Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

How far is actually “within reach”?

Dessislava Dimitrova, April 20, 2011

The recent visit of the European Commission President to Zagreb brought more questions than answers. According to Jose Manuel Barroso himself, the aim of his visit was to encourage the Croatian authorities during the last stretch of the country’s EU membership talks. “My visit comes at a point when accession negotiations are reaching the final phase, conclusion is within reach. I’m confident that my talks here today will help to provide extra momentum for the final efforts that still need to be done,” Barroso told reporters after meeting Croatia’s Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor.

Although he praised the efforts of Kosor's’s government and even said that this was the most convincing government in terms of commitment to EU accession, the EC President said that the final date for the end of accession negotiations depended only on Croatia. “So, at this stage today I cannot commit to a precise date, I came with a message of clear encouragement. At the same time I have to be honest – it is a very challenging and ambitious target, the target that was set in terms of dates,” he said, commenting on Zagreb’s position that the talks should be concluded by end-June.

In order to defend her firm position, while in the meantime trying to safeguard herself if the cabinet failed to achieve its aim, Kosor explained that end-June was not a date, but just a timeframe. “As you know, I haven’t mentioned any dates, I was speaking only about end-June, it would have been a date if mentioned a certain day in June, but I just mentioned end-June as something that is part of our goal, of our ambition, and given and, as you all know, that this is not only an aim of the government, but of some other political parties as well and also of the EU’s presidency,” she told reporters.

Just a days before, Hungary, which is currently holding the EU presidency, made it clear (via its foreign minister Janos Martonyi) that a delay of the talks with Croatia would put the bloc’s entire enlargement policy at risk. “If the talks are not concluded by end-June, the problem will not be that the process will be delayed for several months, but that this delay would take longer. The risks that appear may question the entire enlargement process,” he said, quoted by Croatian media.

According, to other local media, Natasha Butler, a spokeswoman for the enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule, declined those statements saying that “it is important that each country, that would like to join the EU, should respect the EU laws and meet the EU standards.” According to her, the accession negotiations will be brought to an end once Croatia had met all membership criteria. Answering a question from a local journalist, Barroso said that Europe had no “plan B” in case Croatia’s accession was delayed. “We have plan A and it is to have Croatia as the 28th member of the European Union, I cannot commit at this stage to a precise date, but we have always said in a very consistent manner that substance is more important than speed,” he said.

At the same time, Croatian politicians obviously remain split regarding the accession date. According to the opposition leader, Zoran Milanovic, the country was grabbed by apathy because of the constant postponement of the accession date, but also because of the situation in the country as a whole.“Everybody is talking about a date - in November 2010 it was March, now it is June. More than a year ago was spoken of the end of the Hungarian presidency, meaning end-June we would have signed [the accession treaty]. The date is constantly changing, and this, combined with the bad situation in the country, leads to apathy, people feel all the same, which is the worst,” Milanovic said, adding the the EU was not a solution if the country itself did not know what to do.

According to Croatia President Ivo Josipovic, who also met Barroso during his visit to Zagreb, 2013 was an ambitious, yet not unachievable target for the country to join the EU. “It is very ambitious, because we are very close to concluding the talks, we need several more months to prepare and sign the treaties, after which we are ahead of maybe quite a long process of ratification, because of the prolonged procedures in the parliaments of some member states ,” Josipovic said.

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