Croatia lifts veto on EU-Serbia accession talks
Croatia has agreed to let the EU take the next step in Serbia accession talks, on the judiciary and fundamental rights.
Its EU ambassador in Brussels on Wednesday (1 June) lifted Zagreb’s veto on so-called chapter 23 of the enlargement rulebook by giving a positive assessment on a European Commission “benchmark report”.
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Croatia had complained that a Serbian law giving its courts universal jurisdiction on war crimes could be used against Croatian nationals, and that Serbia was not doing enough to protect minority rights at home.
The next step will be for the EU and Serbia to put forward their negotiation mandates on chapter 23.
The compromise is that Croatia’s concerns will be addressed in the EU mandate, or “draft common position”. According to Croatian media, the EU draft position will not demand that Serbia withdraws its war crimes law, but it will say that Serbia’s handling of war crimes cases must take into account regional cooperation and must be non-discriminatory.
The deal was agreed by EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, Croatian foreign minister Miro Kovac and Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders last week.
Speaking for the Dutch EU presidency, which ends in July, Koenders said on Wednesday: “I’m confident that we will find ways to address these issues in a manner that will allow Croatia to agree to the opening of chapter 23 by the end of the Dutch presidency”.
“We have managed to ensure that our legitimate demands are incorporated in Serbia's negotiating process,” Kovac said on the margins of a meeting in Bulgaria.
“Those demands are well known to the Croatian public: full cooperation with the Hague tribunal, full application by Serbia of national and international obligations in protecting minority rights … and avoiding judicial conflict in prosecuting war crimes.”
Chapters 23 and 24 (on justice, freedom and security) of the accession book are known as “benchmark” chapters due to the importance of the issues involved. They are normally opened early in the accession talks and concluded at the very end.
The EU and Serbia launched the talks last December as a reward for Serbia’s willingness to normalise ties with Kosovo.
The Serbian government is keen to proceed down the EU path.
But it also has strong ties with Russia, while the Serbian parliament contains an influential bloc of some 35 ultra-nationalist and anti-EU deputies.
The new Croatian government also has a nationalist bent. Tomislav Karamarko, a deputy PM who wields great influence over the PM, recently called for people who publicly criticised Croatia’s conduct in the Yugoslav wars to face criminal charges.
Wednesday’s mini-breakthrough comes at a turbulent time in the Western Balkans, with Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia all struggling to overcome internal political crises.