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EU leaders have confirmed candidate status for Bosnia-Herzegovina, putting the Balkan country at the start of what is expected to be a long and complex process toward membership.
The decision comes two days after the European Council said it supported the conclusions of the European Commission, which recommended candidate status for Bosnia but attached a list of eight conditions designed to bolster democracy in the country.
The European Commission made its recommendation in October, but the commission only advises which countries should become EU candidates. The final decision on granting candidacy lies with the 27 member states, and according to EU rules, they must agree unanimously.
European Council President Charles Michel on Twitter called the EU leaders' decision a "strong signal to the people, but also a clear expectation for the new authorities to deliver on reforms."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed Michel, saying on Twitter that the decision confirmed that the future of Bosnia lies in the EU and its political leaders "can now turn this ambition into reality through decisive reforms."
The EU leaders approved the move despite concerns over the political situation in Bosnia, a country of 3 million people that fought a civil war three decades ago and that has struggled to overcome ethnic divisions since then.
Bosnia remains partitioned between a Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, and the Bosniak-Croat federation connected by a weak central government.
The administrative system, created by the 1995 Dayton agreement, succeeded in ending the conflict but has not been conducive to advance the country's political development.
Among the eight conditions are implementing steps to fight corruption and organized crime, making judicial and immigration reforms, strengthening of laws against torture, and providing guarantees of freedom of expression and the protection of journalists.
Formal accession negotiations -- the next step on the path to membership -- are to begin only after the fulfillment of the conditions. The opening of accession talks will again require the unanimous approval of all EU member states.
Bosnia becomes the third country after Ukraine and Moldova to be granted candidate status in the past six months.
The moves toward expansion come amid concern that powers such as Russia and China might spread their influence in the Balkans if countries hoping to join the bloc are turned away.
Bosnia in 2016 applied for full membership in the EU. The European Commission in 2019 issued an opinion but did not recommend candidate status, citing the necessity for the country to fulfill the conditions. Before the war in Ukraine, there were 14 criteria required for Bosnia before the next stage, formal accession negotiations.
Montenegro and Serbia are two other Balkan states that wish to join the EU. They started accession talks in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Turkey was named a candidate in 1999, but its membership talks are effectively frozen.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti on December 15 handed over his country's application to join the EU to Czech European Affairs Minister Mikulas Bek in Prague.
The submission of Kosovo's application to Bek, representing the country that currently holds the rotating EU presidency,
is expected to be a lengthy process, given that five EU members have yet to even recognize it as independent.
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