Bosnia and Herzegovina could get European Union membership candidate status at the end of 2017 at the earliest, but only if it solves some outstanding issues, including the publication of a population census, whose results have not been published because of political disputes, European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in Sarajevo on Monday.

After separate meetings with top state officials, he told reporters that he had come to Bosnia because it had big ambitions concerning EU accession. He said it was important for both sides that Bosnia continue implementing earlier commitments and meet the candidate criteria.

That calls for significant decisions by the end of April or early May, primarily on the alignment of the interim trade agreement and on an effective coordination mechanism for Bosnia-EU relations, Hahn said, adding that the EU also expected the publication of the October 2013 population census results. This issue should be solved on the technical level, but as it has become a political issue too, it must be solved by the political leaders, he said.

Bosnia's two entities have been unable to agree for over two and a half years as to who could have been considered a permanent Bosnian citizen at the time of the census. Agreement on this issue significantly affects the number of inhabitants and the ethnic make-up. The Serb entity insists on striking out from the census all those who said they worked or studied in another country, while the Croat-Muslim entity is against that, demanding that all those who said they intended to stay in Bosnia permanently, regardless of where they worked or studied, be considered residents.

The data collected during the census would stop being valid if not processed and published by July, but Hahn said that without their publication, Bosnia's application for EU candidate status, submitted in February, could not be considered. He said the first question the EU would ask Bosnia in order to consider the application would be the number of inhabitants.

If the results are published by May, the European Council could send a questionnaire to Bosnia based on which a decision on granting it EU membership candidate status would be made by the end of 2017, Hahn said. He encouraged Bosnian politicians to continue carrying out reforms despite the current difficulties, adding that the prospect of EU membership was crucial to attract foreign investments, as shown in Serbia's case last year.

Bosnian Council of Ministers Chairman Denis Zvizdic said he received "a clear message (from Hahn) that the EU door remains open" to Bosnia. He said reforms were going on regardless of obstacles and that negotiations on the alignment of the provisional trade agreement could be wrapped up in the next few months.

The ultimate goal is to set the prerequisites for opening the Bosnian market for the duty-free import of Croatian goods. Zvizdic said that was possible if Bosnia's demands for protecting its agricultural production were granted.

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