Fishy Deals in the Adriatic

Critics say there is indeed something fishy going on in the Adriatic, as a sudden and unexpected deal between Croatia and Slovenia hopes to solve an ongoing territorial dispute and unblock Croatia’s EU accession talks. The positive atmosphere is not likely to last, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

Croatia has long been the EU’s poster child for European integration in the Balkans, though the road to its accession has been a rather long and tedious one, largely due to a seemingly neverending border dispute with neighboring EU-member Slovenia.

However, the two neighbors appear to have finally made some movement towards resolving their dispute, and Croatia’s accession into the EU now looks set in stone, with Brussels seemingly prepared to overlook a few lagging reforms in order to speed up the process because of its symbolic significance for the rest of the region. But it is still a question of time.

Accession talks are set to resume on 2 October. After that, EU-member parliaments must ratify Croatia’s accession, which could take as long as a year.
Earlier this month, Croatia and Slovenia reached an accord over their post-war border dispute. The two sides agreed to resolve the border dispute through EU-led arbitration. The agreement would have to be approved by the Slovenian and Croatian parliaments. This arbitration would take up to three years and could hence delay accession talks further.

Croatia resumed EU membership talks on Friday, opening six new chapters and closing five negotiating chapters with the EU, but none of those closed were chapters that had been previously vetoed by Slovenia.

Croatia and the EU opened negotiations on six policy areas: free movement of capital; agriculture and rural development; food safety; taxation; regional policy; and justice, freedom and security. The five chapters Croatia closed with the EU were: free movement of workers; company law, statistics; trans-European networks; and customs union.
Since the accession negotiations started four years ago, 28 of the 35 chapters have been opened, of which 12 have been provisionally closed.

Patching things up?

About a year ago, Croatia failed to open four policy chapters in its EU accession negotiations after Slovenia expressed reservations – the fallout of years of strained relations over unresolved territorial disputes. Slovenia could put the brakes on again should the border talks not turn out to Ljubljana’s liking.
Since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the two countries have failed to complete the drawing of their land and sea borders.

Particularly at stake is jurisdiction over the Piran Bay, over which both countries claim ownership. Under a draft agreement in 2001, Slovenia was to receive 80 percent of the body of water. The deal was never ratified, and since then, Croatia has decided to press for 50 percent of the bay.

However, there is no clear border demarcation between the two former Yugoslav republics in this area, and neither have any historical base on which to claim ownership of the bay.

The small bay does not represent much economically or geo-politically to Croatia. But for Slovenia, the border dispute is of a financial nature since the settlement will mean gaining or losing direct access to international waters and will have consequences for the country’s shipping industry.

On 11 September, Croatia and Slovenia agreed to continue negotiations over their maritime-border dispute, following a meeting in Ljubljana between newly appointed Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and her counterpart, Borut Pahor.

Pahor pledged to unblock Croatia’s EU accession negotiations, though it remains unclear what Kosor offered in return.

Though nothing has been etched in stone, Croatia and Slovenia have agreed to restart negotiations on the disputed border – news that has aroused suspicion among some circles in Croatia as to why, all of a sudden, there has been a change of heart in Zagreb.

Ambiguous arbitration

Certainly the deal – the details of which remain vague – is not without its critics, despite the fact that the agreement has resulted in the lifting of a 10-month blockade by Slovenia on Croatia’s EU accession talks.

Apparently, not even the president of the National Committee for Monitoring Negotiations with the European Union, Vesna Pusic, was aware of the pending deal until after it was announced.

She told ISN Security Watch that the deal was based on EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn’s June proposal, which was rejected by the Croatian Parliament. The proposal envisaged that arbitration should decide on the contact of Slovenia’s territorial waters with the open waters, and the proposal was rejected due mixed understandings about the meaning of the word ‘contact’.

“Since our parliament rejected the proposal, there will be a lot of work and explaining on the part of the government. Procedurally, we have to negotiate on the basis of what the Parliament accepted, while Slovenia has its own stance, and from those positions we are going to negotiate,” said Pusic.

The opposition and even some ruling party figures in both countries were also critical of the deal.

Several Slovenian opposition parties have called for a referendum on whether Croatia should be allowed to join the EU before it resolves the border issue. Former Slovenian prime minister Janez Jansa – who is also the leader of the largest opposition party, the Democrats (SDS) – is even considering a motion to oust Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar if the arbitration agreement with Croatia is initialed.

In Croatia, the president of the Croatian part of the commission for drafting an agreement, Davorin Rudolf, resigned because he was not apprised of the details of the agreement in advance.

Miroslav Tudjman, former Croatian intelligence chief and the son of the country’s late leader Franjo Tudjman who has declared himself a presidential candidate for January 2010 elections, has been quite vocal about his dissatisfaction with the deal.

As reported by the Croatian Times, Tudjman believes that in return for Slovenia’s unblocking of accession talks, Croatia agreed to give up some of its “rights and guarantees in international law in the case.”

Tudjman believes the new agreement means rejection of the 2007 agreement with Slovenia to have the dispute resolved at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and that Croatia will be giving up 230 square kilometers of its territory.

This, some critics say, is illegal, as it means that Kosor has unilaterally bypassed a parliamentary decision that would place the issue’s resolution in the hands of an arbitration commission.

“With this agreement, Slovenia has achieved its strategic goal and Croatia has moved one step back, or even more,” the Croatian Times quoted him as saying.

However, Kosor has dismissed the opposition’s accusations by saying that no agreement had been reached on the settlement of the Croatian-Slovenian border issue.

“This means that negotiations on the settlement of the border issue are yet to follow and that nothing has been agreed. The path we are taking has been designated – either the two countries will agree on the matter or refer it to an arbitration tribunal,” Kosor told Croatian media. She added that the opposition’s accusations are in light of the upcoming presidential election, as some candidates were trying to win a few more votes by attacking the government.

In the meantime, there are more than a few naysayers who believe that the current situation will not hold and the two countries will return to their traditional stances.
Marjan Podobnik, former Slovenian deputy prime minister and director of the 25 June Institute, which is tasked with collecting documents related to the border dispute, told ISN Security Watch that this friendly atmosphere would not last and bilateral negotiations would fail.

“Since they agreed that Croatia’s EU accession talks are going to occur parallel with the arbitration on the Slovenian border, it is doomed to fail since Slovenia is not going to unblock certain chapters in advance, or unless its conditions are fulfilled,” Podobnik said.


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