The European affairs ministers of the 27 EU countries agreed on Tuesday to approve a recommendation by the bloc’s executive arm to grant Bosnia candidate membership status as the war in Ukraine accelerates the bloc’s enlargement process.
Bosnia has taken a major step towards the rich club after receiving the unanimous support of ministers gathered in Brussels despite constant criticism of the way the Balkan country is run.
They approved Bosnia’s bid a week after EU leaders told six western Balkans interested in joining the bloc that they had a future place in the bloc. Tuesday’s decision needs formal approval from the leaders, who are due to meet for a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
“EU enlargement is the most effective process to ensure stability and security in Europe,” said Jan Lipavski, the Czech minister who holds the European Council presidency.
At a summit in Albania, the EU “reaffirmed its comprehensive and unequivocal commitment to EU accession in the Western Balkans” and called for accelerated negotiations with accession hopefuls.
The expansion of the European Union has stalled in recent years. But since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, EU officials have stressed that strengthening the bloc’s engagement with the western Balkans is more important than ever to keep Europe safe.
The EU also agreed in June to make Moldova and Ukraine candidates for membership, and said Georgia would become eligible once it met targets set by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
The European Commission recommended that Bosnia be granted candidate membership status in October, more than six years after the country formally applied for membership and nearly three decades after the country emerged from an inter-ethnic war in 1992-95 that killed more than 100,000 people.
Once a country is a candidate, it can take years to join the club. The last time the EU admitted a new member was the Balkan country of Croatia in 2013. Joining the EU is a lengthy process, as countries must meet a series of detailed economic and political conditions.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in October that Bosnia needed reforms on issues such as the judiciary, the fight against corruption and constitutional and electoral reform. In recent years, little progress has been made on these issues.
Bosnia’s foreign minister, Biserra Turkovic, said becoming an EU candidate would help the country secure new funding and investment.
“Economically, investors from all over the world will see … clear positives and opportunities for progress in Bosnia,” she said.
While Bosnia has expressed a desire to join the European Union starting in 2003, the country’s national leaders have so far proven unwilling to put aside their differences and implement necessary reforms. The staunchly pro-Russian Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has increasingly threatened to separate the Serb-held part of Bosnia from the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, Kosovo’s government said on Tuesday it would apply for candidate status this week amid a long-running dispute with neighboring Serbia.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti told a cabinet meeting: “Now is the time to move the potential candidate status into a formal status and thus enter a new phase of relations with the EU.”
Kosovo is the latest country in the Western Balkans to take this step. Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia are in membership talks with the bloc.
However, the EU has repeatedly warned Serbia and Kosovo that they must normalize relations to be eligible to join the bloc. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and the government does not recognize statehood for its former provinces.
A sizable Serb minority lives in northern Kosovo, where tensions have been high in recent days. Serbia fought a brutal war against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo in 1998-99.
Amer Cohadzic in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed to this report