Thursday

24th May 2018

Croatia veto on Serbia's EU talks causes surprise

  • Croatian PM Tihomir Oreskovic (r) with EU Council chief Donald Tusk in Zagreb in March (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Last week was a bad week for Serbia’s bid to join the EU.

At a meeting in the EU Council on Thursday (7 April ), the Croatian delegate refused to endorse the European Commission’s opinion that Serbia is ready to open talks on Chapter 23 of the accession book, which deals with judiciary and human rights.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Any delay on EU path could harm Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic in upcoming elections (Photo: Council of the EU)

According to the EU’s “fundamentals first” enlargement strategy, this is one of the “superchapters” that is crucial to the whole process. Serbia had hoped it would be opened by June, paving the way for other chapters.

This is now likely to be delayed.

Alone among the 28 member states, Croatia cited doubts on Serbia’s commitment to the rule of law, stopping the preparations for the start of accession talks.

Croatia’s complaints include three issues: the treatment of the Croatian minority in Serbia, Serbian cooperation with the UN war crimes court in The Hague (the ICTY), and jurisdiction of Serbian courts over war crimes committed in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Although Croatia claims that these issues are related to core European values, Serbia (and most EU members) sees them as Croatia’s attempt to extort concessions on bilateral matters.

Croatia wants guaranteed parliamentary seats for representatives of ethnic Croats, who comprise less than 1 percent of Serbia’s overall population.

Apart from a relatively minor problem of Serbia’s reluctance to arrest and deliver three people charged with contempt of court, there are no outstanding issues between Serbia and the ICTY.

When it comes to Serbia’s self-proclaimed jurisdiction over war crimes, Croatia is worried that the Belgrade special court, which has so far mostly tried Serbs for war crimes against other ethnic groups, could in future also indict Croats for crimes against Serbs.

Besides Serbia, 11 EU member states also have similar laws allowing their courts to prosecute crimes against humanity no matter where they occurred.

No 'blockade'

Predictably, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic was furious.

“We will not tolerate blackmail, and won’t beg and crawl,” he told supporters at a rally in the city of Novi Sad in northern Serbia.

The Croatian move caught him at a bad time - at the height of his campaign for the 24 April parliamentary election. The prospect of EU membership, still popular among many Serbs, tops his agenda and any delay on the road to Brussels, whatever the cause, could harm him in the polls.

But in reality, there is not much he can do, since every step in the enlargement process requires unanimity in the EU Council.

Croatia responded to Vucic by claiming that it was only trying to help Serbia to fully prepare for membership.

“All that Serbia needs to do is to fulfil our demands, which are entirely in accordance with basic EU standards,” Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic said at a press conference on Monday.

“Don’t call it blockade, we’re not putting up roadblocks on Serbia’s path.”

Her choice of words touched some nerves, since the word “roadblock” could be seen as an allusion to the early stages of the war in Croatia, when Belgrade-backed ethnic Serbian rebels built multiple roadblocks in order to cut communications between Croatian towns.

Serbo-Croat relations, already strained by the increasingly nationalist rhetoric of the newly formed right-wing government in Zagreb, have now reached their lowest point in years.

Last week, the representatives of Jewish and Serbian communities in Croatia announced that they would boycott the annual commemoration of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where tens of thousands of their kin were killed during World War Two.

They did this in protest over attempts by some Croatian government members to rehabilitate the pro-Nazi Ustasha movement, whose members operated the camp.

Ethnic Serbs in Croatia complain that since the new government was formed, they have been subjected to increasing threats and harassment, which is often tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged by the country’s top officials. Serbia has protested, to not much avail.

Croatia flexes it muscles

Meanwhile, Croatia has found itself under increasing pressure from Brussels and several member states to lift the block and allow Serbia to open Chapter 23.

Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, had a quiet word with top Croatian officials last weekend.

Austria and Hungary, among others, also publicly appealed to Zagreb to try to solve its problems with Belgrade through bilateral talks, or in later stages of the accession negotiations.

This is because Serbia is seen by many as a key player in the Western Balkans, and if its membership talks stall, regional stability could suffer.

So far, however, Croatia is not budging, and its leaders unanimously insist that their demands are met in full before they let Serbia make any further progress.

There is a slight chance that Vucic and Grabar Kitarovic could find a sliver of common ground at a trilateral meeting with Bosnian president Bakir Izetbegovic in Mostar on Tuesday.

But it's a long shot and the mood in Belgrade is gloomy.

“Even if the Croats drop their demands in a week or two, we’ll almost certainly miss the June date for chapter opening,” a high-ranking Serbian diplomat closely involved with the EU negotiations told EUobserver.

He said that Belgrade expected Croatia to flex its EU muscles during the enlargement negotiations, but it was surprised that this occurred already at such an early stage of the process, which, even in the best-case scenario, would take several years to conclude.

“They’re trying to push us off the field before the game even begins,” the diplomat said. “I shudder to think what they’ll do once we really start playing.”

Opinion

Croatia joins EU's illiberal democracy club

Croatia's new PM is a political nobody. He's controlled by men who are about as pro-European as Kaczynski in Poland or Orban in Hungary and the EU should be worried.

Analysis

Blast from the past haunts Serbia’s PM

The surprise acquittal of notorious warmonger Vojislav Seselj spoils Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic’s chances of winning this month's parliamentary election.

War crimes law poisons Serbia accession talks

Croatia wants its neighbour to scrap a law on universal juridiction in the former Yugoslavia. The request is delaying the opening of a new chapter of negotiations.

Same old scandals drag down Croatia's government

Scandals over oil money and World War II history, attacks on democratic standards risk unseating Croatia's government in a confidence vote just five months after it took office.

Opinion

Appeasement will not work with Erdogan

As EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker meet president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Bulgaria, their reluctance to use their diminishing leverage with Ankara means his dismantling of Turkey's democracy only speeds up.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  2. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and reconciliation is a process that takes decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  3. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  5. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  7. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Cooperation Needed on Green Exports and Funding
  10. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li Confirms China Will Continue to Open Up
  11. European Jewish CongressCalls on Brussels University to Revoke Decision to Honour Ken Loach
  12. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May

Latest News

  1. Privacy Shield less relevant given GDPR, says data chief
  2. Unknown academic to lead Italy into EU clash
  3. 'Killer robot' projects eligible for EU defence fund
  4. Funding for European values needs radical changes
  5. Feeble EU format deflates Zuckerberg 'hearing'
  6. Are EU data watchdogs staffed for GDPR?
  7. EU pessimistic on permanent US trade exemption
  8. US asks EU to go after Russian and African villains

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  2. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  5. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  7. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  8. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  9. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  10. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  11. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight