Slovenian vote clears Croatia’s main obstacle to EU accession

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Slovenia narrowly approved a border arbitration deal with Croatia in a referendum on 6 June, clearing a major obstacle to Zagreb's European Union membership bid. According to diplomats, the vote offers hope to other EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans.

With 99.9% of votes counted, preliminary results showed 51.5% of Slovenes supported the deal, the state electoral commission said.

The vote should boost Croatia's chances of joining the 27-nation EU in 2012 if it succeeds in completing entry talks in the next year.

Under the border arbitration deal, an international team will settle a dispute over the land and sea border that dates from the 1991 break-up of Yugoslavia. The ruling would be binding for both countries.

"This is an historic decision […] This is a big success for Slovenia," Prime Minister Borut Pahor told national TV in Slovenia.

Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, the only former Yugoslav state so far to have done so. Like any other EU member, it can veto Croatia's progress towards membership.

Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who spoke to Pahor by telephone after the polls had closed, told Croatia's state television she foresaw no further Slovenian action to bar Zagreb's path towards joining the EU.

"There will be no more roadblocks. Dialogue certainly continues. With this agreement […] we separated Croatia's [EU] talks from solving the border issue".

Important signal

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso welcomed the referendum result.

"This is an important step forward […] We now look forward to a final settlement of the dispute. Resolving this bilateral issue is an important signal for the region and the relations between Slovenia and Croatia," he said in a statement.

Pahor's centre-left government has made ending the dispute with Croatia its main foreign policy goal. Slovenia blocked Croatia's EU application process for most of 2009 until the two governments reached a deal last September.

Janez Jansa, opposition leader and former prime minister who had denounced the deal as bad for Slovenia, said approval of the deal would result in Slovenia losing access to international sea waters.

"This result shows that Slovenia is divided over a question where we should not be divided at all," Jansa said.

The dispute involves a sliver of land on the Istrian peninsula in the northern Adriatic. Slovenia – squeezed between Italy and Croatia – has demanded direct access to international waters, which could force Croatia to cede some of the sea it views as its own.

Analysts say the approval will end the 19-year old border dispute and ease relations between the two countries.

None of the other former Yugoslav republics has opened EU accession talks yet and most of them remain locked in historic rivalries and legacy issues from the wars of the 1990s.

A small number of postal votes remain to be counted in Slovenia's referendum and final results are due on 29 June.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

Slovenia's Prime Minister Borut Pahor told Slovenian Television that an approval of the arbitration deal would confirm the maturity of Slovenian voters and send a positive signal to Croatia and the entire Balkan region. Pahor said he could see "no alternative" had the agreement been rejected, according to Croatian press agency Hina.

Opposition leader Janes Jansa was visibly disappointed at the preliminary results of the vote. He said that the Slovenian Democratic Party would not vote in favour of ratification of Croatia's EU accession treaty if the border issue was not settled by then and called for the arbitration process to be accelerated up so that its result is known within a year, Hina reported.

Appearing on an evening news programme, Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said that the Slovenian leader Borut Pahor told her that Slovenia would not obstruct Croatia's EU entry talks.

"We have shown that we can foster a culture of dialogue. That dialogue continues and after this we will open and close the remaining chapters. We will live here forever together as good neighbours and we should finally close that book," she told the Croatian commercial television station Nova TV.

 

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic welcomed the positive outcome of Slovenia's referendum on the border arbitration agreement and sees it as an important victory for Slovenia, Croatia and Europe, according to an official presidential press release.

 

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso hailed the outcome of the referendum as an important signal for the region as well as for relations between the two countries.

 

 

"This is an important step forward," Barroso said in a statement. ''We now look forward to a final settlement of the dispute. Resolving this bilateral issue is an important signal for the region and the relations between Slovenia and Croatia," he said.

 

Diplomats told EURACTIV that a lot was at stake at Slovenia's referendum. Amid the economic crisis and with public opinion in older EU member states lukewarm to further enlargement, a negative result would have "changed the mood completely" among the Union's decision-makers, a senior representative of an EU country said.

Croatia's EU accession is seen as a "locomotive" for keeping on track the other, more problematic candidacies of the Western Balkan countries, he added.

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 by the end of 2010 (EURACTIV 11/02/10).

But during the 2008 French EU Presidency, Slovenia blocked the opening of nine out of ten negotiating chapters with Zagreb due to an unresolved border dispute (EURACTIV 18/12/08). 

In September 2009 the prime ministers of both countries agreed that this would not constitute an obstacle to Croatia's accession (EURACTIV 30/09/09).

The border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia concerns small pockets of land along the Adriatic coast, which could prove important if accompanied by 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".

On 3 May the Slovenian parliament decided to hold a referendum to decide whether to endorse or reject a law aimed at finding a solution to the border dispute with Croatia, based on international arbitration (EURACTIV 05/05/10). The Slovenian centre-right opposition campaigned to reject the law.

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