SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) -- Bosnia handed in its application for EU membership Monday, hoping to catch up with its neighbors on the EU path but confronting the reality that many in the country have grown tired of waiting for jobs and prosperity and are already voting with their feet.
President Dragan Covic submitted the application to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister, Bert Koenders, in Brussels. The Netherlands currently holds the EU presidency.
"There is no way back for Bosnia-Herzegovina, we must catch up with our neighbors," Covic said. He said the country will speed up the required reforms in the expectation that the EU will grant the country candidate status in 2017.
Bosnia first knocked on the EU door in 2008 when it signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the bloc, 13 years after the end of the bloody conflict that left the country ethnically divided. But unresolved wartime quarrels have hindered the necessary reforms as Bosnian Serbs feared for their autonomy within Bosnia. This frustrated the Muslim Bosniaks and some Bosnian Croats, who felt they were hostages to the Serb lack of will to reform the country at least enough to attract foreign investments that would kickstart the economy.
The stalemate has produced an unemployment rate over 40 percent and a general feeling of apathy among Bosnians. Every year, tens of thousands decide to leave the country.
In 2014, about 68,000 Bosnians, mostly aged between 25 and 40, permanently left the country of 3.8 million. For 2015, the figure will be 20 to 30 percent higher, parliamentarian Senad Sepic told the AP.
"The very substance that should be building this country is leaving," he said.
Things only started moving with the EU application in 2014, when Bosnian Serbs split their votes between two blocks — one that favors the reforms and one that continues to pursue a separate Serb state. Pro-EU Serb officials managed to push for the required reforms, enabling Bosnia to submit Monday's application.
"It is a day of celebration for all of us: only 20 years ago, it was in the Balkans where one of the most awful pages of European history was written," said a joint statement from the EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
But the recent progress comes too late for many. They are choosing to run toward the EU rather than limp there with Bosnia.
"Just from the town of Livno, 60 whole families left in January 2016 alone," Sepic said. Livno is a town in the south of the country with 9,000 residents.
Germany is looking for 40,000 medical workers alone each year so in the past two years the number of applicants for German-language courses at the Goethe Institute in Sarajevo has doubled, and it keeps growing.
Amer Cekic, 20, a student of political science, attends the course because he believes it will help him find a job in Germany.
"I feel I have no future here," he said.
In Sepic's constituency of Cazin in the northwest of the country, the number of first-graders was down in 2015 by 40 percent compared with 2011. If the trend continues, there will be no first graders at all by 2022, Sepic says.
"And if there are no people left here, then the whole story of EU membership is pointless," he said.