The EU and the future of the Dayton Peace Agreement

Dr Tajma Kapic

The European Union, through the Brexit negotiations, demonstrated a considerable commitment to protecting the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, its actions—or rather, ‘inactions’—are in danger of undermining the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, if it supports the recent initiative by the Government of Croatia on the future of EU foreign policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Signed in December 1995, after months-long negotiations, the Peace Agreement put an end to a three and a half year-long war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also created an extremely complicated and cumbersome institutional structure. In order to address the ethno-national interests of three opposing parties the solution offered in Dayton was an intricate, asymmetrical state with multiple levels of government.

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to its extremely complex institutional structure and its ongoing high level of political instability has not managed to reach EU candidacy status, the EU’s political influence is paramount for maintaining stability on the ground in this deeply divided society. Since it became an EU member state, Croatia, a neighbouring country and a signatory of the Dayton Peace Agreement, has repeatedly vowed to voice Bosnia and Herzegovina’s interests in Brussels. 

However, the recent actions of Croatia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Gordan Grlić Radman, are undermining the country’s fragile stability and have triggered another upheaval in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s perpetual state of political crisis. On 22nd March 2021, a non-paper (an unofficial paper which is used in diplomacy for discussion of different issues) on Bosnia and Herzegovina was prepared on Croatia’s initiative by Grlić Radman and presented to the EU foreign ministers. Emphasising Croatia’s role as the most interested and the sincerest advocate of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Euro-Atlantic journey, the paper emphasised that Bosnia and Herzegovina should remain at the centre of the EU’s attention and that the country’s membership in the EU should be a priority and clear aspiration. However, according to Grlić Radman, for that to happen its entire society needs a comprehensive transformation, and ‘only by being firmly anchored for European values and standards of civil and political rights for all three constituent peoples and its citizens can the country strengthen its stability and progress’. The paper further emphasises the importance of urgent key reforms, of which the most pressing is the reform of the country’s electoral law, which Grlić Radman suggests, ‘needs to be adopted without any further delay before the 2022 election’.

The reform of the country’s election law is an internal issue and changes should come from within Bosnia and Herzegovina through public debate rather than through external political pressure. The non-paper is a clear attempt by Croatia to get the EU to exert pressure on Bosnia and Herzegovina to change election laws in a way that the current Croatian Government believes would be beneficial to its own interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croats, together with Bosniaks and Serbs, make up the three main constituent peoples in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina. The power-sharing model in the Dayton Peace Agreement divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities, a centralised Republika Srpska with a Serb majority and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina made up of 10 cantons divided geographically and administratively between Bosniaks and Croats. This created a very complex and cumbersome multi-level power-sharing arrangement based on ethnic divisions in a very small state, which has presented an ongoing barrier to the country’s political and economic development. 

Reaction to the Croatian non-paper came from Željko Komšić, a Croat, and one of three Presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina who was elected by the votes of Croats, Bosniaks and others, and as such is not recognised by the Croatian political leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina who insist that the election of a Croat President should be done exclusively by ethnic Croats. Komšić believes that this initiative by the Croatian government within the EU is an attempt ‘to project its own interests’ and to increase influence over Bosnia and Herzegovina through the activities of the Croat nationalist party, the HDZ BiH1Croatian Democratic Union Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is affiliated to the Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (Croatian Democratic Union), which is in power in Croatia.       

In his response to the non-paper initiated by Croatia, President Komšić expressed concern that the EU will be influenced by Croatia who is defending its own interests by ‘cementing the ethnically based politics’. The changes in electoral law would, according to Komšić, mean that each of the three members of the tripartite presidency could be elected strictly by the votes from their ethno-national group. This creation of ethnically pure election units is likely to lead to deeper ethnic cleavages in the country and will institutionally prevent any future electoral prospects for political parties seeking to build a more pluralist and cohesive Bosnia and Herzegovina. These proposed reforms are also generally associated with plans to deepen the internal partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by promoting the creation of a third entity. Since the signing of the Dayton Peace agreement, Croatia has supported the further division of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the creation of a third unit that would be predominantly Croat. This ‘third entity’ would have a homogenous Croatian majority, the consequence of which would inevitably be the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in turn, would most certainly plunge the country into war again.

It is widely agreed that changes are needed to the Dayton Peace Agreement to ensure the sustainability of peace. To have any chance of success any such changes would have to be negotiated by all signatories of this peace agreement and with the strong leadership of the international community, especially the EU. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, one of the signatories of the Peace Agreement and an EU member, would have the opportunity to exert its political interest and intentions more than other parties in this process. What these interests are, and what consequences will they have on the future of the region, are questions of vital importance for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens.


Dr. Tajma Kapic is a postdoctoral research fellow at IICRR. She finished her Ph.D. from the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Her research interests include conflict and conflict resolution, gender studies, consociationalism, peace processes, and Peace Agreements.

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