Slovenia threatens to withdraw support for Croatia’s EU bid over a souring maritime border dispute.
Relations between Slovenia and Croatia have
reached an all-time low over a maritime border dispute in the
Adriatic. The argument has even led Ljubljana to recall its
ambassador and threaten to withdraw its support for Zagreb’s
bid to join the European Union.
Tensions mounted on 30 August when Croatia
announced its plans to establish an exclusive economic zone in the
Adriatic Sea before defining its maritime border with Slovenia.
Slovenia responded on 31 August by recalling its ambassador to
Zagreb, Peter Bekes, for “consultations.”
The situation further escalated on 1 September
when Slovenia threatened to back away from previous pledges to push
for Croatia’s entry into the EU along with 10 other
countries, including Bulgaria and Romania, in 2007.
“Slovenia has throughout supported
Croatia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation, but a situation has emerged
for us to reconsider whether this policy is adequate,” said
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel. Though Slovenia wants to
use its position–which will be strengthened by its upcoming
accession into the EU and NATO–to support other former Yugoslav
countries, it expects them to act in accordance with the standards
of Euro-Atlantic organizations, he added.
Slovenia intensified its diplomatic actions
against Croatia on 3 September by holding a special meeting with
ambassadors of EU member states, candidate countries, and the
United States in Slovenia. As Rupel explained, the aim of the talks
was to inform the officials about Croatia’s plans to declare an
exclusive economic zone in the Adriatic, and Slovenia’s position on
the issue, as well as on the protection of the Adriatic.
“We hope and believe that [Croatia’s
exclusive economic zone] will not be declared and that a European
orientation will prevail,” Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop
said at a 3 September press conference.
Rop warned Croatia that Slovenia is determined
to defend its national interests, namely its right to access to
international waters, but refused to reveal the measures Slovenia
was prepared to take to that end.
Reactions in Zagreb were stubborn yet cautious.
EU Integration Minister Neven Mimica shrugged off Slovenia’s
warning, telling the public that the EU’s decision to grant
Croatia membership would not be affected by the “opinion of
A LONG-SIMMERING FEUD
Slovenia has an Adriatic coastline of only
around 26 miles, while Croatia’s Adriatic coastline is over
600 miles long. What worries Slovenia is that Croatia and
neighboring Italy have proposed dividing the Adriatic Sea bordering
their territorial waters into two exclusive economic zones, leaving
Slovenia out of the spoils and without direct access to
international shipping waters leading to the Mediterranean.
Since the two countries proclaimed independence
in 1991, the issue of a maritime border–in the Piran Bay–has been
a heated one. Last summer tensions over the bay reached a high
point when Zagreb and Ljubljana were embroiled in a fishing rights
dispute that resulted in a halting of dialogue over the border
In 2001 the two governments initialled an
agreement under which Slovenia would regain access to international
waters with ownership of 80 percent of the bay. Croatia, however,
never ratified that agreement and has since insisted that the deal
As such, Zagreb believes its decision to create
an exclusive economic zone, shutting out Slovenia, is in line with
international law–a fact, says Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino
Picula, Slovenia should learn to accept.
Slovenia, however, has made it clear that it has
no intentions of backing down, an unlikely prospect given the
potential implications on the domestic polit ical scene.
“Former Slovenian Foreign Minister Boris Frlec once said that
the one who loses the Piran Bay will have no future in Slovenian
politics,” wrote the Croatian daily Jutarnji list.
Speaking to reporters on 30 August following a
UNESCO conference with the leaders of eight Southeastern European
countries, Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek and Croatian
President Stjepan Mesic remained conciliatory, saying there is no
need to stir up tensions over the economic zone. They both
advocated a peaceful solution.
The most important issue, Drnovsek assured
reporters, is to protect the Adriatic Sea and its fishing industry
for future generations.
Drnovsek told Croatian media that Zagreb and
Ljubljana must discuss the issue calmly, but that Croatia cannot
make a unilateral decision with respect to the maritime border or
an exclusive economic zone.
The ensuing diplomacy, however, has been
anything but conciliatory.
On 1 September on the Brijuni Islands, Croatian
Parliamentary Speaker Zlatko Tomcic told reporters that Slovenia’s
recalling of its ambassador from Zagreb “is yet another of
Slovenian diplomacy’s unnecessary and extremely nervous
Tomcic said that the ambassador’s
withdrawal was a clear sign that Slovenia is worried because it
fully understands that Croatia has the legal right to declare an
economic zone in the Adriatic.
In the meantime, officials from both countries
have been bustling to present their side of the dispute to European
On 4 September a Slovenian official presented
the issue to the EU Council’s working group on the Western Balkans,
COWEB. According to Slovenian officials, the EU Council and the
European Commission have underscored that any unilateral actions by
either country would be unacceptable.
But other reports seem to suggest that European
diplomats are keen to side with Croatia over the dispute.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan told
reporters that the European Commission has been informed of the
situation, but that Brussels will not intervene. European
diplomats, however, stressed that the two countries must resolve
the problem through diplomatic dialogue.
Several European diplomats based in Zagreb told
Agence France Presse that they “do not understand”
“There is no confusion regarding the
proclamation of an exclusive economic zone. Zagreb has the right to
do it,” one of them, speaking under condition of anonymity,
The Croatian Foreign Ministry on 2 September
issued a statement following a meeting between Deputy Foreign
Minister Ivan Simonovic and representatives of the diplomatic corps
in Zagreb, saying that Croatia is ready for serious negotiations
Croatia heralded its offer for serious
negotiations as generous, given the fact that it views its
intentions to expand its jurisdiction in the Adriatic as fully in
line with international law, while it views Slovenia’s
“extreme” diplomacy as inappropriate.
Following a 3 September meeting with ruling
coalition parties, Racan told local media that Slovenia should take
the first step in reopening the dialogue by sending its ambassador
back to Zagreb.
Slovenia has likewise placed the ball in
Croatia’s court, calling on Zagreb to begin negotiations
Racan remained firm but cautious, saying that
Zagreb would proceed with its decisions in line with Croatian
national interests, while at the same time attempting not to rock
the boat where it concerns EU accession. That balancing act will
require the Croatian government to estimate just how important
Slovenia’s support for its European integration could be.
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