Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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  S.E.M. Ivo Goldstein

Reasserting the Strategic Partnership

Two years after becoming the 28th member of the European Union, Croatia is now facing new challenges : integration both within the Euro zone and the Schengen area. To overcome them, it may rely on the strategic partnership concluded with France in 2010, which was completed on 2nd March 2015 by a new Action Plan adopted for the next three years. As the Festival Rendez-vous of France in Croatia has just been launched, H.E. Ivo Goldstein, the Ambassador of Croatia to France, looks back on the issues of the French-Croatian cooperation as well as on the priorities of the Croatian economic recovery and on the leading role of Zagreb for the Western Balkans’ European integration.

The Diplomatic Letter: Mr Ambassador, a new action plan was signed on 2nd March 2015 to bolster the strategic partnership forged in 2010 by Croatia and France. Could you outline the key priorities for our readers? In what arenas should we expect to see France and Croatia widening their political dialogue? Do you have high expectations for the Rendez-Vous Festival, which will promote French culture in Croatia from May to September of this year?

H.E. Ivo Goldstein: Croatia and France did indeed establish a strategic partnership in 2010, when a joint declaration was issued by their heads of government. The new action plan lays out priority goals for bilateral cooperation over the next three years. It was drawn up in conjunction with representatives from nearly all the ministries in both countries, to give our ties a fresh boost by strengthening the bilateral partnership in the political, economic, defense, security, cultural, and scientific arenas.
The action plan signed on 2nd March 2015 lays out the key objectives in the areas I just mentioned. It will help further bolster our ties, which are already excellent. The plan focuses on fostering: stronger dialogue and enhanced corporation at a high decision-making level; closer ties between Croatian and French administrations at both the national and local levels; heightened interactions between our education systems across the board; and expanded exchanges and cooperation in the fields of science, culture, and art.
Greater emphasis has also been laid on economic cooperation this time round. The “Rendez-Vous” with France festival, which runs from May to October of this year in Croatia, will be an excellent opportunity to strengthen our ties. More than 150 cultural, economic, educational, culinary, and sporting events will be organized, giving a wide range of Croatians an opportunity to become better acquainted with France, in the same way that Croatia was promoted in France in 2012, during the «Croatie là voici» festival.

T.D.L.: Mr. Branko Grcic, Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds, was the special guest at the March 2nd MEDEF meeting, where he outlined your country’s strong economic growth prospects for French business leaders. Did the message go over well? Which activity sectors hold the greatest opportunity for heightening Franco-Croatian trade? Croatia has been an observer at the International Organization of the Francophonie since 2006. Is your country’s affinity for France’s language and culture another asset that could help build stronger bilateral economic ties?
H.E.I.G.: I have personally been told, by French friends, that the Croatian delegation led by Branko Grcic made  a very good impression. We are proud and pleased that so many French business representatives attended the MEDEF event. Some of them have already launched business activities in Croatia. Others are preparing to do so. Thanks to the MEDEF forum, others have added Croatia to their areas of interest. Our two peoples and cultures have had close ties for centuries. Not only have they established cultural and political contacts, they have also forged more subtle bonds. For instance, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, more than 2,000 words of French origin were incorporated into the Croatian language and into other languages spoken in our region. A great many French words, such as adresse, alarme, assortiment, aventure, avion, barrière, barricade, bataillon, batterie, bauxite, béton, bicyclette, bulletin, bureau… have become part of the Croatian language.  In fact, most Croatian speakers no longer even think of them as “foreign” words.
As for the future of bilateral relations, we have seen an expansion and strengthening of our ties in several areas where our countries have been working together actively, and I am confident they will continue to do so for many years to come. The fact that Croatia joined the European Union has clearly boosted our relations and facilitated their expansion. EU membership has also benefited our country in another way, as more and more French citizens are becoming more familiar with Croatia and its natural wonders and rich cultural heritage.
Let me add that the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) is another important institution that is helping bring our countries closer and enabling them to cooperate more effectively. A good example of this is the work we are wrapping up in Zagreb at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, working in conjunction with the OIF, to prepare the next cooperation cycle which will run until 2018. It is being organized under the theme  “The French language in International Relations,” and includes a French language learning program and theme-based seminars, as well as other activities.

T.D.L.: After six years of stagnation and recession, the Croatian economy is expected to return to growth this year. What do you think sparked this improvement? What is your government doing to bolster the upswing seen since the adoption of the National Reform Program, on 24 April 2014?
H.E.I.G.: The Croatian economy is discussed in the current issue of The Diplomatic Letter by other figures who undoubtedly have far greater expertise than I in this arena. Let me just touch upon one point they will likely leave out: before socialist Yugoslavia broke apart, in 1991, Croatia was the most highly developed Yugoslav republic, along with Slovenia. Croatia was consequently the best prepared of all the post-Communist countries – again with Slovenia – for transitioning and joining the EU. But war broke out in Croatia in 1991. It is clear that the creation of the nation-State, along with the eruption of a war during which Croatian was invaded, set back the transition process. Until 2000, Croatia trailed behind many other post-Communist countries that had been lagging behind it in 1990. And while Croatia has not caught up completely to some of these countries, it has nevertheless made great strides in promoting republican values, modernizing our broader society, and fostering economic development.

