Croatia’s road to EU-membership – that is supposed to be realized on July 1, 2013 – has been lined with impediments and complex European context: enlargement fatigue within the EU, boarder conflict with Slovenia, a global financial crisis with repercussions to the EU and Croatia, just to mention a few. Still, a clear majority of the Croatians said yes to EU-membership in a referendum on January 22, 2012. “All the hardship makes this success even larger”, said Andrej Plenković, Croatian MP representing Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ). The HDZ-lead Government concluded Croatia’s accession negotiations in June 2011, at the end of the Hungarian EU Presidency.
Mr. Plenković, who used to be the State Secretary for European Affairs, was taking part in a round table Conference on the developments in the Balkans arranged by the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation on February 2-4. As a member of the EU, he explains, Croatia will help – and not hinder – other Balkan countries from joining the European Union.
66 % of the Croats said yes to EU-membership. Though, it was reported that only 44 % of the electorate voted, Andrej Plenković clarified the issue of un-updated electoral lists. “We had a census in 2011 establishing the number of eligible voters in Croatia to 3,390.000. On January 22, the number of Croats in Croatia voting in the referendum for EU-membership was 1,958,000 (the diaspora turnout was expectedly very low). This means that actually about 58% of the electorate in Croatia voted. We need to update the list of voters.”
The negotiations leading up to Croatia being ready for EU membership by 1 July 2013, was an extensive undertaking. During almost six years of negotiations approximately 3.000 Croatian officials and experts were involved, in one or the other way, in the process. “It was important that as many people as possible were familiar with and understood the EU-oriented reforms”, said Andrej Plenković. Though, he added, no one had anticipated such a lengthy process.
Andrej Plenković is convinced that the “big bang” (at the same time ten new EU members joined the EU in 2004) as well as the membership of Romania and Bulgaria (in 2007) influenced the pace of Croatia’s process to join the Union. The discussion about the enlargement and the absorption capacity of the EU to welcome new members intensified in a number of EU-states during this period. The New consensus on enlargement was adopted in 2006, including the new methodology with benchmarks that had to be reached to open chapters for negotiations. Previously benchmarks had to be reached only to close chapters. Another novelty was that, as lessons learned from earlier experiences, the EU would not set in advance a date for when the negotiations should be concluded.
Croatia’s road to EU-membership has been seen as a model for the region. What will happen now?
“We are very clear that we want to help all our neighboring countries” said Andrej Plenković, adding that the entire body of EU acquis has been translated into Croatian (approximately 107.000 pages). This extensive job will be of great use to the neighboring states, whose languages are closely related to Croatian. “We also have a network of bilateral agreements on EU co-operation with all the countries in the region. Technical assistance is ongoing. For example last year a delegation of 30 officials from Macedonia visited Zagreb to talk about the membership negotiations. They discussed all EU policy areas with their Croatian counterparts.”
What lesson has been learned from the border conflict with Slovenia?
The Croatian Parliament has consensually said that Croatia, as EU-member, believes that open bilateral issues should not be used to stall the EU integration process of neighboring countries. This is the consequence of the lesson learned, said Andrej Plenković. He estimates that the dispute on delimitation of border at sea between Croatia and Slovenia, due to the Slovenian blockade prolonged Croatia’s accession talks for about 18-20 months. The Arbitration process that Slovenia and Croatia agreed to during the Swedish EU Presidency just recently began. Both countries have agreed to abide by the decision that will be pronounced.
Andrej Plenković is convinced that the successfully completed negotiations with the EU are excellent news for Croatia, but also for the attractiveness of the EU as a political project, and is a clear incentive for the countries of the region to continue with reforms. “It means that the EU enlargement is continuing”.
He concluded that after a clear “yes” at the referendum, Croatia’s EU agenda in the next 17 months, before accession, will be depicted by three interlinked processes.
First one is the ratification of the accession treaty in the parliaments of 27 EU member states, which requires a lot of political support and diplomatic activity.
Second one is the monitoring by the Commission of Croatia’s obligations undertaken in accession negotiations, in particular the follow-up of reforms in chapters regarding: Competition, Judiciary and fundamental rights as well as Justice, liberty and security.
Third one is the internal Croatian preparation for EU membership by for example strengthening the national EU coordination, including increased parliamentary scrutiny.
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