The European Union said Tuesday it will examine whether Bosnia has what it takes to become a member as the bloc continues with plans to expand just months after Britain decided to leave.
EU nations ordered the European Commission to establish whether Bosnia has earned candidate status, a process that could take a year.
A senior Slovak foreign ministry official, Ivan Korcok, said "this is a good day for Bosnia, but for us as well. We are showing that the enlargement strategy and approach to the aspiring countries works."
The Commission will now send a questionnaire to Bosnia seeking thousands of answers about its suitability to join.
It will assess Bosnia's economy, the state of democracy in the country, its adherence to the rule of law and human rights, and its ability to respect the obligations of membership.
"It is truly a historic moment" for Bosnia, Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic said, adding it was "particularly good news for the youth."
Bosnia has a brain drain problem as more than half of its young people dream of a better life in EU countries. To stop them from leaving, Bosnia's leaders have been working hard in the past 14 months on reforms that would create jobs and improve the standard of living.
"It is clear that these reforms are starting to show results," the EU envoy to Bosnia, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, said Monday. "We have seen the reduction of the level of unemployment and an increased growth," he said.
Bosnia's complex political system and the ongoing quarrels between its Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats have prevented the country from moving faster and catching up with neighboring countries on the EU path.
The country's economy was completely devastated by the 1992-95 war that took over 100,000 lives and turned nearly half of the population into refugees.