20th Sep 2019

MEPs ask EU to probe Croatia on illegal lobbying allegations

  • Mr Sanader (l) made a good impression on Brussels officials (Photo: European Communities, 2008)

Three Socialist MEPs are asking the EU's antifraud office (Olaf) to look into allegations made by the former party treasurer of ex-Croatian PM Ivo Sanader that illegal money was used to lobby Brussels for speedy EU membership of his country.

The former premier, who was arrested in Austria last month and faces extradition on charges of corruption, allegedly used state firms to "collect bags of money" from private companies, which were in turn channelled to party coffers and also used to "lobby Brussels", Mladen Barisic, the former head of customs and party treasurer of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) told the Prosecutor's Office, according to Croatian media.

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"This is not only a matter for Croatia. If the then Prime Minister used money in irregular ways to influence Brussels, it is also a matter the EU and Olaf should investigate," Swedish Socialist MEP Goran Farm told this website.

Mr Farm is one of the three euro-deputies who wrote the request, along with British MEP Ricahard Howitt and their Belgian colleague, Veroniqe De Keyser.

Mr Farm said this does not pose "extra hurdles" for the country's EU accession, which he still considered feasible on 1 July 2012. "It is rather a plus for Croatia to show they are prepared to deal with prominent people suspected of fraud. If they deal with this case seriously, there should be no problem [with the accession timetable]," he argued.

After its experience with Bulgaria and Romania, two countries that were ushered into the EU club without being fully prepared in terms of dealing with high level corruption and organised crime, the European Parliament is now putting "tough demands" on Croatian authorities, to make sure they are really ready to join.

Mr Farm said he was not a fan of replicating the EU commission's monitoring of justice reform and the fight against corruption that is in place in the case of Bulgaria and Romania, since the results were better obtained before accession. "We should clarify things in advance," he said.

Bucharest has already floated the idea that it may request the same kind of monitoring for Zagreb, as part of its broader set of threats in reaction to the news that it will not join the border-free Schengen area in March, as it had hoped to.

To some commentators in Croatia, this may not be such a bad idea. "It would be good to have a monitoring mechanism, because we won't be able to solve the corruption problem from within the HDZ," says Natasha Srdoc from the Adriatic Institute, a think-tank promoting clean government and free market reforms.

Ms Srdoc even argues in favour of having "visiting judges" from EU countries sit on the biggest cases, because the Croatian judiciary is too weak and subject to political influence to tackle high-level corruption. "The few cases that were started - including against Mr Sanader - were actually tipped off by foreign prosecutors. But no convictions have been pronounced and most of the suspects are at large," she said.

The lobbying money affair is no surprise to Ms Srdoc, who pointed to the fact that party funding is still not properly regulated in Croatia and that racketeering and money laundring has been ongoing in her country and in other Balkan states ever since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

In one prominent case, with ramifications in Germany and Austria, several politicians and generals are said to have embezzled and hidden money from arms deals with the Austrian Hype Alpe Adria Bank, which is now under investigation for money laundring.

As to the clean record of current Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Ms Srdoc says this is questionable, since she was part of the government when Mr Sanader reportedly received the "bags of money" from front companies used to collect illegal fees for his party.

Rather, her anti-corruption drive, which led to the reshuffling of four ministers seen as corrupt, is motivated by the desire to win the general elections due later this year and to secure Croatia's EU accession.

For its part, Mr Sanader's family, which lives in Austria, denies any wrongdoing. Mr Sanader's brother, who is a priest, said he does not hold any dubious savings in his bank accounts as suggested in the media. And Mirjana Sanader, the wife of the former Prime Minister, told Austrian newspaper Kurier that her husband is innocent and that she and her daughter are practically "under house arrest."

"I do not believe that there will be a fair trial," she said.


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