Confusion reigns on Croatia’s last stretch to EU

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Following a dinner of EU foreign ministers yesterday (23 May), contradictory statements were made regarding Croatia's last few miles on the road to EU accession.

Only a few ministers spoke to the press following the discussions, which concluded without joint conclusions, the Croatian news agency HINA reported.

Mikulas Dzurinda, foreign minister of Slovakia, a country that strongly supports Croatia's accession, gave no clear answer when asked about Zagreb's chances of completing talks by the end of Hungary's EU presidency on 30 June.

He said he would personally "like that", but that Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle had just received a lot of new information from Zagreb which would take time to analyse.

"I am quite satisfied, as the discussion was open and constructive," Dzurinda was quoted as saying. "Everyone knows that meeting the criteria is crucial, and Commissioner Füle's report was quite optimistic, so I am confident that Croatia will cross the last metres of this long race."

Regarding a possible accession date, Dzurinda said this was not the most important issue at the moment. The most important thing was to cross the final few metres, he said.

Monitoring mechanism could postpone accession

Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said his country advocated introducing "an additional mechanism" to monitor Croatia's commitments.

"We are waiting for the Commission to release in the coming weeks a solid progress report. I think it would be good to introduce a monitoring mechanism in the period between the completion of the negotiations and accession," Rosenthal was quoted as saying.

Commissioner Füle has so far opposed introducing a mechanism to monitor Croatia's compliance with EU rules after it has officially joined the bloc. A similar mechanism was imposed on Romania and Bulgaria when they joined in 2007.

This time, it looks that the mechanism, which is reportedly also favoured by France and the UK, would accompany the period between Croatia's final accession talks and its actual EU entry. According to recent experience, a two-year period elapses between such milestones.

According to unnamed sources quoted by HINA, France suggested monitoring Croatia's EU progress after accession but its European affairs minister, Laurent Wauquiez, denied the claims.

Asked how the mechanism would work in practice, Wauquiez would not go into detail, saying it was a proposal that needed the approval of all member countries.

The objective is to define the points which require supervision, for example the training of judges or respect for competition policy rules, which is not limited to the 'Judiciary and Fundamental Rights' negotiation chapter, he said.

If it is established that obligations are not being honoured, Croatia's EU accession could be postponed, he said.

Schengen with 'new protection'?

Wauquiez also disclosed his country's plans to reform the management of the Schengen borderless area. Following pressure from France, Bulgaria and Romania were recently denied Schengen accession, despite having fulfilled the technical criteria.

"In the future, France wants entry to the Schengen area, within which there are no border controls, not to depend only on technical criteria. France also wants the Schengen Treaty to include a protection clause for better crisis management," he was quoted as saying.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he personally saw no need to introduce a monitoring instrument for Croatia and expressed hope that the country's EU talks would end in the near future.

The most optimistic statement was made by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who said Croatia would be ready to complete accession negotiations by the end of the Hungarian EU Presidency. Frattini expressed confidence that an accession treaty could be signed in early autumn.

The Croatian Times quoted EU diplomats as saying that the European Commission wanted Croatia to join the EU as its 28th member on 1 July 2013.

The ommission should use that date in planning the EU budget, the daily newspaper said. 

 

Croatia has been an EU candidate country since June 2004 and began accession negotiations in October 2005. At present 30 of 35 negotiation chapters have been closed. Chapter 23 on the 'Judiciary and Fundamental Rights' is expected to be the most difficult.

The other open chapters are regional policy, fisheries and two technical chapters (budget and 'other issues'), which must be closed last.

On 16 February the European Parliament voted massively by 584 votes to 43 in favour of a resolution congratulating Croatia for "substantial progress," stating that negotiations "can be completed in the first half of 2011 provided that the necessary reforms continue to be pursued resolutely".

Simultaneously, a coalition of Croatian NGOs including Transparency International Croatia issued a joint statement on Chapter 23, warning that for "some crucial benchmarks" there was "a lack of evidence of sincere political will" on the part of the Croatian government.

The recent sentencing of war criminal Ante Gotovina by the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) marked an all-time low in public support for EU accession in Croatia.

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