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Slovenia Pledges Support for Croatia’s EU Bid, as Maritime Dispute Continues

February 9, 2008

The only former Yugoslav republic to have made it into the EU thus far, Slovenia, also became honorary president of the 27-nation bloc on January 1. The six-month rotating presidency offers a good opportunity for countries, especially the smaller ones, to make their voices heard and to gain prominence in the area of foreign affairs. Slovenia, which will be succeeded by perennial European powerhouse France in June, is however overseeing things at a time which most would find exquisitely undesirable: that is, the moment when Kosovo’s Albanian majority are threatening to declare independence from Serbia, and when Greece is threatening to veto Macedonia’s NATO accession hopes at the alliance’s April summit in Bucharest.

Along with trying to navigate these rather weighty and tortuous issues, little Slovenia has longstanding interests closer to home that it would like to see rectified, which have recently resulted in some acrimonious rhetoric between Slovenian and Croatian politicians. However, while the tone of diplomatic communication has been strained over the past few weeks, a more positive note was struck today following a meeting in Munich between Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gordan Jandrokovic and his Slovene counterpart Dimitrij Rupel.

According to Javno.hr on Saturday, the meeting was characterized as having been “very positive and constructive.” The major theme to emerge was Slovenia’s stated support for Croatia’s EU membership. “Slovenia wants Croatia to become a member of the European Union and to remove all obstacles and difficulties as soon as possible,” Rupel attested. For Croatia, which is also looking to join NATO in April, the support of Slovenia will be very helpful towards the realization of its membership hopes in both institutions.

Easier said than done, however. There are major lingering issues between the two neighbors and former Yugoslav sister republics, which include an unresolved sea border dispute, and a controversial Croatian declaration of a protected ecological fishery zone. “Among the several disputes, the unresolved sea border and, in particular, jurisdiction over the Piran Bay, remains the largest outstanding feud,” reports Anes Alic of ISN Security Watch.

“The area in question is less than 20 square kilometers in size. Under a draft agreement in 2001, Slovenia was to receive 80 percent of the Piran Bay. The deal was never ratified, and now Croatia is pressing for 50 percent of the bay,” adds Alic. “The two countries are also locked in disputes over the mutually owned Krsko Nuclear Power Plant, Croatian citizens’ foreign currency deposits in the defunct LB bank and several other border crossings.”

Croatia‘s plan for a restricted fishery zone, something which has raised the ire of Slovene and Italian fishermen, is a point of national pride among Croats and was officially voted in 2003. Croatia has accused its Adriatic neighbors of illegal poaching that depleted fish stocks, and has also pointed out the frequency of maritime accidents, including fuel spills, that it says have negatively impacted the country.

However, the EU and especially Italy and Slovenia are opposed to Zagreb’s unilateral decision. On December 10, 2007, Brussels “reminded” Croatia to respect an agreement it signed in 2004 to not make such a declaration “until a joint solution in the spirit of the EU is found.” Slovenian diplomats stated in December that any intransigence from Zagreb could result in their country blocking EU negotiations with Croatia, especially in the area of “five or six segments that are related to borders,” said Foreign Minister Rupel.

On Saturday, Javno.hr reported that Croatian President Stjepan Mesic believes that the border disagreement should be solved by The Hague International Court of Justice, and that Croatia would accept any decision made by the court. Croatian diplomats are concerned that Slovenia’s temporary power as EU president will give it an extra advantage on the issue in the coming months. “The situation is intensified now that Slovenia presides [over] the European Union, and this is not a good thing,” President Mesic said. However, he added that the disagreement is a “bilateral matter which can be solved.”

On February 7, in an official visit to Zagreb, the chief of the European Parliament’s Foreign Policy Commission, Joan Mircea Pasku, met with Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and affirmed the EP’s offer to assist in resolving the border disputes. Interestingly enough, the Croatian navy’s planned fleet upgrades regarding new patrol boats is apparently motivated by the country’s zeal to monitor any Slovene or Italian incursions into the contested fishery zone- and not by any NATO candidate reforms.

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