[The Catholic Weekly] Željana Zovko: Goal of the phantom non-paper is to return the focus to the 1990s topics
One does not need to be a political analyst to conclude that BiH is in a deep trouble. Following this conclusion, we spoke with a Member of the European Parliament in order, among other things, to find out how BiH and its tensions are viewed from Brussels …
Željana Zovko was born in Mostar in 1970. She is a politician, former BiH ambassador to France, Spain and Italy, and currently a Croatian Member of the European Parliament. She studied French language in London and after having returned to BiH she started her career in politics. Her rich experience gathered in various institutions in BiH and diplomatic and consular missions throughout Europe makes her a great interlocutor to discuss the current political situation. We talked about BiH in general, about the European Union, the Election Law, the so-called on-paper and the future of the European process and BiH as a part of that great project …
How do you view the position and situation of BiH in the context of today’s problems in Europe?
Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a key country for European security and stability. We have had the opportunity to see this recently, especially when it comes to migration flows that have passed through BiH and thus endangered the security of European external borders. It is the Republic of Croatia that has the greatest responsibility in this aspect, sharing more than 1,000 kilometres of the border with BiH. When it enters the Schengen area soon, it will officially assume this great responsibility for the protection of the entire European Union.
Our task in the EU is to create conditions for BiH to be able to take care of its own borders and prevent such threats to the European Union and others.
Also, in the last few years we have been witnessing a great influence of the third parties who are actively working on destabilisation of BiH and its European path through disinformation and economic influence. By investing IPA III funds, the European Union will also help BiH to strengthen its strategic communication capabilities and encourage identification of misinformation, and improve the visibility of the European Union in the country.
The EU can show in a constructive way who really cares about Bosnia and Herzegovina, instead of being interested in its exploitation for geopolitical games.
What are the biggest problems faced by the European Union today, apart from the coronavirus pandemic?
The most important problem we have to fully resolve now is the supply and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in order to finally defeat the virus.
In addition to fighting the virus, the European Union is working to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. We need to help the affected companies and work on recovery that secures and creates new jobs, especially in the tourism sector and the cultural and creative industries. At the same time, the European Union is working on solutions for climate neutrality and economic sustainability in order to take the lead in the rapidly growing globalisation and digitalisation.
Our political responsibility requires that we protect, upgrade and preserve the European Union for future generations. The next challenge that deserves attention is the security situation at the external borders of the Union and the EU role on the geopolitical scene.
The third parties increase their influence in our closest neighbourhood and hinder our support, and by promoting the anti-European narratives they pose a direct threat to peace and stability in the region and, consequently, in the European Union.
Some of the EU founders were practical Catholics and Christians, but today’s political Europe seems to be anti-Christian?
Today’s European Union is a reflection of the diversity of cultures, religions and traditions that represent its most important values, which we particularly advocate in the European Parliament, the Committee on Culture and Education and the Working Group on Intercultural and Religious Dialogue I am a member of.
In addition, our Christian Democratic European People’s Party is the largest party in the European Parliament, and in December we adopted a document reaffirming our affiliation with the Christian foundations and the view that the future of the European Union is closely linked to the future of Christian democracy. In my work, I cultivate these values and actively fight against attempts by different parties to remove or marginalise them. Sometimes it is not easy, but it is important to persevere in protecting our principles and common values.
Christian nations have often been persecuted throughout history, but the Christian faith has nevertheless survived and is more than present today. We know that Europe has had dark periods in its history, but the fact is that the European Union is a reflection of its longing for peace, cooperation and coexistence of different peoples and cultures. As we can see, this longing is today a union with the highest level of development in the world and with the longest period of peace. At the heart of our political action is a human being-citizen and the community, and through an awareness of what connects us, we contribute to the consolidation of a democratic Europe in the global world. Europe is currently going through a difficult period and that is why we need to strengthen the sense of politics and the confidence of our citizens in the institutions, the rule of law and, ultimately, in the very foundations of our Union.
