"I cannot see Croatia continuing its negotiations without prior resolution of the border dispute, or at least without having a process in place to resolve it," Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar said. "If there is no progress, I don't see Croatia joining the EU," he added.
Zbogar admitted that bilateral talks had failed, welcoming the EU's offer to mediate between the two sides. The bloc's efforts include EU enlargement chief Olli Rehn's decision to set up an expert group chaired by former Finnish president and veteran diplomat Martti Ahtisaari.
The Slovenian minister described the move as a "step in the right direction". Croatia has also welcomed the EU initiative.
The border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia concerns small pockets of land along the Adriatic coast, which could prove important should they include exclusive rights to deep sea zones. Unlike Slovenia, Croatia has a long coastline, prompting Ljubljana to attempt to assert its rights as a "geographically disadvantaged state".
During the French EU Presidency, Slovenia blocked the opening of nine out of ten negotiating chapters due to the unresolved border dispute (EurActiv 18/12/08). Diplomats believe serious doubts will surround Croatia's objective of wrapping up accession talks by the end of the year (so as to be ready to join the bloc in 2010) if the bilateral dispute is not resolved soon (see EurActiv LinksDossier on EU-Croatia relations).
Despite increased bilateral tensions, Slovenians still strongly support Croatia's EU membership bid, according to a recent survey. Nearly two-thirds believe Croatia should become a member, and even more say Slovenia does not need to vote on the issue in a referendum, as suggested by their government earlier this month (EurActiv 08/01/09).
Meanwhile, talks between the EU and Belgrade also remain stalled, after the bloc's foreign ministers met with their Serbian counterpart in Brussels yesterday (26 January). The Dutch government is still opposed to unblocking a trade deal with Serbia until the country "cooperates fully" with International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Belgrade announced yesterday that it will follow the European Commission's advice and implement the trade deal unilaterally on 1 February.