Croatia foreign minister: We will defend regional, farm funding in new EU budget

Croatia's Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman: Croatia will fight to preserve the Cohesion and Common Agricultural Policy in the new EU budget. [Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs]

EXCLUSIVE / Croatia, which starts its first EU presidency stint in January, is “not quite happy” with Finland’s proposal for the EU’s seven-year budget and will seek to amend the proposal in order to preserve funding for Cohesion and the Common Agricultural Policy, the country’s Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman told EURACTIV.

Grlić Radman said Croatia hopes to reach a compromise and sign off on the EU budget during its presidency, but Zagreb will also focus on reviving the EU’s sagging enlargement process, with a Western Balkans summit planned in May.

Gordan Grlić Radman is Croatia’s minister of foreign affairs. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief Zoran Radosavljević in Brussels.

Can you outline the priorities of Croatia’s EU presidency?

There are four priorities. One: a Europe that develops and grows – economic growth, sustainable growth, balanced growth of countries and regions in order to decrease differences and have convergence. Two: a Europe that connects – transport, energy, digitalisation, connection through culture, tourism, youth.

The third is a Europe that protects. This refers primarily to the safety and security of European citizens, internal and external security, good cooperation of the judiciary and interior ministries, internal cooperation and external borders. Croatia can contribute a lot here, considering that we have the longest external border, 1,000 km with Bosnia-Herzegovina and that Croatia has meanwhile applied to join the Schengen area, which proves that it can protect the borders, even though it is very challenging.

The fourth is an influential Europe. Here we mean all geopolitical situations, with third countries, the immediate neighbourhood, Eastern Partnership, but also enlargement.

Croatia plans to hold an EU summit with the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries because it’s in the interest of the EU and Croatia to have a stable and peaceful neighbourhood…We want to help Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo on their way to the EU.

Then there is Brexit, with a very uncertain outcome. The election is on 12 December and if it is Johnson, we will be able to agree an orderly withdrawal. The withdrawal agreement could probably be ratified by 31 January. Following that, Croatia, which will be presiding the Council, should start work on an agreement on the future relations between the EU and the UK. Of course, different scenarios are possible here. It is possible that Labour wins, which would render the situation even more complex because of the option of the second referendum [in the UK]. One way or another, we will certainly be dealing with Brexit.

The second major issue is adopting the Multiannual Financial Framework, the expectations are that it would be best if it was adopted during the Croatian presidency. It’s the seven-year budget and the budget level is of particular interest for the so-called Friends of Cohesion, the smaller EU countries, the last ones to join the EU, particularly Croatia, which has not been able to use these possibilities, to use Cohesion funds.

Of course, Common Agricultural Policy is also of major importance. Croatia has a lot of potential to use CAP and it is very important that its level is appropriate. Now we need to negotiate with the Friend of Cohesion, as well as with net contributor countries to find a common solution…

It is possible that there won’t be a final agreement (this week) and there may be a special European Council in February. In any case, this could happen during the Croatian presidency because the budget has to operational from 2021 and every delay means a delay in launching very important programmes.

The Finnish presidency has come up with its own proposal. Will Croatia stick to that proposal, or come up with its own?

We were not quite happy with the Finnish proposal so Croatia will, together with the others, try to come up with a new one. I believe there is room to improve the Finnish proposal.

One needs to bear in mind that Croatia was built on the ruins of the former Yugoslavia, it suffered an aggression, war, destruction. Croatia had to start from a position well below zero to reach today’s standards. That is why it is of particular importance for Croatia to be allowed to use Cohesion and CAP funds so it can recover even better and reach EU standards.

One of the proposals is to enforce cuts in Cohesion and CAP.

Yes, and also to reduce the reference period, which is currently N+3 years. We want to keep the current situation, including the reference period, and not reduce it to two years, as some want to do. We want to keep both the N+3 period and the level, the appropriate percentage.

There is a growing conflict between Greece and Turkey, which has signed a deal with Lybia on maritime zones, completely sidestepping Greece. What could, or should, the EU do?

We cannot be indifferent. What we can do is to seek ways and methods to work better. Mr Josep Borrell (the EU’s new high representative) wants to improve things, talk to everyone, see if we can have new instruments, connect better and act together.

Speaking of these three countries, Greece is an EU member and Croatia is in absolute solidarity with a member of the same club, so we have to listen carefully and watch what’s happening. That’s where the EU has to act and that’s where we have institutions that take decisions, the councils.

We have condemned the military offensive in northeast Syria, but we’ve left room for dialogue. Turkey is a NATO member and it cares for four million migrants. Those are not facts we should ignore, we need to look at the big picture and talk to all players in this geopolitical space.

But if the EU wants to impose itself as a geopolitical player, it needs to have appropriate mechanisms, instruments. It is not good if the EU acts only after something happens, some situations should be prevented, which means we need to develop a good common foreign and security policy.

