By Mario Vega
Croatia celebrates 10 years in the EU, a decade in which the country achieved several milestones. While facing some challenges, it tackled territorial disputes and completed strategic projects. However, asylum complexities show a worrying lack of rule of law, and border disputes are believed to persist. Balancing relations with neighbours and addressing their EU candidacy challenges remains crucial for Croatia's foreign policy in this new phase after 10 years in the club.
2023 is a date that reflects a prosperous decade of successes in the country’s foreign policy. Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003. Ten years later its entry became official, and now in 2023, on its tenth anniversary, it consolidates its strategic ambitions with two milestones: The entry into the Eurozone and the Schengen Area.
We speak of successes, bearing in mind that not all member states can boast the same achievements, as, in the same year, Bulgaria and Romania failed to enter the Schengen Area, along with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, who have not yet secured their place in the Eurozone. Moreover, if we look at the surroundings in the Western Balkans, Croatia shares its fate only with Slovenia. Although the entry into the EU, Eurozone, or Schengen results from technical analyses based on strict criteria, the decision made in the EU Council is purely political, requiring an unanimous voting. In this regard, despite Croatia meeting the 35 required criteria, its entry was blocked on multiple occasions for political reasons by countries such as Slovenia, the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands.
In the case of the latter two, their threats were based on the lack of collaboration by Croatian authorities with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia during an international search order for Ante Gotovina. Gotovina was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as General during Operation Storm in 1995, amidst the war of independence in Croatia. His arrest in 2005 by Spanish authorities and subsequent verdict in 2011 to 24 years in prison, sparked widespread protests in Croatia, leading to a drop in support for the EU to below 24% in a society that viewed Gotovina as a war hero. Ultimately, an appeal in 2012, cleared the former General of all charges. He returned to Zagreb, where he was honoured in front of an audience of 100.000 people by the Prime Minister and subsequently by the President. The significance of this event has faded over time, as Croatia fulfilled its obligations, and the tribunal itself ceased to exist in 2017. However, the clear misalignment between certain aspects of Croatia's recent history and its national identity remains notable, especially considering the perspectives offered by other EU member states on the war and, of course, the positions of several current EU candidates.
In the case of Slovenia, its position is grounded in longstanding territorial disputes. The issue of unclear boundaries is common to any former Yugoslav country, including EU member states Croatia and Slovenia. Specifically, a highly disputed question arises regarding the waters of both countries in the Piran Gulf. The disagreement between the two parties dates back to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and their subsequent independence, as Croatia's claims involve blocking Slovenia's access to international waters.
This matter is crucial to understanding Slovenia's blockade of its neighbour's entry into the EU. Croatia had to agree to let the Arbitration Tribunal of the United Nations make a decision. However, not only did this decision disappoint Croatian authorities, as the country would only have access to 20% of the bay, but also a leaked conversation between a court judge and members of the Slovenian government led Croatia to withdraw from the Court's ratification in 2015 before the verdict was released in 2017. Slovenia, whose request for the European Commission to intervene as a mediator was rejected, took the case to the European Court of Justice. The court ruled in 2020 that the EU lacks sovereignty to decide in this conflict and that, on the contrary, both parties must reach an agreement. This unresolved conflict poses a challenge for the EU, especially as bilateral territorial dispute resolution is a requirement for Western Balkan countries aspiring to join the European Union. Currently, Croatia has territorial disputes with four of its five neighbours: Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The last three are EU candidates.
Following the line of territorial disputes, there is another episode in Croatia's recent history related to this issue, and it concerns the Bosnian borders. Croatia's territory extends along the Adriatic coast to a small Bosnian enclave, 9 km long. Further south, the Croatian territory continues along the coast to its border with Montenegro. The connection between these two separated Croatian territories was achieved through the construction of the 2.4 km Pelješac Bridge from 2018 to 2021. This milestone is of vital importance for several reasons: First, in its initial design, the bridge blocked access to international waters for Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a period of diplomatic tensions, Bosnia and Herzegovina insisted that the height of the bridge should be raised to allow access for Bosnian ships to international waters. Secondly, the macro-project was funded 85% by the European Union, making it the infrastructure project that received the most European funds in Croatia and the EU. Thirdly, the bridge was constructed by Chinese companies, raising concerns about China's entry into the Balkans as a potential destabilising element. Finally, as Croatia’s Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, noted during the bridge's inauguration in 2022, one of Croatia's main strategic objectives in foreign policy had just been achieved. This project was carried out without major criticisms, but it is important to highlight his careful and meticulous words: He spoke of "European values," "solidarity," "union of peoples," etc., aligning in his speech the strategic interests of his country with the values of the EU. This conveyed a clear message to neighbouring countries that Croatia is part of a club that enables it to pursue its goals in foreign policy and strengthen its positions against neighbours that are not EU members.
Finally, a highly relevant aspect of Croatia regarding its membership in the EU and as a bordering country, it is both, a young asylum legislation since 2006 and a worrying border control. Croatia ranks as the eleventh European country in terms of the number of asylum applications. According to the Croatian AIDA Report, 12,782 applications were registered in the last year, accounting for 1.34% of the total asylum applications in the EU. This figure is significantly lower than those in Germany, France, or Spain. Nevertheless, the asylum policy in Croatia remains a delicate topic, as at the borders of the country, more than 25,000 pushbacks take place every year. Tragically, this has led to the deaths of approximately 200 people, according to data provided by Are You Syrious?, an NGO supporting refugees and asylum seekers in Zagreb. A poignant example is the case of an Afghan family with eight children who were denied access to Croatia to apply for asylum in 2017. Forced to return to Serbia, during their journey back along a railway, six-year-old Madina Hosseini was fatally struck by a train. This case reached the European Court of Human Rights, which issued a ruling in 2021 exposing several serious deficiencies in the management of Croatian borders, highlighting numerous issues concerning respect for human rights and the rule of law principle. Despite some measures being taken, according to Croatian data, the country has registered a total of 54.400 applications so far in 2023, clearly reducing the pushbacks.
In conclusion, Croatia's entry into the European Union is itself a milestone in its foreign policy. Ahead of other member states with more tenure in the EU, it has successfully joined the Schengen Area and the Eurozone, adding to its list of achievements. However, with some outstanding responsibilities regarding asylum matters and the need to set a positive example that supports its neighbours for the future enlargement of the EU, Croatia has effectively exploited its EU membership to fulfil part of its strategic objectives. The country adheres to a European judgment that does not compel it to implement the order it opposed from the Arbitration Tribunal. Additionally, through a European project, Croatia managed to unite part of its territory, even though this action garnered criticism from its Bosnian and Serbian neighbours. The most significant challenge for Croatian foreign policy and its position in the EU will be to reach agreements on territorial disputes with its neighbours and EU candidates; Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, an issue that Brussels closely monitors.