Croatia accepts EU mediation in border dispute with Slovenia
Croatia on Monday (9 March) accepted an EU proposal to set up an expert group that would help solve its border dispute with Slovenia and unblock its EU talks, but stressed that such a group should lead to the issue eventually being brought before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
"Croatia welcomes and accepts the initiative by EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn," read a statement published on the Croatian government's website after a meeting of the prime minister, president and chiefs of the country's political parties on Monday.
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"The mediation group, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari - a former Finnish president, should help the two countries to formulate an agreement on presenting their border dispute before the International Court of Justice in the Hague and to facilitate their efforts to draft proposals for solving other issues," it adds.
Last week, Slovenia also announced it was backing the EU mediation group, but Ljubljana also wants it to lead to a definitive solution while rejecting recourse to the international court.
The two countries have been unable to agree on their common land and sea border since they both seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, but a patch of the Adriatic Sea close to the Slovenian city of Piran is a particularly thorny issue.
Croatia argues the border should lie in the middle of the bay of Piran, but Slovenia says this would deny its ships direct access to international waters.
In December, it blocked the opening or closing of 11 chapters of Croatia's 35-chapter EU negotiations package over the unresolved issue.
As a reaction to the persistent deadlock, the European Commission in January proposed setting up a mediation group to help solve the dispute.
An 'impossible' condition?
Slovenia has said Croatia's decision was "a positive step," but added it might be insufficient.
"If its final position is like the one stated in the press release, then Croatia is narrowing the possibility of mediation being successful," Croatian news agency HINA reported Slovenian foreign minister Samuel Zbogar as saying in a reference to Zagreb's condition that the mediation should bring the issue before the ICJ.
Last week, Mr Rehn called on the two countries to accept the commission's initiative "without such impossible conditions that would effectively imply its rejection."
But on Monday, he welcomed Croatia's announcement and said the commission was now studying the details of the two countries' positions.
"I welcome the decision of the Croatian government and parliament as a further step towards such a European facilitation, which would help solve the border issue and allow the continuation of Croatia's [EU] accession negotiations," he told journalists in Brussels.
Mr Rehn is to meet both countries' foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday in order to "agree on the terms" of the "European facilitation."
For its part, Croatia has denied setting "impossible" conditions.
"We think that those are possible conditions. How others will assess is not our business ... One of the basic principles [of the EU's work] is the principle of solidarity and the principle of not blackmailing," Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said.
Additionally, Zagreb now expects an "immediate unblocking of [its] EU accession negotiations".
The next intergovernmental conference between the EU and Croatia is scheduled for 27 March and is seen as crucial for unblocking Zagreb's EU accession talks and making it possible for Croatia to stick to its timetable of concluding the negotiations by the end of this year in order to join the bloc in 2011.