I always try to get out of the office as much as possible to talk to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It helps me feel the pulse of the people and better understand what it is that citizens expect and hope to get from the EU integration process.
Just before the New Year, I went to Brčko. I was eager to hear from local leaders and businesses about their plans and hopes for the year ahead. Brčko gives me hope that 2020 can bring about change.
Brčko District is an enterprising and proudly multi-ethnic part of the country and in March of this year the District celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Yet, in spite of the initial spurt of economic growth and evident potentials, recent polls indicate that around half of Brčko District residents would want to leave it for prospects of a better future elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, but rather a symptom of the wider yearning for a perspective of a brighter future that is palpable around the country, especially in its smaller towns.
Investing strategically in border regions is a proactive EU policy, yet in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which relies significantly on its neighbourly relations, its border regions can feel oddly remote from the larger cities. This chasm is deepened by underdeveloped transport connectivity, which is why it is important for works on projects such as the new inter-state bridge in Brčko to commence soon.
A key project in the pipeline is the rehabilitation of the Brčko Port, which should provide a direct boost to the economy of the whole BiH. The EU allocated €3.1 million allocated in EU grants through the Western Balkans Investment Framework, complementing the EBRD loan.
By its 20th birthday, I expect to see a lot more success stories coming out of Brčko District; implementation of the Brčko Government-Studen Holding initiative to improve public services for business activity, full and efficient functioning of the Anti-Corruption Office as well as the adoption of a new laws on associations and foundations, public gatherings and public administration reform in line with EU standards, to name a few. I also visited the grand new EU-funded Police Building, which has to finally become fully operational this year.
In 2020, the implementation of Brčko District’s new budget law is expected to ensure greater fiscal responsibility as well as greater transparency of the budget process. Only by moving in such a direction can the authorities foster trust among citizens and businesses that taxpayers’ money is being distributed fairly and in the greater public interest.
Brčko has seen many changes over the years. The establishment of the District at the outset of the 2000s was embedded in the first Amendments to the BiH Constitution. In that same decade, Brčko saw the construction of over 200km of roads and the creation of thousands of new jobs.
The 2010s kicked off in Brčko with the ceremonial reopening of the fully restored City Hall building, a symbol of Brčko and a national monument of BiH. The building was originally designed by Alexander Vittek and opened in 1892, four years before the City Hall in Sarajevo, which speaks volumes about Brčko’s importance as a pioneering trading hub with a uniquely advantageous geographical position.
Political leaders in Brčko must stand united and demonstrate their readiness to create a better life and improve the socio-economic situation in the District. This has been the coherent message which has been communicated to the Brčko authorities by a united international community, the EU and its Member States, OHR and other international partners. The EU will continue to strongly support those actors who are ready to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk.
Indeed, many of the issues citizens face in Brčko District resonate with issues that we see across BiH. Improving the business environment, transport connectivity and mitigating the increasing brain drain in local communities consistently come up in conversation. Everyone knows what is to be done – what we need now is action.
I was heartened to hear the new Council of Ministers Chairman dwelling on all these issues in his first public appearances. Accession to the European Union is one of the main strategic goals of BiH, which needs engagement of the whole society and the active participation of all levels of government. Now it is time for all members of government to pull up their sleeves and start delivering.
After one decade marked by many stalemates in Brčko District and with the long-awaited appointment of a new government at the state level, 2020 can be a year of action for Brčko and the country. Change is within reach, and Brčko can help lead the way once again.