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29th Mar 2020

Croatia's EU presidency optimism beset by problems

  • Croatia's Andrej Plenkovic (left) is regarded by his peers as one of the young energetic hopefuls of his centre-right European People's Party (EPP) (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU's newest member, Croatia, is taking over the bloc's rotating presidency at a "delicate period" for the EU, the country's centre-right prime minister Andrej Plenkovic admitted to reporters on Wednesday (8 January) in Zagreb.

The Balkan country wants to focus on economic development, connectivity, internal and external security and a globally more assertive Europe in its program for the next six months.

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  • Croatia is the EU's newest member - having only joined in 2013 - and this is its first presidency. One dilemma will be helping the stalled accession process (Photo: MLKR)

However, Croatia is taking over the EU presidency at a time when the EU is about to lose a member, and the remaining 27 are to start a gruelling negotiating procedure on the long-term post-Brexit EU budget.

For Plenkovic, regarded by his peers as one of the young energetic hopefuls of his centre-right European People's Party (EPP), this could be a moment to shine.

But few big issues — be it Brexit, enlargement, budget talks — depend solely on the skills of the Croatian diplomats.

Streamlined Brexit

The negotiations on the future relations between the UK and the EU will be led by the EU Commission.

Plenkovic said that during the "unprecedented" negotiations, to be kicked off after the UK leaves the EU on 31 January, the EU should not put "too many dossiers" on that table as the transition period for talks lasts only until the end of this year.

"We should adopt a negotiating framework which is inclusive, but approach negotiations in a realistic manner," he said, adding that he had never thought the 2016 referendum was a "very bright idea".

He said that after years of Brexit talks "it is better to have clarity" for both sides.

Enlargement

Meanwhile, EU enlargement depends on French president Emmanuel Macron's political flexibility.

Croatia, which was the last country to become a member of the EU in 2013, plans to hold an EU summit with Western Balkan leaders in Zagreb on 7 May.

Last October, France blocked a start date for EU membership talks for North Macedonia, and other EU countries sided with Paris not to open talks with Albania either.

Plenkovic said that Croatia "has the responsibility to support" the aspiring countries to get closer to the EU, and wants to have regular "systematic" meetings between EU leaders and the leaders of the region

He said these meetings give "important political impulse" to the region.

Plenkovic pointed out that the enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi is working on a proposal cutting red tape in the accession procedure - a key demand of Paris.

"If we find the solution to better the process, we could then remove some of the reservations of France. France said clearly they want the Zagreb summit to be successful," he added.

Plenkovic described France's concern as "conceptual question", while other EU countries had concrete policy issues when they objected to opening of the talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

Budget fight

The long-term EU budget talks are spearheaded by EU Council president Charles Michel.

"I think this is healthy," Plenkovic said of Michel leading the negotiations, adding that he is the most neutral broker, while the presidency will handle talks on ministerial level.

Plenkovic said the presidency's aim will be to "try to find an adequate balance" between member states that argue for capping EU spending at 1.0 percent GNI of the EU, and those who want to spend more maintaining the EU subsidies at current levels.

The premier, however, also made it clear Croatia does not support diminishing the level of investment in his region.

Borders

New initiatives on migration or climate will be rolled out by the commission before the EU presidency can start steering the negotiations among member states.

EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen wants to give a new push to the asylum system reform, where talks have been in a deadlock over the internal EU distribution of asylum seekers.

Plenkovic said "in months and years to come" the EU has to figure out what level of burden-sharing it can handle. He argued that if external borders are strengthened, the asylum reform becomes less difficult to handle.

He said the 2015 migration crisis had an impact on Europe's political "architecture and mood" not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and should not be repeated.

Plenkovic, however, referred to media and civil society reports of violent pushbacks of asylum seekers on the Croatian border by Croatian police as "allegations", and said his country adheres to international and European rules and standards.

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