Croatia to coach Bosnians on how to join the EU

Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, pictured (L) with Donald Tusk at his first European Council summit, wants to help Croatia's Balkan neighbour join the EU. [European Council]

Croatia, the European Union’s newest member, has pledged to help its neighbour, Bosnia and Herzegovina, follow in its footsteps and join the bloc as soon as possible.

The Balkan state’s new Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said that Croatia would support Bosnia and Herzegovina in its efforts to join the EU during an official visit on Saturday (29 October). Plenković, a former MEP, said in Mostar that he would support in “the most constructive way possible the stability and European path” of the country.

Croatia formerly joined the EU on 1 July 2013 and became the bloc’s 28th member, a full decade after it first applied for membership in 2003, and will now provide its Balkan partner assistance in convincing the European Commission to officially recognise its candidacy. Croatia was granted official candidate status in 2004 by the executive.

Plenković’s visit included talks with one of Bosnia and Hergovina’s presidential triumvirate, Dragan Čović, who represents the Croat population of the country.

“If it were not for Plenković, Stier (Croatia’s foreign minister) and others, I am quite sure that we would not have been able to submit our application on 15 February. We will receive a questionnaire in December and we hope to receive the candidate status by the end of next year”, explained Čović.

Bosnia and Herzegovina made its formal application for candidacy after years of Brussels advising Sarajevo against making a premature bid. Čović was the chairman of the presidency when it was submitted to the Commission, a position he has since ceded to his Bosniak colleague, Bakir Izetbegović, as part of the country’s rotating system.

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As far as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s chances of being admitted to the exclusive European club go, Čović admitted that a number of important reforms still have to be implemented before it will be able to convince Brussels it is ready, including changes to the electoral law.

The process of joining the EU is a long and complex one, but primarily involves the opening and fulfilment of 35 chapters, each of which deals with a separate issue, including everything from the environment to taxation.

Whether the EU will actively entertain further enlargement in the near future remains hugely doubtful anyway. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear when he took the job in 2014 that expansion was not a priority and enlargement was not mentioned during his annual State of the Union address in September.

The ongoing refugee crisis, which until recently centred on the Western Balkans route, the turmoil caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the rise in right-wing parties across Europe will also more than likely slow down any talks on the matter.

Moreover, Bosnia and Herzegovina is going to have to get in line, as the queue to join the EU is already a relatively long one; Serbia is thought to be in pole position to join the bloc, as it continues to implement much-needed political reform; Balkan neighbours Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro also harbour hopes of joining the club; and Turkey’s EU candidacy remains a controversial and often-thorny issue for Brussels.

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That is of course not to mention the not implausible prospect of Scotland holding a second, and this time successful, independence referendum, before replacing the UK within the EU28.

Croatia’s parliament only approved Plenković’s government on 19 October, after snap elections were held on 11 September, following the fall of Tihomir Oresković’s fragile right-wing cabinet. The new prime minister, who represents the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), was able to broker a more stable coalition with the Most party; the new government controls 91 of the parliament’s 151 seats.

Zagreb-born Plenković replaced corruption-hit Tomislav Karamarko as HDZ chairman earlier this year and resigned as an MEP when he became prime minister, a role he has fulfilled since Croatia first sent representatives to the Parliament.

Before that, Plenković held positions in Croatia’s foreign and European affairs ministry, was a member of its mission to the EU and served as secretary of state for European integration. It is generally thought that his time in office will be characterised by a focus on the Croatian economy, which is currently one of the EU28’s weakest.

When presenting his cabinet, Plenković said that “we will ease conditions for doing business and implement tax reform to make the taxation system simpler and ease burdens for citizens and businesses.”

His experience of EU affairs will be put to the test after it was revealed earlier this year that Croatia only took advantage of 65.2% of 2007-2013 funding available to it; for the second half of 2013 it was just 40%. For comparison, Greece withdrew 99.9% of its allocation in the same period.

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Following his first European Council summit last week, Plenković told the Croatian parliament that “there is no need for Croatia to build border fences” and insisted that the current situation is better than it was this time last year.

He also responded to criticism that Croatia still supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia. MP Ivan Pernar said that Moscow is not to blame for the crisis in Eastern Ukraine and claimed that the Crimean peninsula has “not been taken by force, but it was the will of the people”. Plenković replied that he was “surprised” by a Croatian politician making statements of this nature, given the country’s recent violent history.

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