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EU urges Bosnia to publish census data to bolster membership bid

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - European Union officials urged Bosnian authorities on Thursday to start publishing data from a disputed 2013 population census by July 1 to enable the country to move towards EU membership.

The census is seen as a vital tool for economic and social planning and the EU says Bosnia must publish the results if it wants Brussels to consider the membership application it submitted in February.

The EU’s executive commission has been asked to prepare an opinion on Bosnia by the summer and for that it would need detailed economic, social and legal information on the country of 3.8 million people that the census could help provide.

But a dispute over ways of defining who lives in the Balkan country’s two autonomous regions - the Serb-dominated Serb Republic and the Federation shared by Croats and Muslim Bosniaks - has held up publication.

Bosnia’s statistics agency last week decided it would process census questionnaires in line with EU and other international standards, a move dismissed as illegal by Bosnian Serb officials.

Pieter Everaers, a director of the EU statistics office Eurostat who also heads an EU-led body monitoring the Bosnian census, said publication of the results should now begin.

He told a news conference the most important data should be published by July 1, the date set in the law governing the census, and the process completed by end-November. Otherwise the data would no longer be valid, he said.

Publication is an essential part of the reform agenda Bosnia must pursue as part of its EU membership bid “and of course it will be seen as positive if the census is published by the legal limit of July 1, fully or partially”, said Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, head of the EU delegation in Bosnia.

Wigemark earlier told Reuters that failure to publish the results would “pose a real risk” to Bosnia’s integration with the EU and many member states would be concerned if it could not agree on releasing such basic information.

The Serb Republic statistics office says residence should be determined by place of work or education, and that many Bosniak and Croat refugees who returned to their homes in the region after the 1992-95 war do not live there all the time.

That suggestion is strongly opposed by officials in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, who say it would erase more than 400,000 residents from the database.

Serb deputies in the Bosnian parliament called an emergency session for Monday to discuss the census, saying decisions on how to handle the information had been made without Serb consent.

Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich