Tuesday, 17 January 2012

… and then there were 28. Dobrodišli Croatia!

Interview with Ambassador and the Head of Mission of the Republic of Croatia to the EU, Branko Baričević.

The unusual career path of Ambassador and the Head of Mission of the Republic of Croatia to the EU began with Branko Baričević at the doorstep of his dermatology office about fifteen years ago, being asked to join a new diplomatic service for Croatia by his patient, a high position official. In 1995, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and there he remained by launching the Diplomatic Academy in Croatia. Mr. Baričević served in the field of human rights and protocol as deputy chief of the Mission in Washington, and since 2005 he has been running the show on negotiations in Brussels. Lucia Mrázová talked to Mr. Baričevićon on the occasion of the accession treaty signing.

Croatian President, Ivo Josipović, and Croatian Prime Minister,
Jadranka Kosor, signing Croatia´s Accession Treaty
in Brussels, 9 December 2011 
The process of entry negotiations started in 2005. After being one of the main personnel involved in the negotiations for Croatian accession to the EU, on 9 December 2011 the treaty that allows Croatia to become the Union's 28th member was finally signed. Croatia received standing ovation from the European Parliament after voting on this matter. How does it make you feel?

I, personally, was very much moved by the very positive atmosphere when signing treaty. Frankly we expected that things to go faster, even though we knew it will be difficult and complicated but somehow we were really surprised. And additionally, regarding everything that is going on in the world – the crisis, a fatigue of all things European, a fatigue of all things enlargement-related – there were not many things on our side. Last year, when we got to the final phase, we were extremely happy. Of course, we knew that we would make it, but some obstacles were difficult to overcome. When we started the negotiations, we used the experience of the big-bang-countries, the ten new Member States, and we were in excellent communication with them. The Commission was also a big support, as a partner and a guide during the negotiations. They were supposed to be our best friend, but sometimes it did not look like that, because they are demanding and they ask a lot. But at the end of the day, the Commission was extremely helpful. It is not only our success, but also a success for the Commission, and all the Member states involved.

What will Croatia bring to the European Union?

Croatia and the whole EU show that the accession process is alive, that Europe is still attractive. It shows a positive image to other EU countries. The public is questioning the very existence of the EU and people stopped understanding why we were all together. Nevertheless, we need to be active and engaged in the process. Peace and security are the results of a big effort, it does not happen just like that. Croatia coming to the EU brings an atmosphere that it is necessary to be happy and proud living in this continent. It would be very unfortunate to stop development here or to move backwards.
Generally, we need to get all countries to unite the continent. Croatia is very much a central European country, a Mediterranean country in the Balkans, and we help to reinforce stability and prosperity in Europe. This white whole in Balkans is getting smaller. We also hope that our neighbours will follow our example and that we will be there to help them along.

A dispute over borders with your neighbour Slovenia prolonged the process of accession. Arbitrary judges met for the first time to dissolve it just yesterday (January 10th) in Brussels. What are Croatian expectations?

The whole process of negotiations was basically blocked because of this dispute. But it should not be forgotten that Slovenia was always very much supportive of Croatia in its accession, we have always had excellent relations. At the end, the way out of problem was found in arbitration and we were able to continue to communicate. But it is difficult to talk about results as we are only in the middle of this process. We think the solution is here and arbitration will be carried out. We are currently awaiting a list of possible judges for the tribunal. Hopefully, it may be resolved this month and the process will progress by itself.

Don't you fear even a slight possibility that Slovenia may veto Croatian membership, which is still possible, due to this issue?

No, that is not possible here. This situation keeps processing. Apart from the odd delay, we do not envisage any problems. And the process will continue.

What are your relations like with other neighboring countries? Croatia can be a bright example at the EU engagement reaching for them. In what ways Croatia is supportive?

First of all, we like to be helpful. We are happy to see that things are moving, Montenegro is closer, and relations are improving with Bosnia. Thanks to Croatia, I believe the whole region is moving one step forward. It is very motivational, in the same way it was to us when Slovenia and Hungary, our neighbours, became part of the EU.

And what about the rest of the Balkans? Croatia recognizes an independent Kosovo, does this have a negative impact on relations with Serbia?

We think that Serbia and Kosovo have to find a solution. We did recognize Kosovo the same day as Hungary and Bulgaria - three neighbors of Serbia jointly recognized Kosovo as a message to Serbia. But with this recognition, we are also willing to improve our relations with Serbia. Frankly, I don’t see our how are relations would have deteriorated with this act. Croatia needs to be kind of a mediator because we need to have a stable and prosper neighborhood. For this purpose, our prime minister handed over a translation of the key aquis communitaire to our neighbors. We translated them all at our expense. As some countries are in the process, we will transfer to them them our know-how, like done in the past, and how, for instance Slovakia did for us.

A referendum on Croatian accession will be held in Croatia in January 22nd. Polls are talking about support only slightly over 50 per cent. What do you expect and why numbers are not higher?

"The EU is not really a question of choice for us,
it is our destiny."
It is interesting that, after elections were held in Croatia over a month ago, all parties in the Parliament are now pro-European, except maybe one seat of one party. Parties that were against the EU did not even make it to the Parliament. We live in a democracy and everybody has a right to express his or her view. We know that other countries have some Eurosceptics, but Croatia is a very open country and very pro-European. This year, we had about 10 million tourists in Croatia and about 80 or 90 per cent of them were from the European Union. Our trade is connected to the EU by more than 80 per cent. Being part of the EU is not really a question of choice for us, it is our destiny. It is irrational saying we do not want to be part of it, as we are already there: in geographical, economic, and diplomatic terms. We know there are certain groups, for instance young people, who are not sceptical but rather a bit ignorant. They do not care as much because they take the things they enjoy for granted. They are not very motivated, as they do not need to fight for it. So now, we try to reach them by social media and discussions rather than by political involvement. But still, I am an optimist and I believe we will have the support of 60 per cent of our citizens.

Are there any remaining issues that Croatia needs to work on by its full accession in July 2013?

We follow certain monitoring tables. The Commission will prepare a follow-up concerning certain obligations, particularly in chapter 2 - human rights, fundamental rights and judiciary, and also in the chapter on competition where we have a ship-building industry issue. But the Commission will check and inform the Council on how we are progressing. Negotiation has now finished but certain things still have deadlines in place. There is nothing that we have refused to do, there are no surprises. For us, most of those things are a matter of something we would do anyway.

In these economically hard times, is Croatia still as excited about joining a slightly tattered EU as  it used to be?

Some people, even as a joke, often ask here, in Brussels: are you sure that you would like to join us now? During the last couple of months, support for ascension to the EU was growing in Croatia, despite the crisis, which was also growing. But we always say to our dear friends in the Union: yeah guys, you have your problems. But you don’t understand that being out of the Union remains a bigger problem. Of course we know the Union has problems, but those problems are rather structural and we see them as a challenge. We are now at the doorstep of a new phase in the life of the Union. Every birth is painful but I am convinced that at the end, we will come to be a different, changed, but a better functioning Union. The world will not wait for us.

By Lucia Mrázová