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Fresh doubts on Croatian membership

By Dick Leonard. Source: The European Voice

It looked plain sailing for the Croatian membership negotiations last autumn, when Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn announced that they should be completed during 2009, with membership following by 2011 at the latest. Since then the prospect has somewhat darkened.

There has been heightened concern over the crime wave in Croatia, including a series of murders with possible political connections. And Slovenia has raised the temperature in a territorial dispute which needs to be settled before her neighbouring state can be admitted to the Union.

For these and other reasons, EU Foreign Ministers refused to endorse Rehn's recommended target date at their meeting in December. The Croatians may still pull it off, but it is beginning to look rather optimistic.

The state of play of the negotiations can readily be summarised. Of the 34 substantive chapters, only seven have so far been provisionally closed. These are Science and Research, Education and Culture, Industrial Policy, External Relations, EMU, Intellectual Property Rights and Information Society.

A further 15 chapters have been opened, and on many of these the talks are well advanced. At the last negotiating session, three more chapters – Trans-European Networks, Customs and Company Law - were due to be closed, and nine more opened. This would have left only two chapters – on Competition policy and Judiciary and Fundamental Rights – unopened.

Yet the Slovene government refused to allow any further chapters to be either closed or opened. It is losing patience over its dispute, which concerns both the maritime and the land borders of the Bay of Piran, and a small area of swamp land further north, on the banks of the River Mura. There is also discord over fishing rights, and the operation of a Croatian nuclear power plant near the Slovene border.

This dispute has continued since 1991, and the two governments are still divided over the means of settling it. Slovenia has called for bilateral negotiations, but Croatia wants it referred to the International Court of Justice.

In a scarcely veiled threat, the Slovenes, have publicised the fact that, under their constitution, it would require only the signatures of 40,000 voters to require a referendum to be held on Croatia's admission to the EU.

Last month, when he visited both Zagreb and Ljubljana, Olli Rehn invited both parties to accept mediation by a committee headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari. Neither government has yet responded, though a hopeful sign is that the Slovene Parliament voted on 9 February to ratify Croatia's membership of NATO, which many feared it would hold up. Meanwhile, the two Prime Ministers, Borut Pahor (Slovenia) and Ivo Sanader (Croatia), have agreed to meet each other later this month.

Since the admission of Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007, and the continuing problems of organised crime and corruption in both countries, there has been much greater vigilance on the EU side, with regard to Croatia. Already from the outset of the negotiations, the Croats have had to face an obstacle not imposed on previous candidates – the setting of verifiable 'benchmarks' before a chapter might be opened or closed.

The upsurge of Mafia-style murders last October, enhanced the concern of the EU negotiators. These cost the lives of newspapermen Ivo Pukanic and Niko Franjic, as well as Ivana Hodak, the daughter of a leading Zagreb lawyer. He was defending General Vladimir Zagorec, a former Deputy Defence Minister who had been extradited from Austria to face charges of stealing gems used as collateral in illegal arms deals.

The impact of these killings was almost as great as the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Djinjic in 2003, and led to Prime Minister Ivo Sanader taking drastic action. He sacked his Interior and Justice Ministers, as well as the Chief of Police, and replaced them with non-political figures of known integrity.

He also announced the setting up of special courts to deal with organised crime and improved witness-protection measures. Dozens of suspects were rounded up, of whom four were later charged with the murder of Mr. Pukanic.

It is not only on the EU side, that there are growing doubts about Croatia's accession. In Croatia itself, although all the main political parties remain in favour, public opinion is far from unanimous, and is much less united than it had been in other East European countries acceded in 2004 or 2007. The most recent opinion poll revealed only 29 per cent in favour of membership, and 26 per cent against.

The large number of undecideds may well rally round if the negotiations are successfully concluded, but it would be mistake to conclude that Croatia is certain to become the 28th member of the Union.

Dick Leonard is author of 'The Economist Guide to the European Union.'