Yesterday (at the Foreign Affairs Council), we also spoke about the EU’s relations with Africa. Africa is also unstable, with huge population growth so we can expect a wave of emigration from there and we need to improve cooperation with African countries so that they too can have sustainable growth, so that their people can have the same conditions as we in the EU. It is good if people can stay and live in their homes, but it is also legitimate to look for something better elsewhere, if it is possible. But certain preconditions have to be met.

Regarding the Western Balkans, how do you view the French non-paper proposal about convergence in seven points?

The issue of the Western Balkans and opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania was very much in the focus this summer, especially considering that the two countries got the green light from the Juncker Commission. It was important to see how the Bundestag would react, and they supported it.

Germany threw a lot of weight behind the start of accession talks. However, they were taken aback by Macron’s proposal, his refusal to agree to open accession talks, the search for a redesign of an ongoing process  while we already have Serbia and Montenegro on the way.

We were all a little surprised but it is the legitimate right of France, and other countries, to have their own views. We need to see what Article 49 of the Treaty (TEU) says, to see how we act en general, but it is difficult to change the rules while the game is still on.

So, this is a big challenge for the Croatian presidency because we had expected that the two countries would already open accession talks. It is still possible that something will happen here, the French proposal may have restarted the debate, there is a positive aspect to it, it is not just a cold shower.

But even a cold shower may come in handy, it helps us come to our senses a little bit and we can have seriousness when it comes to concrete decisions… We are trying to raise awareness of how important this is for the EU as well, not just for the region’s neighbours, to have a stable neighbourhood. Croatia will act as an honest broker and we will do our best to find the best solutions, probably before the summit in May.

Will the summit be ‘just one more summit’? Can we expect some essential changes at the summit, or even before the summit? Will the enlargement process be unlocked or is that still uncertain?

Our aim is not to have the summit l’art pour l’art, just for the sake of having it. It must have content, and concrete conclusions. It is very important to be actively engaged in order to have palpable outlines of the summit by March, and we’re actively working on it.

Regarding Croatia’s Schengen accession, you have recently said that Croatia expects positive changes during the German presidency in the second half of 2020. Can Croatia be allowed to join Schengen while Bulgaria and Romania are kept on hold, even though they joined the EU before Croatia?

Those are all facts, but we’re not looking at other countries, we’re looking at what we have achieved, and we have met the eight set conditions, for which there was no contol mechanism, and that is why we have applied [to join Schengen].

We got the green light [from the Commission], with no conditions and that is a clear indicator that the expert body that did the evaluation based its decision on available data. And that data should be the element for the member states in taking the political decision.

The Schengen area experienced its own crisis during the migration crisis, but it has to exist, it is essential. I think Croatia is successful in guarding the EU’s border, despite all the difficulties, the fight against human traffickers, crime, although our border is a target and we are examined under the magnifying glass.

That means that we are practically already ‘in’, we are meeting all the criteria, applying all the mechanisms. We can rightly say that Croatia deserves to join the Schengen area.

Croatia’s neighbour Slovenia may disagree, because of the ongoing dispute over borders and the international border arbitration. Can Slovenia block Croatia’s Schengen accession?

I believe Slovenia will act  wisely and smart, because the little stone in our shoe is irritating both Croatia and Slovenia. Croatia’s accession to Schengen is in Slovenia’s interest because it is Croatia’s border that then becomes the EU’s external border, while the border between Croatia and Slovenia becomes an internal border between two Schengen members.

Therefore, Croatia’s Schengen accession will primarily help Slovenia, and I am convinced that the majority of people and politicians in Slovenia think the same.

Croatia is expected to guard the EU’s border, with Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the other hand, hardly a day goes by with NGOs, human rights activists denouncing the Croatian police for inhumane treatment of migrants. Is there a certain hypocrisy at play here?

The issue is not that there are refugees in western Bosnia. The issue is how they got there in the first place. This has to be regulated. We are proving that we can protect the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. But how did these migrants get there, how did they get so close to the Croatian border? Our interior minister is very active and we have good support from the member states. Refugees are one thing, it’s a humanitarian issue. Illegal migrations are something else. If we had a common migration policy, if all member states drafted appropriate mechanisms, this would greatly facilitate cooperation and protection of borders.

The Croatian police protects from illegal migration. Our policemen are well trained, they act in accordance with Croatian and EU regulations. Our police often saves those people from drowning, freezing or suffocating in sealed trucks. We act at three points: on the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, inside Croatia and on the border with Slovenia.

The Nobel prize for literature has been awarded to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been denounced as a supporter of of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.  Croatia joined a group of countries that boycotted the ceremony. Why? 

This group of countries [Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Turkey], they are the direct witnesses of the events from the early 1990s, when Handke chose one side. The countries born from the disintegration of Yugoslavia remember the writings of Mr Handke and, with all due respect for everyone’s freedom to write, it was incomprehensible to us that he should have sided with the Milosevic regime, at a time when even in Serbia, there were different views and condemnations of Milosevic.

The fact that Handke attended his funeral makes us believe even more firmly that the Nobel prize went to the wrong man.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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