In his exhortation “Rejoice and Cheer” Pope Francis called on Christians to embrace the change and continue to promote Christianity in the modern world. As long as there are citizens in the European Union who are guided by this premise, a future based on Christian foundations and a democratic tradition is guaranteed.
How is it possible to combine the position of a politician with religious practice? Is it possible to be a practical Catholic and a politician?
Sunday Masses, among other things, pray for people in politics to make informed decisions for the good of society. I believe that it is not only possible, but also desirable for believers to be more involved in politics, and specifically to contribute to building a more just society. To this end, I call on the media that deal with religious topics not to make stereotypes of politicians and to encourage this inclusion.
My political engagement has always been encouraged by interlocutors from the Church, among others, as every practical believer is a much greater success for illuminating a space that is otherwise left to those who have no similar principles or thoughts. I was brought up in the faith and consider myself a practical believer and like any well-informed believer and Christian, an imperfect person called to holiness and confession every day in this world, and in politics to decisions that will sometimes not result in a perfect law, what is the title of the book, that was recommended to me by an extraordinary Spanish priest at the Vatican.
In creating a more just society, it is best to go step by step, according to the principles of faith and the values on which the current European Union is based, and whose founders were also practical believers.
I would like to draw attention of those of you who deal with these topics and of your readers to the new CDU President Armin Laschet who is a very good example of a practical believer and a politician. Namely, he was the editor of the Catholic media and is now heading the strongest people’s party.
Can you assess the attitude of Croatia as an EU member to BiH, in which Croats live as a constituent community? Viewed from BiH, it seems we have been forgotten …
In the last few years, the Government of Andrej Plenković has significantly contributed to sensitizing the issue of Croats in BiH, who, you are right, have long been forgotten. Croatia is the sincerest friend and partner of BiH and the greatest advocate of its stability, equality of its citizens and European integration.
BiH’s progress is one of the main priorities of the Republic of Croatia. During last year’s Presidency of the EU Council, Croatia managed to return the topic of joining and supporting th enlargement countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the EU agenda, especially during the Zagreb Summit, where member-states unanimously reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the Western Balkans’ European perspective. In addition, with my work in the European Parliament, I want to encourage positive changes, find solutions for the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina and contribute to its progress and European integration.
How do you view the current situation of Croats in BiH?
Unfortunately, the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been living through a difficult period for a long time already. Numerous changes to the Dayton-Paris Peace Agreement have led to their position being completely disenfranchised and reduced to the lowest possible level. The illegitimate imposition of a representative, who was not elected by the Croat voters, only further confirmed how BiH treats one of its constituent communities.
However, the local elections in Mostar, held for the first time in 12 years, show that Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself on the path to progress. A period of necessary compromises and agreements is ahead of us, so that the agreement on the elections in Mostar may be respected and an agreement on changes to the Election Law finally reached by summer. In my work, I often emphasise that stability of the European Union is not possible without the stability of BiH.
What happened in BiH is unthinkable anywhere in Europe, including Kosovo, where the Election Commission annulled the election of one community’s representatives by other community’s voters, more precisely – election of Bosniak representatives by Serb voters. All attempts on the other hand, such as phantom non-papers, serve to destabilise this process, and thus the European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How does Europe view the apparent announcements of non-compliance with the international agreement and avoidance of the agreement on legitimate representation and amendments to the Election Law in the context of the Constitutional Court decisions?
This topic has not been on the agenda for a long time, mostly due to lack of understanding and interest, which changed after Plenković’s arrival on the European stage. After almost five years, we have managed to revive this problem together with the issue of enlargement at the highest levels in the European Union. A series of annual reports from the European Parliament on BiH emphasised the need to reform and respect the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are a precondition for the European future of BiH.
The same is stated in 14 key priorities of the Commission for opening the accession negotiations with BiH. In order to encourage a dialogue in the European Parliament on the situation in BiH, I organised a visit to Mostar during my previous term, where my colleagues from the Working Group for Intercultural and Religious Dialogue and I discussed with the religious leaders what changes were required to get Bosnia and Herzegovina out of the state of the “frozen” peace in which it had been living for the last 25 years, and set it out on a path of progress.