T.D.L.: On 11 January 2015, former Foreign Affairs Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected President of Croatia. Does the election of a woman to the highest office in the land reflect the changes underway in Croatian society? With the next legislative elections less than a year away, could you summarize the key political issues under debate in your country for our readers?
H.E.I.G.: The election of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic as Croatia’s first woman president is an important landmark. A great many things have been accomplished in Croatian society over the past 70 years – from World War II to the present day – to promote women’s rights. We have not, however, achieved a state of complete equality, and discrimination can still be witnessed in our society. This discrimination can be seen in the family circle (where violence against women is, sadly, still too common), in the political arena, and in the workplace, more specifically in the labor market. That said, both our national government and our people are very mindful of this problem, and are working hard to make headway in this arena. The government has created a Commission for Gender Equality and has laid out a national policy on this issue. It has also enacted laws designed to help solve the problem.
With regard to the next legislative elections, they will be called before February 2016. The battle for the favor of voters will result in the forming of two main political forces, exactly as it does in most EU Member States. For the very first time – since the total consensus on this issue when we initiated the EU accession process – the debate will focus on whether the structural funds have been used correctly, or not, on whether we have handled European matters well, or not, and so on. There is no “euroscepticism” in Croatia, in the usual sense of the word. Joining the European Union has been a dream for many generations of Croatians.

T.D.L.: On July 1st 2013, Croatia became the 28th Member State of the European Union. Has accomplishing this strategic objective brought shifts in Croatian diplomacy? The EU has earmarked 11 billion euros in structural funds to help bolster Croatia over the 2014-2020 period. In what ways should we expect to see Croatia change? Is it implementing new structural reforms? Is it ready to deal with the constraints imposed by membership in the euro zone?

H.E.I.G.: As I have already noted, in joining the EU, Croatia achieved one of its strategic foreign and domestic policy objectives. We must, nonetheless, keep pushing forward. The structural funds will make it easier for us to rapidly integrate the EU’s political, social, and economic framework. Two factors will, no doubt, be decisive in the our integration process. The first, which you mentioned in your question, is joining the euro zone. The second is joining the Schengen area. As regards Schengen, on March 12th, Croatia submitted a declaration confirming the country’s readiness for commencing Schengen evaluation to the European Commission. The formal evaluation demand can be registered on July 1 first of this year, on the second anniversary of our accession to the EU. The evaluation of our readiness to join the Schengen area will commence immediately thereafter. We hope to become a member of the area in 2017, but we do not underestimate the difficulty of the tasks  that lie ahead of us in the accession process. Joining the Schengen area is important not only for Croatia, but for the EU as well. There is absolutely no reason – security-related or other – why the ten million EU citizens who visit Croatia as tourists should have to wait at the border for hours, as sometimes happens. With regard to joining the eurozone, this is another strategic objective for Croatia. It is, however, very hard to predict when our country will formally ask to join the zone, or when it will be admitted into it.

T.D.L.: Despite the privatization of its energy and transportation sectors, Croatian public debt continued to climb in 2014, hitting nearly 66% of GDP. Your country also has a relatively high budget deficit (4.7%). What measures are being taken to meet the objectives of the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) opened by Brussels in January 2014?

H.E.I.G.: The Croatian government recently sent Brussels a package of reforms that will be carried out until the close of 2016. The most important reforms include: refinancing the debt through low interest loans; refinancing Croatia’s indebted highways; reigning in public debt and the debt of government-owned companies; and, for the very first time, taking control of municipal utilities. As is already being done by the governments of other EU member countries – France  included –  the Croatian government is trying to foster economic growth and create jobs by taking the appropriate economic measures and enacting structural reforms.

T.D.L.: Croatia plans to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk, as part of its bid to become one of the region’s top energy transit centers. Could you explain the role this terminal will play? How strategically important is the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP), not only for Croatia but for countries throughout the Balkans and Central Asia? With the Ukrainian crisis growing steadily worse,  what do you think of the EU’s energy security policy? How do you see relations between the EU and Russia evolving in the future?

