The cover photo of this blog is a typical picture that an average citizen has in mind when thinking about Croatia’s attitude towards enlargement. To make things worse, the media continues to feed this image in public with its headlines, which often have no basis in reality.
In the wake of Croatia’s takeover of the EU Council Presidency in January 2020, numerous media outlets in Serbia have reported that Croatia is preparing a so-called “long list of requirements” that would further hinder Serbia’s accession process to the EU. What grabbed the media’s attention was a requirement in Croatia’s Presidency’s programme referring to the necessity of dealing with the past. Nevertheless, it is important to take a look at the broader picture, which will clarify why we should not expect further hurdles from Croatia during its EU presidency.
Croatia has recently assumed the EU Council Presidency for the first time since becoming a member state in 2013. Despite this, it is still not part of the Schengen area, nor the Eurozone. Looking at the key goals of Croatia’s government, it becomes evident that membership in these clubs is the number one priority for Croatia. On the one hand, despite the European Commission’s positive assessment of Croatia’s readiness for membership in Schengen, Slovenia’s veto prevents it to join due to disputes over the Gulf of Piran. On the other hand, as regards the introduction of the euro, Croatia still has work to do to fulfil all the convergence criteria. Nevertheless, when the time comes for Croatia to become a member of the Eurozone, it will again be up to the member states of this club (and not the European Commission) to reach a unanimous decision on Croatia’s membership. Until then, Croatia will have to continue its efforts to prove that it deserves membership at all levels of the EU.
In this sense, some parallels between Serbia and Croatia may be drawn, since the unanimous decision of the member states will be required for, respectively, Serbia’s EU and Croatia’s Schengen and Eurozone memberships. The image that a country builds can have a major impact on the outcome of a decision. Therefore, the media portals are wrong to say that Croatia will slow down Serbia’s accession process as they fail to understand that Council Presidency is in some way a “test of maturity” for Croatia. It is not in Croatia’s interest to waste political capital in quarrels with Serbia, especially not during the EU Council Presidency, when the presiding country is expected to act as an honest broker.
It is true that Croatia is in a superior position to Serbia, with the right to veto all decisions regarding enlargement policy. It is precisely due to this asymmetry of power that one should not necessarily preclude the possibility of Croatia imposing certain conditions on Serbia in the long run. Previous attempts of Croatia to veto Serbian efforts (such as the of opening Chapters 23 and 24 of the acquis, April-July 2016) show that such a strategy has proven detrimental, especially since there is an unwritten rule that bilateral issues should not hamper the accession process.
Regardless of how exactly Croatia will position itself towards Serbia in the far future, it is near-sighted to dismiss Croatia’s presidency in advance and label it as a calamity for Serbia. Given that it is in Croatia’s interest to prove itself mature, it can do just that by advancing the enlargement process. In fact, the summit in Zagreb due to take place this May represents a perfect opportunity to reach certain milestones. For this reason, the first half of 2020 represents an opportunity for Serbia and other Western Balkan countries to capitalise on their neighbour’s unique position and to make tangible progress in terms of the overall European integration process. In other words, Croatia’s presidency can be a win-win situation for everyone.
Finally, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the nature of the aforementioned long list of requirements, which in Croatia’s programme encompasses efforts directed towards “overcoming the legacy of the past, genuinely reconciling and resolving open issues.” Contrary to the view of the media, the requirements related to the legacies of the past do not represent a novelty that is being suddenly imposed by Croatia. They rather date back to 1997 when the EU Council emphasised in its Conclusions the necessity of respecting the Dayton Agreement, cooperating with the Hague Tribunal and developing good-neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans. Since then, these requirements have become an integral part of the EU’s conditionality policy, as the aim was to allow the region to “progressively improve relations”.
Tackling the legacies of the past is a step toward making fundamental societal changes and guaranteeing peace, which is why it requires the utmost attention of political leaders. Turning a blind eye to this issue only risks deepening the rifts in the region by reproducing an atmosphere of hatred and fear. The Serbian media should therefore not only avoid presenting such requirements as problematic but should instead emphasize the need to prioritise them. Only with genuine confrontation with the past can Serbia become a true European country.