Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković made it clear that Croatia, the latest EU newcomer, wants to join as soon as possible the Union’s inner circles – the borderless Schengen space and the Eurozone.
Plenković met on Wednesday (8 January) with a group of 60 Brussels-based journalists on a press trip to Zagreb on the occasion of the inauguration of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Apart from the priorities of the Croatian Presidency which have been highlighted in previous days, Plenković stressed that for his country, there were two major national goals – joining Schengen and the Eurozone.
From the 12 countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are still outside the Eurozone, while only Romania and Bulgaria have repeatedly been refused Schengen accession by older member states, although the European Commission considers both countries fit to join.
All the 13 new members have an obligation under their EU accession treaty to join the Eurozone as soon as they are ready, but not all of them are in a hurry to do so. Poland in particular is dragging its feet, while in contrast Bulgaria ambitions to become the next EU country to join the euro. The next step for Sofia is to join the euro’s antechamber, called EMR-2, this spring.
Plenković said Croatia adopted a strategy to join the euro back in May 2018, and in July last year, it started working on an action plan to join the ERM-2 criteria. Six Croatian institutions were working hard on 19 measure in 9 policy areas to attain these objectives, he said.
Regarding Croatia’s Schengen bid, Plenković expressed satisfaction that the Juncker Commission produced a report saying Croatia was considered fit to guard the external borders of the EU. The positive assessment from the Commission came after years of consultations, missions, verifications, and good absorption of dedicated EU funds, he said.
At the same time, he admitted that the migration crisis of 2015-2016 had had deep political consequences on the EU. At that period, he said 700,000 illegal migrants had crossed Croatian territory to join wealthier EU countries.
“After the fall of the Berlin wall, I cannot recall any other event, that had so many repercussions on the architecture and the mood in the member states of the European Union”, he said.
The necessary response, Plenković said, was to strengthen the EU’s external borders, particularly the Greece-Turkey and Bulgaria-Turkey border. To this, he also added strengthening the 1,351 km-long Croatian border.
“Although it doesn’t seem so long on the map, our border with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, is actually longer than the Russian-Finnish border,” he said.
But Croatia doesn’t want to erect new walls, Plenković stressed. There is a sizeable Croatian population living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and building new fences “between Croats and Croats” now is “not the right political message” to send, he said.
Plenković was asked if today’s Schengen, in which individual member countries re-establish border controls is still attractive, and if Croatia hoped to join Schengen before Bulgaria and Romania.
“The Schengen area we want to join is the original one, rather than the Schengen that has internal borders behind member states who almost forgot what it was to see police at the border,” he replied.
The Croatian PM admitted that both Bulgaria and Romania were ahead of Croatia with their Schengen bid, but that the three countries were “at the same level” in terms of positive assessment by the Commission.
However, he believes Croatia has an advantage: Bulgaria and Romania are still under the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), established as a condition for their EU accession in 2007. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 without such a mechanism.
Individual member countries, in particular the Netherlands, have rejected the Schengen bids of Bulgaria and Romania, linking the CVM with Schengen accession, although legally speaking, the two issues are unrelated.
Bulgaria and Romania are “similar, but different in this exercise”, Plenković said.
“Unlike Bulgaria and Romania, Croatia does not have such a mechanism,” he stressed, adding that he understood how painful the issue had been for Bulgaria and for Romania, something he witnessed on many occasions when the issue was raised in the Council.
Asked about a timetable for Croatia’s Schengen accession bid, Plenković gave a cautious answer.
“We will insist on that objective, but I know it will not be a dossier regarded exclusively on the proper merits on our own case,” he said, adding Croatia will do everything to strengthen its dossier. This includes advancing on the reform of the Dublin asylum system, where the main stumbling block is the distribution of migrant’s applications among EU member states.
Croatian diplomats with whom EURACTIV spoke off the record confirmed that Croatia aims to join Schengen before Romania and Bulgaria. In any case, they said Croatia doesn’t want to be part of a “package” with these two countries.
However diplomats admitted that Slovenia may rise objections on an unrelated issue – the bilateral border dispute over the Piran Bay.
Plenković, who is experienced in EU affairs, having dealt personally with his country’s EU accession dossier, spoke for 75 minutes with the journalists, replying to their questions in English and in French, two languages he speaks fluently.
The program continues on Thursday with a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel, and on Friday with a joint meeting between the Croatian government and the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen.