Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković was on a charm offensive in Brussels this week, declaring that the EU’s newest member wants to be part of its inner circle. But he has his work cut out to persuade other European leaders that it belongs there.
Plenković was making all the right noises, praising French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and saying his country wanted to join the passport-free Schengen zone in 2020 and hoped to adopt the euro further down the line.
“I want Croatia to be stable, to promote European values,” Plenković told POLITICO in an interview. “I want to anchor Croatia in the inner circle and to position ourselves as a reasonable, credible pro-European government.”
Casting a shadow over those aspirations is the failure of Croatia and fellow EU member Slovenia to resolve a long-running border dispute. While the European Commission has called on both sides to find a solution, the pressure is mainly on Zagreb, which has refused to accept the findings of an international arbitration panel set up to settle the dispute.
Not only does Croatia have an outstanding dispute with Slovenia, it also disagrees with Serbia over their border.
That spat reared its head when Plenković, a 47-year-old former member of the European Parliament, paid a visit to Strasbourg earlier this month. He may have impressed his former colleagues by giving a speech in five different languages but he was also taken to task by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said no more countries would be admitted to the EU before they had resolved such disputes.
That condition is written into the EU’s new Western Balkans strategy, which sets out a pathway for several of Croatia’s neighbors to join the EU.
On his trip to Brussels, Plenković suggested Croatia could play a valuable role in guiding those countries toward EU membership, drawing on its own recent experience. Like almost all of those would-be members, Croatia emerged as an independent state when Yugoslavia was torn apart by a series of wars in the 1990s.
“Croatia has still fresh knowledge and the know-how of the whole accession process. We share with our neighbors what we have passed through in terms of reforms, technical expertise, legislative harmonization, institution building,” he said.
While that offer is welcome to the Commission, which has put the Western Balkans back in the EU’s focus, one EU official said he expected Plenković to “lead by example” — meaning Croatia should make the first step to settle various disputes with its neighbors.
Not only does Croatia have an outstanding dispute with Slovenia, it also disagrees with Serbia over their border. Plenković acknowledged Zagreb still has issues to resolve, decades after its war with Belgrade came to an end.
“There are still residual issues from the ’90s, such as the missing persons, such as border issues, the return of cultural goods, war reparations,” Plenković said. “There are many issues which still need to be addressed and which unfortunately were not sufficiently remedied in the last two decades.”
On his Brussels trip, Plenković played down the importance of the Slovenia dispute and suggested the EU should back off and let the two countries find a solution. (That’s not a view shared by Slovenia, which insists Croatia should accept the arbitration ruling.)
“I think that if there is advice to be offered, we would be pleased to hear it, but our position is that we’ve tried to address this issue between the two countries concerned, especially given the fact that Croatia and Slovenia throughout history had never had any conflict,” he said. “This issue should not be overblown.”
Instead, Plenković talked up his reforms of the country’s economy, administration and judicial system, and gave unwavering support to the “lead candidate” process for selecting Juncker’s successor as Commission president — often referred to by the German name Spitzenkandidatand opposed by Macron and several other EU leaders.
“The Spitzenkandidat was a very good novelty in European elections,” he said, citing his experience in the 2014 European Parliament election, when he stood as an MEP for the European People’s Party. “I was number one on the list of my party back in 2014, and Jean-Claude Juncker was my Spitzenkandidat, so in a way we worked for each other.”
Plenković said joining the Schengen zone could be achievable by the time Croatia holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2020 — and his experience of coping with migrants could help in that quest.
“In the aftermath of the migratory crisis, we’ve understood the importance of protecting the EU’s external borders as well as our own borders,” he said, again seeking to bolster his credentials with the EU’s inner circle by declaring that Croatia “didn’t opt, like some of our neighbors, for wire fences or physical barriers.”
Joining the euro “is a little bit further down the road. I would say in my modest estimation closer to the end of the mandate of the next Croatian government, so during the 2020—2024 term,” he said.
The EU is about to take decisions on its next long-term budget and faces calls for wholesale reforms, as championed by Macron. Those changes could leave some countries on the outside as a core of members pushes ahead with closer integration.
Plenković used his time in Brussels to tell fellow leaders which camp he’d prefer to be in. Asked if it was his ambition to stay on long enough to lead his country into both Schengen and the eurozone, Plenković said “that is clearly an agenda that I have.”