13th May 2021

EU mediation needed in border dispute, Slovenia says

  • The bay of Piran facing Croatia's coast (Photo: EUobserver)

An EU mediation group is the only solution to the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, Slovenian Prime Minister Borut Pahor has said.

"I think this is at least at this moment the best solution I can see… I cannot see other solutions," Mr Pahor told a group of foreign journalists in Ljubljana on Friday (13 February).

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Slovenia and Croatia have been unable to agree on their common land and sea border since they both seceded from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

Particularly thorny is a patch of the Adriatic Sea close to the Slovenian city of Piran, which Slovenia says would secure its ships direct access to international waters.

In December, Ljubljana blocked the opening or closing of 11 chapters of Croatia's 35-chapter EU accession negotiations package over the issue.

It argued that certain documents and maps provided by Croatia during its accession process could prejudge a solution to their long-running dispute – a claim that Zagreb denies.

Following this stalemate, the European Commission in January suggested forming a special mediation group to help solve the lengthy dispute.

The group may be chaired by former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari, and would also include Robert Badinter – the French legal expert who headed the arbitration commission for the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

"Basically, Slovenia supports this initiative and we do hope that also Croatia would go ahead with [it]," Mr Pahor said.

For Slovenia, agreeing on the terms of a possible mediation would be key to whether it stops blocking the 11 chapters and allow EU talks with Zagreb to continue, Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar also stressed on Thursday.

"We will agree on Croatia continuing [EU] negotiations [when] ... we have an agreement on the mediation," Mr Zbogar said, adding he hoped this could happen "in the next few weeks."

No solution to the border dispute – no EU membership?

But the process of Croatia becoming a full EU member is unlikely to be completed before a final solution to the border dispute is found, Slovenia's premier underlined.

"If political parties represented in the house [the Slovenian parliament], or the civil society, or everybody else, would have the feeling that things are not going in the right direction, I'm very pessimistic that at the end of the day the house will vote in favour of Croatia's full EU membership if the [border] problem would not be solved," Mr Pahor said.

"The best option would be to solve the problem [before]," he added.

In addition, Croatia still has open border issues with neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia – which also aspire to become EU members in the long term – "and it will be very difficult to find a solution" to these disputes if the one with Ljubljana is not settled first, the Slovenian premier noted.

Mr Pahor will in two to three weeks meet his Croatian counterpart Ivo Sanader for the first time since he took office in November last year "to exchange views on the situation."

"My forecast is that this meeting will not bring a solution – this is absolutely crystal clear – but can help create an atmosphere where and how the solution could be reached," said Mr Pahor.

Defending the national interest

Until Slovenia blocked Croatia's EU accession negotiations in December, Brussels had insisted their border dispute was "a bilateral issue" which should not impede the process of Zagreb's European integration.

EU talks with candidate countries are meant to be a technical process, where political issues have little role to play – but this is not always the case.

Slovenia's premier indicated he believed it is member states' right to be allowed to raise political issues during the process.

"Whenever a country would have a feeling that its sovereign rights or let's say so national interests could be jeopardised, I think it has a right to say to other member states that it is facing a problem… This is a very pragmatic approach," Mr Pahor added.

Besides Croatia, EU talks with Turkey and Macedonia have also been facing political hurdles because of historical disputes with EU members Cyprus and Greece.

Croatia, for its part, has criticised allowing high politics into membership talks.

"Croatia insists that bilateral issues could not and should not be part of EU accession talks," Mr Sanader told Croatian news agency Hina on Friday.

Zagreb is in favour of the border dispute with Slovenia being settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, which recently resolved a Romania-Ukraine border issue. This option is currently ruled out by Ljubljana.

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