Croatia EU timetable slipping away over border dispute
Negotiations between Slovenia, Croatia and the European Commission aimed at solving the two countries' long-lasting border dispute have broken down, Slovenia announced on Thursday (18 June), adding it was very unlikely that it would unblock Zagreb's EU accession talks in the immediate future.
The new development came after Croatia's prime minister Ivo Sanader the same day rejected amendments presented by Slovenia on proposals by EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn aimed at solving the border row. He said that instead Zagreb would put forward its own proposals.
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In May, Mr Rehn proposed a new version of his plan aimed at setting up a form of mediation between Slovenia and Croatia in order to solve their 18-year-old border dispute which has been blocking Zagreb's EU accession talks since December.
Croatia was satisfied with the proposal – which provided for the setting up of an ad hoc arbitration and for an immediate unblocking of the country's membership negotiations by Slovenia– and accepted it. Ljubljana however said it would have some amendments to it.
For Croatia, the May proposal was "a take it or leave it" one, Mr Sanader said at an event organised by the Hanns Seidel Stiftung in Brussels.
"Slovenia had amendments – we can't accept them," he added.
Croatia is instead putting forward its own proposals under which both the Slovenian and the Croatian parliaments would adopt "a joint declaration that no document produced since 1991 (when the two countries proclaimed their independence) either in Slovenia or Croatia could in any way prejudge the border [between the two]."
Additionally, the countries would "try to get a joint opinion from the two legal services of the European Commission and the council… on whether documents presented in the EU negotiations could prejudge the border."
One of Slovenia's arguments when it blocked the accession talks of Croatia in December was that Zagreb had provided maps in the negotiations process which prejudged their common border.
Mr Sanader was speaking before another trilateral meeting between Mr Rehn and the foreign ministers of Slovenia and Croatia where his proposal was to be discussed.
But following Zagreb's rejection of the latest draft, the commissioner "established that he doesn't see at the moment a possibility to continue," Slovenian foreign minister Samuel Zbogar told journalists after the meeting.
There is no next meeting planned in this format, he confirmed.
"I came to Brussels with a mandate to find a solution… Unfortunately when I came to Brussels I found out that Mr Sanader was distributing new proposals," he said.
Mr Zbogar said he found it "surprising" and "puzzling" that Croatia had made alternative proposals while the process of negotiations was ongoing.
"The ball is now in Croatia's court. It is up to them to find a solution and it's not the one they are circulating in Brussels," he said.
Timetable slipping away
Croatia – an EU candidate country since 2004 – opened membership negotiations with the bloc in 2005. It aimed to conclude them by the end of this year and become a full EU member in 2011.
But this deadline seems increasingly unlikely with no breakthrough foreseen in the border dispute and on Thursday Mr Sanader admitted for the first time negotiations may not be concluded by the end of 2009.
"Let's finish this [accession negotiations] in 2010 and get accession. We'll solve this [border dispute] later," he said.
But he stressed that not everything is lost yet.
"Many chapters can still be opened and closed within a day… Sweden [the next EU presidency country] has announced four EU – Croatia intergovernmental conferences for its presidency, while normally there are only two during a presidency," Mr Sanader said welcoming the move.
For him the Slovenian blockage remains the main obstacle and constitutes a violation of the European ideals.
The main European values such as cooperation and solidarity "do not exist on the side of Slovenia in this case. There is a clear blackmail," he said.
"We want an unblocking now, we don't want to wait. Slovenia will have to lift the blockage now or the EU will have to find another way to end the negotiations," the premier added, without giving any details on what "other way" he had in mind.
Croatia should learn about the EU
For his part, Mr Zbogar said it would be "very difficult" that Slovenia unblocks Croatia's EU talks before the summer, as Zagreb wants.
"Something substantial will have to change" for Ljubljana to do so, he said.
Reacting to Mr Sanader's suggestion that the EU should find "another way" to end the talks, the Slovenian foreign minister said Croatia would have to "learn something about the EU."
"It is not the European way to have simultaneous proposals, to derail commissioners' process or to try to find a way to circumvent rights of member states," he said.
He said he hoped there would be no pressure from other member states now on Slovenia to lift its blockade as "I don't think this is the way the EU works."