Northern Ireland – particularly the North/South Ministerial Council – could help Bosnia and Herzegovina move beyond its current reform impasse.
By Ian Bancroft
Fifteen years on from the Dayton peace negotiations and subsequent agreement, which was formally signed in Paris on December 14th 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains laden with the burden of its complicated institutional structures and safeguards. With constitutional reform stalled and Bosnia’s Croats resurrecting the idea of a third-entity, Bosnia faces a stalemate that the distant and diminishing prospects of EU membership will struggle to break. Part of this impasse can be attributed to the persistent dissatisfaction of two of the country’s three constituent nations – Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats – with their respective positions within the state. Whilst these issue of national allegiance are amongst the most challenging and contentious, their prevalence can be diluted by satisfying more of the Bosnian Serb and Croat demands for closer ties with their respective kin-states. The Northern Ireland experience contains important lessons in this regard.
Dayton – which ended the war in Bosnia – is a supra-state settlement, to which Serbia and Croatia are both signatories and guarantors. Each, therefore, has an unparalleled responsibility to facilitate its implementation. Though this dimension of Dayton has primarily been discussed in terms of antagonism and animosity, the regional context has changed enormously over the past fifteen years. With both Croatia and Serbia now firmly on the road to Europe and working hard to build good neighbourly relations, the time is ripe to strengthen their respective roles in Bosnia as a complement to the international community’s own plans to reform its presence. Both countries already maintain special relations with their respective kin; relations that have fostered a number of positive results, particularly in the spheres of energy and economy. Making a virtue out of such ties can act as a powerful catalyst for renewing ruptured regional ties.
The case of Northern Ireland, whilst not directly comparable, provides a number of important clues for how such forms of co-operation can be formalized for the benefit of all communities in Bosnia. The demands of the predominantly Roman Catholic republicans for closer ties with the south of Ireland were acknowledged and partially satisfied through the creation of a North-South Ministerial Council as part of the comprehensive 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The Council agrees common policies and approaches in six areas of co-operation (agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism and transport), which are then implemented separately in each jurisdiction; whilst six North-South Implementation Bodies function on an all-island basis, including Waterways Ireland, a Special European Union Programmes Body and InterTradeIreland.
By drawing on elements of the North-South Ministerial Council, it is possible to envisage the institutionalization of existing special relations between Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, respectively. The formation of a cross-border ministerial council comprised of those with executive responsibility in the three respective countries – which in the case of Bosnia, would be derived from either the state- or entity-level, depending upon the policy area in question – to develop consultation, co-operation and joint actions on areas of mutual interest would serve to enhance regional co-operation in the so-called Dayton Triangle. Whilst decisions of the Council – functioning on either a bi- or tri-lateral basis, supported by a joint secretariat – would not be binding, they would contribute to the development of common approaches to key issues and the realisation of mutual benefits. The areas for co-operation could mirror those of the North-South Ministerial Council, or be tailored to address the region’s own unique problems and challenges.
Establishing a cross-border ministerial council would help satisfy some of the demands of Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats for closer ties with their respective kin-states, whilst simultaneously contributing to improving relations between all communities across the three countries. Whilst such Councils would not substitute for the special relations that currently exist, they would help open up these relations to other actors – for instance, by strengthening ties between Bosnia’s Serbs and Croatia. Through the realization of shared interests and positions, the Councils may also contribute to improving the cohesion of Bosnia’s internal governing and policy-making structures. Much, however, would depend upon the willingness of Bosniaks to actively and constructively engage in institutional bodies designed to strengthen Bosnia’s regional and, ultimately, European integration.
Though the debate about institutions in Bosnia is typically about down-sizing, new structures to institutionalize relations between the Dayton Triangle – Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia – can contribute to improving Bosnia’s existing governance structure and performance by building trust and dialogue across the three countries. With the international community looking to redefine its own relationship with Bosnia, both Serbia and Croatia have the potential to play a complementary and constructive role consistent with Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Fifteen years on, strengthening the once problematic external dimensions of Dayton can now contribute to ending the current impasse facing Bosnia.
Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.
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