By Daria Sito-Sucic
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnia's bid to join the European Union faces being "frozen" and a planned election next year declared invalid without urgent reform of its constitution, the EU enlargement commissioner said on Thursday.
Eighteen years since the end of Bosnia's war, the Balkan state continues to wrestle with deep ethnic rivalry that has left it languishing behind its fellow former Yugoslav republics on the long road to EU accession.
It must reform its constitution to remove a restriction on ethnic minorities running for office before it can even apply for EU membership, but political leaders have still to agree how to do so.
"The political leadership here has not prioritized the EU agenda and translated its declared commitments on the EU into concrete action," Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule told reporters in Sarajevo.
"This is very disappointing," he said before talks with Bosnia's main political leaders. "Without an agreement (on the reform) and then a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) fully in force, (Bosnia's) EU path would be frozen."
Bosnia signed the SAA, a stepping stone to EU candidacy, in 2008, but a lack of progress on the constitutional reform means the agreement is not yet fully operational. It had hoped to apply for membership of the EU this year.
The country will watch neighboring Croatia become the EU's 28th member on July 1. Montenegro has begun talks and Serbia and Macedonia are both candidates for membership. Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, has also yet to apply for accession.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will issue its latest progress report on the Western Balkans next week, when it will consider whether to recommend the start of accession talks with Serbia and possibly Macedonia.
Bosnia has already missed an end-of-March deadline to overhaul its constitution and electoral law to address a 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
Under the U.S.-brokered 1995 Bosnia peace treaty, only Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs are regarded as "constituent peoples" with the right to apply for top state jobs such as president. The court ruled that this discriminated against other ethnic groups, such as Bosnian Jews or Roma.
Without the reform, the Council of Europe says Bosnia's presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2014 will be considered in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the reform has become hostage to political maneuvering by rival Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders, who analysts say are using the negotiations to try to extract other concessions.
"Another election violating the European Convention on Human Rights would be unacceptable, seriously undermining the legitimacy and credibility of the country's elected bodies," Fule said, quoting Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said he held out little hope of the country's main political parties agreeing on how to reform the constitution.
"I don't believe there is even a theoretical chance that seven political leaders can agree on the judgment," he said.
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Heinrich)