BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union gave the green light on Monday to a long-awaited pact with Bosnia, a first step toward possible membership of the bloc after years of political and economic stagnation.
The move is part of a new drive, led by Germany and Britain, to spur reform and address the anger and frustrations among ordinary Bosnians that fueled unprecedented civil unrest in February last year.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) is a pre-accession pact that brings much-needed EU funds and a framework for further integration.
Bosnia, which is still trying to overcome the legacy of a 1992-95 war in which 100,000 people died, languishes behind its ex-Yugoslav peers on the road to EU accession. Its development has been stifled by a highly decentralized post-war system of government that divided power along ethnic lines and spawned huge networks of political patronage.
The SAA was originally signed in 2008, but sat gathering dust until Germany and Britain offered a plan for its formal adoption in exchange for a written commitment from leaders of Bosnia's Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats to press ahead with reform.
Foreign ministers of the 28-nation EU said they had agreed to "proceed with the conclusion and entry into force" of the SAA.
They called on Bosnia's leadership "to fully uphold its commitments and obligations ... and to remain engaged with the European Union under the renewed approach and maintain the positive momentum by developing an initial agenda for reforms in consultation with the European Union."
Brussels first wants to encourage economic reform to address high unemployment and widespread poverty, before tackling the thorny issues of political reform.
Progress may result in a formal application to join the EU.
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Dominic Evans