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4th Feb 2023

Brussels ups pressure over Slovenia-Croatia dispute

  • Mr Rehn is urging both sides to "seize the opportunity" to reach agreement (Photo: European Commission)

Slovenia and Croatia should work on finding a solution to their year-long border dispute if Zagreb's EU membership negotiations are to stand a chance of making progress during an EU-Croatia meeting next month, the EU enlargement commissioner has said.

"It is important that in the next accession conference which is planned for March ... [it is possible] to open, maybe close, but at least open a number of chapters, so that the dynamic of the negotiations will be kept on," commissioner Olli Rehn said at a press conference in Brussels on Friday (20 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.

But 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, is a particularly thorny issue that caused Ljubljana to block the opening or closing of 11 chapters of Croatia's 35-chapter package in December.

"It is important that we find a solution that could help solve the border issue and would allow Croatia's EU accession negotiations to continue according to the negotiating framework," Mr Rehn said.

The European Commission in January suggested forming a special mediation group to help solve the lengthy dispute, which could be chaired by former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari.

Mr Ahtisaari "would be in principle ready to take up the task and chair this group," Mr Rehn said, "but for the group to be set up, we first need an agreement of the two countries on the terms and conditions of such facilitation," he stressed.

"I sincerely wish that they [Slovenia and Croatia] would take this chance now and seize the opportunity. I expect clarity on the matter latest in the first week of March," said the commissioner.

Slovenia has already strongly spoken in favour of the group, calling it "the best" option for breaking the deadlock and finding a final solution. Croatia has also welcomed the initiative.

In terms of solving the border issue, however, Zagreb favours going the route of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, arguing it is a legal, not a political issue.

The prime ministers of the two countries will meet in the Mokrice castle in Slovenia on Tuesday to discuss the border issue – a move Mr Rehn called "a very positive step forward [that] counters the negative rhetoric in the public debate in the two countries which has increased."

Stick to the technical criteria

Croatia – an EU candidate since 2004 – is hoping to conclude EU accession talks by the end of this year, so that it can join the bloc by 2011.

"Concluding the accession negotiations by the end of this year is a tall order," Mr Rehn told EUobserver.

"If we can find a way forward on the border issue, and if Croatia works very intensively on the reforms, then the target date is within reach. But every day increases the risk that the timetable will slip," he warned.

The Slovenia–Croatia blockage is the latest in a line of disputes blocking EU candidate countries.

But commissioner Rehn denied this being a sign that new – political – criteria are being added during the accession talks with candidate or potential candidate countries.

"The framework of the EU accession negotiations is very clear, and new criteria are not being set up as we go along," Mr Rehn said.

"If the candidate countries carry out the necessary reforms, negotiations will move forward," he added.

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