Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković took a defiant stance against the European Commission on Wednesday (5 July), telling Brussels to refrain from meddling in Zagreb’s border dispute with Slovenia because “it has no competencies for border issues”.
The Commission asked EU members Slovenia and Croatia on Tuesday (4 July) to implement the ruling of an arbitration tribunal that gave Ljubljana important access to international waters off the Croatian coast.
Zagreb has dismissed the ruling as null-and-void, saying it had quit the arbitration process in 2015 because it was “irrevocably contaminated and compromised”.
“The Commission has taken note of the final decision and is waiting for the two parties to implement it,” First Vice-President Frans Timmermans told a press conference in Strasbourg on Tuesday.
Plenković, a former MEP with the conservative EPP group, said his government, parliament and all political parties held the same view:
“It would be good if the Commission remained within the framework of its competencies, and it has no competency for the border arbitration,” Plenković told reporters, according to Croatia’s state news agency Hina.
“There are countries that have taken a hundred years to solve border issues. The Belgian foreign minister said the other day that their border talks with the Netherlands have been going on for years. And yet, I haven’t seen the issue feature on the agenda of the Commission or Parliament”.
Both former Yugoslav republics, which gained independence in 1991, have laid claim to a small section of water in the northern Adriatic Bay of Piran.
Slovenia, which has just 46 km of coastline, had argued its access to international waters was at stake because Croatia – whose coast stretches for 1,700 km – wanted the maritime border to be drawn right down the middle of the bay.
Last week’s ruling grants Slovenia a 16-km-long ‘junction’, or sea corridor, that will provide the long-coveted access but it remains unclear how it will be implemented.
Croatia says the arbitration process was tainted after it emerged in 2015 that a Slovenian official had discussed the case with a member of the arbitration committee. Ljubljana does not contest this charge but still insists that Croatia must stick to the terms of the deal.
Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004, blocked Croatia’s EU accession talks in 2008 because of the border issue. The two sides eventually agreed to hand the matter over to the international tribunal in The Hague and the agreement allowed Croatia to resume membership talks and join the bloc in 2013.
“Croatia lost two years in the accession talks because of Slovenia’s blockade and no one from the European institutions has ever apologised for the fact that our progress was stopped because of a bilateral issue that had nothing to do with the accession process,” the Croatian leader added.
The ruling envisages the implementation of the tribunal’s decision within six months but does not prescribe any other details.
Neither the Commission nor the tribunal have a mechanism to force Croatia into compliance. But a failure to implement the ruling could further strain Zagreb’s relations with its northwestern neighbour.
Most of the millions of European tourists who flock to Croatia every summer pass through Slovenia. Detailed border checks – as Croatia is still not part of the Schengen area – could create lengthy queues at the borders.
Minor incidents, mostly involving Croatian fishermen and the Slovenian border police, have been reported in the disputed area after the ruling.
Plenković and his Slovenian counterpart, Miro Cerar, will discuss the issue face-to-face on 12 July. They meet again a day later at an EU-Western Balkans summit in Trieste, which will also host leaders from Germany, France and Italy and the issue of borders is certain to be on the agenda.