15th Feb 2019


Battle with Brussels is risky for Croatia PM

  • Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union on 1 July (Photo: European Parliament)

As the European Commission announced on Wednesday (17 September) the activation of sanctions against the newest EU member state, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic found himself politically isolated in the confrontation with Brussels.

In the quest to defend a law limiting the implementation of the European Arrest Warrant, he ended up in a confrontation with a formidable front of old and new opponents which can cost him his political life.

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Milanovic has never had public support for passing a law three days before Croatia’s EU accession, which effectively prevented the arrest of Josip Perkovic, former head of the Communist secret police (UDBA), and around 20 other former UDBA agents sought by the German judiciary for the assassination of a Croatian emigrant on German soil.

The centre-right opposition left the Croatian Parliament when the law, popularly known as “lex Perkovic," was voted on June 28.

Aware of the growing discontent of Brussels, as well as Berlin and other European capitals, the liberal junior partner in the ruling coalition, foreign minister Vesna Pusic, also began distancing herself and her party from the Prime Minister’s intransigent position.

Finally, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, who signed the lex Perković in June and who tried to avoid the public debate during the summer, decided to change course and recently called on the government to return the law to conformity with EU acquis without delay.

For Milanovic, it was also painful to learn that his own choice for commissioner and his former deputy prime minister, Neven Mimica, did not oppose the commission proposal, which was tabled by commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, justice commissioner Viviane Reding and neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele.

The proposal is to activate the safeguard clause provided by article 39 of Croatia’s accession treaty and to launch sanctions, which could include the suspension of a fund to help Croatia enter the EU's passport-free Schengen zone, as well as the establishment of an enhanced EU monitoring.

Not even Milanovic's fellow socialists in the European Parliament raised the case in defence of the lex Perkovic, but rather limited themselves to calling for dialogue and a quick solution in order to avoid sanctions.

Sanctions are in nobody’s interest.

Croatia was supposed to be vivid proof of a sustainable and credible EU enlargement policy, a successful point of reference for neighbouring countries in the Western Balkans and a reassurance to old EU members that mistakes committed in previous enlargements will not be repeated.

But all this has been jeopardized by the irresponsible policy of the current prime minister.

In fact, he committed three consecutive and crucial mistakes.

He betrayed those in Europe who most supported Croatia’s accession, ignored their appeals and, three days before EU accession, passed the lex Perkovic, effectively impeding the arrest and extradition of former Yugoslav secret police agents.

He also underestimated the seriousness of Reding, as well as her readiness to take all necessary measures to restore the compliance of Croatian law with EU acquis.

Finally, he insisted in portraying the whole case as a partisan battle in the context of the next European elections, thus offering Croatia as a topic for political quarrelling instead of protecting its image in Europe.

In order to restore Croatia’s European standing, Milanovic will have to undo what he has done since June 28, when the law was passed.

The time limitations to the European Arrest Warrant should be removed, allowing the arrest and eventual extradition of those involved in state terrorism during the Communist regime.

He also needs to restore a channel of normal communication with the commission and other EU institutions.

If good old diplomacy could bring Moscow and Washington closer on the Syria crisis, it should not be so hard for Milanovic to find a more civilised and productive way to communicate with Brussels.

Finally, it is imperative that Croatia does not become an issue upon which political groups score points in the run up to the European elections.

Instead of attacking Barroso and Reding for their partisan affiliation, it would be wiser for Milanovic to focus on complying with the EU acquis and then reaching out to different political groups in Europe.

By undoing his mistakes, Milanovic could stop the implementation of sanctions, restore Croatia’s EU reputation and avoid his own political demise.

Any other moves are mere illusions that will only elevate the cost of his mistakes. Now is the time for Milanovic to remedy the damage he has done, or to let someone else lead Croatia.

The writer is an MEP from the centre-right EPP group, the political opponents of Milanovic's centre-left S&D faction

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