18th August 2015
REPUBLIKA SRPSKA. IT’S HERE TO STAY. SO CAN WE MOVE ON NOW?
During my first year here, I have been struck by just how much political energy in the RS is spent on worrying about imagined threats to its continued existence. Political speeches have little to say about the really serious problems facing ordinary people in Republika Srpska, and across BiH, with a struggling economy, high unemployment and rampant corruption. Instead, a picture is painted of an RS beset by enemies, domestic or foreign. This is the politics of insecurity, not of hope. But this insecurity is at least excessive and, in my view, needless.
The reality is that there is no threat to the continued existence of the RS. Yes, there are occasional calls by Bosniaks, Croats or others for its abolition. But these are just as unacceptable as Serb attempts to undermine the State judicial institutions or to promote secession. Under Dayton, BiH is a country of two Entities and, with the UK and our partners as guarantors of the Peace Agreement, that’s how it will stay.
Ok, so it’s true that, in the past, we have seen the transfer of some competences from the Entities to the State, with the support of the international community. There were, and there remain, good reasons for that, which is why these changes were endorsed at the time by the BiH Parliament, and the Serb representatives in it. Objectively speaking, there are still strong arguments in favour of more centralisation in certain areas. Done well, it would strengthen coherence, raise standards and improve efficiency. It would reduce the focus on ethnicity, and increase the focus on effective service delivery.
But – and this is the important bit – we, together with our EU and US partners, have said very clearly that we are not going to impose a centralising agenda. We are prepared to work with the system as it is, not as we might like it to be.
If you don’t believe me, look at our actions. Through the UK/German initiative, now the EU strategy, we have been absolutely consistent and clear that reforms should be implemented by the appropriate levels of government, in line with their constitutional competences. And the lion’s share of the work falls to the Entities, not to the State. I was there when the British and German Foreign Ministers gave this assurance very clearly to leading politicians on all sides. And it’s there, repeatedly, in the Written Commitment – signed by political leaders, and endorsed by Parliament.
It’s also quite clear from the Reform Agenda itself, which was finally agreed by the RS Government on 24 July. The State and Federation Governments had been ready and waiting since June, and the Federation Government was quick to respond, successfully passing the long-awaited new labour law. We hope and expect that the RS Government will now follow suit as quickly as possible, which will open the door to over a billion euros of financial support to BiH from the EU and the IMF.
It is fantastic that we now have an ambitious and positive reform agenda on the table. They won’t be easy or pain-free, but these reforms are desperately needed to stabilise the economy, to create new jobs, particularly for young people, and to strengthen the justice system.
Implementing the reforms will take leadership, courage and focus. That’s good, because hopefully there will be less time and energy for the political rivalries that have held this country back, while its neighbours have moved ahead towards the EU and NATO.
The reform agenda holds out the prospect of a new, more cooperative and constructive politics in BiH. Its successful implementation will need everyone to realise that the only secure, prosperous and European future for the citizens of the RS lies within a secure, prosperous and European BiH. And, by the same token, that the only way that BiH can succeed is if all its citizens are working together, for the benefit of everyone – whether they live in the Federation or in the RS.
Let’s be clear. Accepting the entity structure in BiH doesn’t mean that nothing will change. Costs must be cut because the public sector is unaffordable. And if BiH is to join the EU, as we all hope it will, then change is inevitable. At some point, that will include constitutional change, just as it has done for other recent EU members like Croatia. Dayton was never designed to be set in stone. But the point is that these changes can only be made by constitutional means. Which means that the RS has not just a vote, but a veto – albeit one that I hope will in future be used more sparingly and responsibly. In other words, the RS will endure unless it decides to vote itself out of existence. I for one can’t see that happening in the foreseeable future, so perhaps everyone can afford to relax a bit.
RS President Dodik said recently that the international community should accept reality. That we should stop denying the RS. And that in return the RS will not deny BiH. Fine. We accept reality. We support the right of the RS to exist, as we have said many times before. More than that, we want it to succeed and to thrive, together with the rest of BiH, and we’re ready to help it to do so. So I sincerely hope that the RS will now drop this unnecessary and unconstitutional referendum. And that we can get on and work constructively together on the reforms, including in the justice sector, which we all agree are so urgently needed.