Austria sees Croatia concluding EU talks in 2010

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Austria believes Croatia can wrap up its accession negotiations with the EU this year and join in 2012, Austrian President Heinz Fischer said after talks with his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovi? in Vienna on Monday (15 March).

"There are good chances for negotiations to be completed this year," Fischer said, adding that this would pave the way for Croatia's admission to the EU in 2012.

"Austria's position is clear, we support that approach. It is good for both Croatia and the region, and for the EU," the Austrian head of state is quoted by Croatian press agency Hina as saying.

Croatian President Josipovi? said he was grateful for Austria's support of his country's EU membership bid and said the government was preparing further reforms to speed up entry.

"I am glad to see that President Fischer considers realistic our plan to complete the negotiations in 2010 and to join the EU in 2012 after the ratification process," he stated.

"We know that we must carry out many reforms, notably in the judiciary and the public administration, and we are ready for those changes. The Croatian government is conducting and preparing further reforms in order to enable Croatia to enter the EU and also to guarantee to our citizens all the benefits of democracy and the rule of law."

Foreign and security chapter to be unblocked

Asked whether the foreign, security and defence policy chapter – one of the three negotiating chapters still to be opened – was discussed during his visit to Slovenia last week, Josipovi? said that the signature of an arbitration agreement for the Croatia-Slovenia border dispute had removed all obstacles and that the chapter could be unblocked at an EU-Croatia accession conference in April.

"I am sure that our friends in Slovenia will unblock that chapter because there is no reason for the blockade any more," the Croatian president said.

The two presidents gave assurances that relations between Austria and Croatia were "excellent", partly as a result of the two countries' long historical ties.

Fischer and Josipovi? also discussed bilateral economic cooperation and the situation in the region during the latter's visit to Vienna on Monday (15 March).

Josipovi? described Austria as an extremely important economic partner and the biggest investor in Croatia – which he underlined as being of key importance in times of crisis.

As for the situation in the region, both presidents expressed their desire to see Serbia on the road towards European integration. Fischer also thanked Croatia for supporting Austria's application for a seat on the UN Human Rights Committee.

Austrian backing for Croatian accession

Fischer's invitation to Josipovi? to visit Austria has been interpreted in political circles as a clear sign of Austria's support for Croatia's EU membership bid.

The cordial relations between the two countries were confirmed by the fact that Josipovic's visit came less than three months after his predecessor, Stjepan Mesi?, was a guest of the Austrian president at the New Year's concert in Vienna.

Following his inauguration on 18 February, Josipovi? first travelled to Brussels for talks with EU and European Commission officials. Slovenia was his second foreign destination and he is scheduled to visit Hungary on Tuesday.

Swedish MEP Gunnar Hökmark, speaking for the European People’s Party in his role as Chairman of the EU-Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee, stated that ''the expected EU membership of Croatia, once the country meets all the criteria, will reinforce the credibility of the EU enlargement policy. Croatia has so far demonstrated that strict application of membership criteria can be a strong incentive for reform and this model can serve as an example for other countries in the region to follow.''

''With Croatia as a Member State the EU will be able to engage with more determination in playing a constructive role in the region ... The European Parliament has in the last years been consistent in supporting Croatia’s efforts in implementing the necessary reforms. If the implementation continues at the same pace, I have every confidence Croatia will be on track to conclude accession negotiations by the end of this year,'' he added.

''I hope Croatia will open all negotiating chapters for EU membership, and close as many as possible, by the end of the Spanish Presidency," concluded Hökmark.

Croatia is poised to become the first country to join the EU since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The country is expected to complete its accession negotiations in 2010 (EURACTIV 11/02/10). 

The Croatian negotiation process came to a halt in 2008 due to a border dispute with Slovenia, but the prime ministers of both countries agreed in 2009 that it should not constitute an obstacle to Croatian accession.

Most of Croatia's executive power is vested in the post of prime minister, held since July 2009 by Jadranka Kosor. Ivo Josipovi?, a social democrat, was inaugurated as president on 18 February 2010, having beaten Zagreb mayor Milan Bandi? (EURACTIV 18/02/10).

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