European Union leaders added Bosnia to the list of official candidates to join the wealthy 27-nation bloc, diplomats said Thursday.
The Western Balkans country joined the waiting room despite continuing criticism of the way it is run.
Three diplomats told The Associated Press that Bosnia was granted candidate status. They spoke anonymously because the conclusions of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels where the topic was discussed had yet to be published.
The approval was just a formality after European affairs ministers agreed unanimously earlier in the week to endorse a recommendation from the bloc’s executive arm to grant Bosnia the status.
The war in Ukraine has served as an accelerator for the bloc’s enlargement process. EU leaders gave more concrete signs this month to six Western Balkan countries aspiring to join that they have a future place in the bloc.
At a summit in Albania, the EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks with the membership hopefuls.
Expansion of the EU had stalled in recent years. But since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, EU officials have emphasized that stepping up the bloc’s engagement with Western Balkans nations was more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe’s security.
The EU also agreed in June to make Moldova and Ukraine candidates for membership and said Georgia would be eligible for candidacy once the country met goals defined by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.
The European Commission recommended granting Bosnia candidate member status in October, more than six years after the country formally applied to join and nearly three decades since it emerged from a 1992-95 interethnic war that left more than 100,000 people dead.
Once a country becomes a candidate, it still can take years before admission to the club takes place. The EU last admitted a new member, the Balkan nation of Croatia, in 2013. The path toward membership is a lengthy process, as countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in October that Bosnia needed reforms on issues that include the judiciary, battling corruption, and constitutional and electoral changes. Little progress on those issues was made in recent years.
While Bosnia expressed a desire to join the EU starting in 2003, the country’s ethnic 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 Bosnia’s Serb-run part from the rest of the country.
Dodik expressed willingness to work with the EU on necessary reforms in return for financial support.
“The EU is our partner, not our commander, we are not order takers,” Dodik said. However, he added “if they are willing to define precisely what we must do within the next four years and to give us funding in return for doing that, we will work on it.”