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3rd Oct 2022

Rehn: EU mediation Croatia's only chance to stick to accession timetable

A European Commission proposal to set up a mediation group in order to solve the year-long border dispute between Zagreb and Ljubljana and unblock Croatia's EU accession talks is the only "viable way forward," enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said on Tuesday (3 March).

"All previous attempts to resolve this issue have failed over the past 18 years. Since I cannot see another viable way forward, I expect a positive response to our initiative by both countries, without such impossible conditions that would effectively imply its rejection," Mr Rehn said in Brussels at a conference organised by EUobserver and the Croatia-EU Business Council.

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  • Tomas Szunyog from the Czech foreign ministry (l) and enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn (r) (Photo: EUobserver)

"Otherwise I am concerned that Croatia may be prevented from concluding its accession negotiations in the envisaged timeline," he added.

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 tension between Zagreb and Ljubljana has been increasing since December, when Slovenia blocked the opening or closing of 11 chapters of Croatia's 35-chapter EU negotiations package over the unresolved issue.

The European Commission in January proposed setting up a mediation group chaired by former Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari to help solve the dispute.

On Tuesday, Slovenia's main political parties agreed to accept the proposal, which Ljubljana believes should eventually lead to a solution of the dispute.

For its part, Croatia has delayed its decision by a week and should state its position by next Monday. Although it has also welcomed the initiative as a means to facilitate the negotiations, Zagreb believes the dispute should be solved by the International Court of Justice in The Hague – an option ruled out by Ljubljana.

"I am expecting that Croatia will provide a response shortly and I trust it will be a constructive and positive response to the commission's initiative without attaching impossible conditions," Mr Rehn stressed.

Croatia has been an EU candidate country since 2004 and started accession negotiations to join the bloc in October 2005.

It is aiming to close those negotiations by the end of this year and become a full EU member by 2011, but this target date may be threatened if the deadlock between Croatia and Slovenia persists.

"If we want to have end of negotiations by the end of this year, we really need to move fast and we really need to do it in a clever way," said Tomas Szunyog, responsible for South Eastern and Eastern Europe within the Czech foreign ministry.

The deadlock could also be harmful for the EU's enlargement strategy in the long term, added Mr Szunyog, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Still hope

Mr Rehn indicated there's still hope for Zagreb to stick to its planned timetable, provided that it also does enough on shortcomings highlighted by the commission – such as corruption and organised crime, as well as the reform of its shipyard industry.

Also participating in the conference, Croatia's chief EU negotiator, Vladimir Drobnjak, said: "It goes without saying that the more time passes by," the more it will be difficult to keep up with the timetable.

But he stressed that if an agreement with Slovenia is found "in a foreseeable future," Croatia could still be an EU member in 2011, because Zagreb is not "sitting idly by, waiting for this to be solved," but working on the EU chapters in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Slovenia's premier on Sunday proposed that the Czech EU presidency postpone an intergovernmental EU – Croatia conference scheduled for 27 March, seen as crucial time-wise for unblocking Zagreb's EU talks, in order to have more time to reach an agreement on the EU mediation group.

The Czech EU presidency, which sets the agenda, has said it is considering this option if there's no movement on the issue by then.

Silent diplomacy

Doris Pack, a centre-right MEP chairing the European Parliament's delegation for relations with south-eastern Europe, urged Slovenia to let Croatia advance with its EU integration and said the two countries should solve the issue by going to the court.

"The border question with Slovenia is a question which should be solved. It's clear ... But it should not hinder Croatia to go further, to open the chapters," Ms Pack said.

The situation in both countries now "is so bad, so heated" that a solution should be found fast, and that solution should be a legal one, according to the MEP.

For his part, Alojz Peterle, former prime minister of Slovenia and currently a centre-right MEP, said that what is needed is "less competition and fewer strong words," and "more co-operation and diplomacy."

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