Croatia sees breakthrough in EU talks


The Netherlands and Slovenia have lifted their veto of two key chapters in Croatia's ongoing EU membership talks, raising hopes that the country could soon become the bloc's 28th member.

The Netherlands lifted its veto of the judiciary and fundamental rights chapters, while Slovenia said it had no reservations about starting negotiations on the competition chapter, the Croatian press writes.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen announced in a written statement that the EU had decided that full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal must be one of the benchmarks for closing the judiciary and fundamental rights negotiating chapter of EU entry talks.

Verhagen's announcement, made at a meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Luxembourg on 14 June, means in diplomatic language that Croatia will be able to open the chapter at an accession conference scheduled for 30 June. However, the Netherlands retains the option of maintaining pressure on Zagreb to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Just before that, Serge Brammertz, the ICTY's chief prosecutor, told EU ministers that he had no reason to doubt that Croatia would continue to cooperate with the so-called 'artillery logs' investigation (see 'Background').

Brammerz also said that overall cooperation between Serbia and ICTY was "going OK" (EURACTIV 15/06/10).

Brammertz thanked EU bodies, saying their policy of setting conditions had helped a lot in making former Yugoslav countries start to cooperate with the Hague tribunal.

"I asked the European institutions to continue with their support," he said, quoted by Croatian agency HINA.

Savers' case not an issue?

At the same ministerial meeting, Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar said his country had no reservations about Croatia opening the competition policy chapter.

He added that his country would set no conditions for the opening of negotiations in the three remaining policy areas (competition, the judiciary and fundamental rights, and foreign, security and defence policy).

"Concerning the competition policy chapter, there are no outstanding issues. The issue of the Ljubljanska Banka is not linked with competition policy," Zbogar said.

After the collapse of former Yugoslavia, the bank had refused to compensate holders of foreign exchange deposits at its branches in Zagreb, Sarajevo and Skopje. In response, Zagreb had denied Slovenia's Ljubljanska bank access to the Croatian market as long as savers from the former Yugoslavia, now Croatian citizens, had not been refunded.

The Council of Europe made an appeal in 2004 for Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to set up a collective fund to compensate depositors. It also offered to help.

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Croatia is poised to become the first country to join the EU since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, with the former Yugoslav republic's accession negotiations expected to conclude in 2010 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU-Croatia relations).

The country's accession negotiations have been delayed by a border dispute with its EU neighbour Slovenia. A crucial referendum held last week in Slovenia cleared what appeared to be the last major obstacle to Zagreb's European Union membership bid. The referendum results were hailed by EU leaders (EURACTIV 07/06/10).

However, in Croatia's accession process, challenges remain regarding access by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to important documents on the use of artillery by Croatian forces during the Balkan war in the 1990s (EURACTIV 26/11/09). 

These are needed for the trial of General Ante Gotovina, indicted by the ICTY for war crimes while expelling Krajna Serbs from Croatia in 1995 under 'Operation Storm'. This ethnic cleansing caused innocent victims, and caused around 200,000 Serbs to flee the former Yugoslav republic at the end of the 1991-1995 war. 

Gotovina spend several years in hiding, before being caught in Tenerife in 2005. Many Croats still consider him a national hero.

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