In early April, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, invited in a letter the members of the BiH Presidency to limited constitutional changes in BiH with the purpose of conducting the reform of the electoral system in line with the EU membership requirements and relevant rulings. Furthermore, he recognized the role of EU in BiH and efforts it had been putting in that country. As the European Parliament’s shadow rapporteur for relations with the United States, I welcome the cooperation of the American partners with the European Union on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the European Parliament, I have actively called for the US administration to engage in cooperation with the EU on these issues, which is the foundation of future transatlantic cooperation on peace and security issues. I have emphasised several times that the cooperation between the new US administration and the EU around BiH should be based on lessons learned from the past and the cooperation between the Republic of Croatia and the United States in the Storm Operation, which prevented the Bihać massacre.
I also welcome Biden’s decision on waiving the patent on COVID-19 vaccines, which will enable faster production and distribution of vaccines. Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing a catastrophe and is under the radar, and the number of deaths is rapidly increasing, as I have personally witnessed. I called on the European Commission to urgently support this American initiative and show solidarity with the countries on the other side of the border in the fight against the common, invisible enemy.
Did the non-paper come at an awkward time of prolonging the Election Law story? Its only motive seems to be stopping or silencing the stories about the Election Law.
You concluded this correctly because it is interesting how this “mysterious” non-paper by an unknown author came exactly at the time when the Republic of Croatia strongly raised the issue of changing the Election Law through its own non-paper.
The need to implement the decisions of the Constitutional Court in the Ljubić case is receiving increasing support, both from my colleagues in Brussels and from our transatlantic partners, which was confirmed by a recent letter from the US Secretary of State Blinken.
We all know that the stories about the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina are pointless, and the goal of this phantom non-paper is to draw attention and return the focus to the 1990s topics. It is interesting that it achieved exactly the opposite effect, it confirmed the importance and timeliness of the only officially presented non-paper, the one presented by the Republic of Croatia.
I would like to emphasise that the only relevant non-paper, namely, the Croatian one reiterates that BiH must remain at the centre of the EU’s attention, that the Republic of Croatia is the greatest friend of BiH and the most persistent advocate of its European path, and emphasises that if BiH wants to achieve a true change and genuine political stability, court rulings must be respected, economic reforms performed and the equality of all citizens ensured. It is necessary to close the discussion on all other non-papers and focus attention on finding a solution that will bring Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to European integration. One of these solutions is to amend the Election Law and implement the Constitutional Court’s ruling in the Ljubić case, which will finally allow Croats to elect their legitimate representatives.
According to your opinion, what is the future of BiH?
The future of Bosnia and Herzegovina is primarily the European future, in line with the federal solutions offered by the European Parliament through its resolutions. It is the only path between separatism, on the one hand, and centralism, on the other, leading to further instability and the status quo, that leads to a high dependence on external influences and the continued attention of the international community. In addition, such a condition leads the country towards the loss of healthy tissue made up of its citizens.
The fact is that since the end of the war, the Republic of Croatia has issued one million and one hundred thousand passports to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who, in the absence of a better perspective, are leaving BiH and building their lives in the European Union. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a key country in terms of the security of the European Union, because its inclusion, as well as that of other Western Balkan countries, in the European Union will complete the almost eight-decade-long integration process and close the space that poses possible threats to EU security.
There is no future for BiH without allowing Croats to legitimately elect their representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because the majorization of one party only violates the spirit of the Dayton Agreement. This will primarily be achieved by amending the Election Law and by implementing the judgments of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Court of Human Rights. These steps are crucial in meeting the Commission’s 14 key priorities, which will lead to candidate status and thus to membership in the European Union. The future of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be bright if an internal agreement is reached that will ensure the stability and security of the state and equality and mutual respect of all its citizens and constituent communities.