H.E.I.G.: Over the past ten years, a great variety of proposals and projects have been drawn up with the aim of creating an energy transit platform on Croatian soil. Some have been successfully carried out, others are still under study. Others are in the works, as is the case with the plan to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk. This project has been included in the European Energy Security Strategy, and is considered one of its key elements. Special focus is being placed on the way it will help guarantee the security of energy supply and diversify supply routes in the region. The current pipeline system, built back in 1979, crosses the Adriatic Sea and delivers oil and gas to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. With the new project, it is set to be extended into other central European countries.
As for Croatia itself, I believe that we are fairly well prepared. For instance, the law on strategic exploration projects makes it possible to quality all the necessary administrative formalities as urgent, giving them priority status. The procedure for obtaining the documents and permits required to carry out a project has also been streamlined and expedited.
I should add that gas has been extracted from the wells located in the Croatian section of the Adriatic Sea for many years, and that exploration for additional gas and oil reserves in this area is underway. Given the current state of affairs, gas production will increase considerably in the years to come. Meanwhile, it may also be possible to extract petroleum, which means there are good chances that Croatian could start exporting gas pumped from its own fields as well, within a few years.

T.D.L.: On 15 July 2014, Croatia welcomed the heads of state of the Western Balkans region to Dubrovnik for their second informal summit. Your country is eager to share the experience it gained earning membership in Euro-Atlantic structures with other countries. What are the biggest challenges still undermining the Balkans region? On 3rd February 2015,  the International Court of Justice rejected Croatia’s claim of genocide against Serbia, along with Serbia’s counterclaim. Are the two countries trying to move forward and normalize their ties? What kind of relations does Croatia have with Bosnia-Herzegovina?

H.E.I.G.: Despite the many challenges we have had to overcome in the past 20 years, the Republic of Croatia has managed to safeguard its antifascist identity as well as the core values we share, such as liberty, peace, humanism, tolerance, coexistence and justice. We are determined to promote these values throughout Southwestern Europe, which is still burdened by the economic and social crisis, as well as political instability.
Croatia has direct ties with all of these States, due to our shared ethnic, linguistic and historical roots. This is why we believe it falls upon us to take a leadership role in this region and do our best to put forward solutions. We have on this a duty of responsibility. We understand the problems facing this region very well, and have the know-how and experience to deal with them. We are doing this in good will, with the hope that our neighbors will embrace European values and standards as quickly as possible. We need to instill hope in the countries of this region, and yet make them keenly aware that the path to EU membership will be long and hard.
They must start down the path to Europe right now, very quickly, because if they don’t get moving soon – especially as concerns Bosnia-Herzegovina – the situation could get even worse. Croatia was one of the supporters of the initiative that convinced the EU to take a new approach towards Bosnia-Herzegovina and its bid to join the Union, with our country’s help.
As for our relations with Serbia, I would like to stress that Zagreb and Belgrade are working together very closely. Serbia is our most important trade partner in Southeastern Europe, along with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our leaders are in contact on a regular basis. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic attended the swearing-in ceremony for Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic also made an official visit to Zagreb this past March 11th. During that visit, it was agreed to set up contact groups comprised of experts tasked with ironing out the disputes between our two countries. And there are many disputes, especially as concerns the people who disappeared during 1991-1995 war. In March 2015, it was deemed that more 1,600 Croatian citizens had gone missing, of both Serbian and Croatian nationality. The first contact group meeting on this issue is set for early April 2015, in Belgrade.
In the meantime, independent of any political issues, our countries have established a wide array of social, scientific and cultural contacts. Serbian singers and actors put on concerts and shows in Croatia, and vice versa. Several Serbian athletes are playing on Croatian sports clubs, not to mention the friendships and family ties that link a great many people on both sides of our border. What’s more, many Serbian citizens own real-estate in Croatia, which they use mainly as vacation homes. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t like to highlight these examples of successful cooperation.
In short, Croatia’s top priority is helping all of its neighboring countries, starting with supporting their bids to join the EU and encouraging them to fulfill all the criteria needed to join the Union, in order to bring peace and lasting stability to our region.

T.D.L. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic recently announced that, in July 2015, he will ask the European Commission to begin assessing the strides Croatia has made towards qualifying to join the Schengen area. Is your country ready to take on these new responsibilities? Could the stepped-up campaign against terrorism, after the January 2015 attacks in Paris, lay even greater weight on the shoulders of Croatia, with is already battling illegal immigration?

H.E.I.G.: We have already discussed Croatia’s desire to join the Schengen area, but let me underscore a few other key points for you. We have always been well integrated with the EU. Even during the worst moments of the war, most of our European neighbors (France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries) did not require visas for Croatian citizens. Likewise, Croatian citizens have been allowed to enter Italy by simply showing their identity cards since 1998. Even back then, Croatia already had its borders well under control. The recent wave of refugees from Southeastern Europe is pouring through other countries, but not crossing through Croatia. As for the fight against terrorism, we have cooperated very closely and very successfully in this campaign with our EU partners, in a variety of areas. Our inclusion in the Schengen area will boost this cooperation to the next level.      

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