Croatian Accession to the EU: Political Battles and Legal Challenges

JURIST Guest Columnist Dora Rotar, an LL.M. Candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is the author of the seventh entry in a 14-part series from the LL.M. students of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Rotar examines the political and legal challenges Croatia will face as it prepares to enter the EU...


After six years of negotiations, Croatia will become the twenty-eighth member state of the European Union (EU) on July 1, 2013. Croatia began this journey eight years ago and has overcome many barriers in order to become a member state. Over the past ten years, accession to the EU has been the primary foreign political goal of each Croatian government. It has also been one of the few points of agreement among the right and left-wing political movements in Croatia. However, notwithstanding the goals of each government and all the proclaimed political efforts, Croatia has had the longest negotiations out of all the countries in transition that have become member states of the EU. Hungary, Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania negotiated for less than five years, while Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta negotiated for less than three years.

Given Croatia's recent history, the six-year negotiation period is not entirely surprising. In addition to overcoming the political turbulences typically found in countries in transition, Croatia has been burdened with the consequences of the Yugoslav Wars, which lasted throughout the first half of the 1990s. The main reasons for the long and painful Croatian negotiation process were issues regarding Croatia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), border issues with Slovenia and internal problems of corruption in business and politics. The 2008 financial crisis also influenced the accession process, as it increased European skepticism towards further enlargement of the EU.

In December 2004, the EU scheduled negotiations with Croatia to begin on March 17, 2005. However, the day before the negotiations were scheduled to start, the EU postponed them because Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY Carla del Ponte claimed that Croatia was not fully cooperating with the ICTY. Specifically, the prosecutor claimed that Croatia failed to cooperate with the capture of Croatian fugitive Ante Gotovina, who served in the Croatian Homeland War as a general and had been in hiding since 2001. Negotiations finally got underway on October 3, 2005, after the ICTY prosecution confirmed that Croatia was putting its best efforts forth to find Gotovina and to bring him to The Hague. In December 2005, he was arrested in Spain and brought before the ICTY. Gotovina was found guilty of war crimes in April 2011 and is awaiting the decision of the court on his appeal.

Problems continued in the Croatia-ICTY-EU triangle. Multiple times the lack of cooperation between Croatia and the ICTY caused a problem that, left unresolved, continued to block the Croatian accession to EU. The most notable of these problems involved a set of war documents that the ICTY requested during the last round of the accession negotiations. Some of the documents never existed, some were destroyed during the war and some were not in the possession of the Croatian government. However, the ICTY continued to block Croatian accession to the EU until Croatian diplomats provided evidence that the Croatian government had fully investigated all the circumstances surrounding the missing documents and reassured the ICTY and the EU member states that it did not possess any of the remaining documents.

Another significant blockade to the negotiation process was initiated by Slovenia, the only former Yugoslavian country that is currently a member state of the EU. Border discrepancies between Croatia and Slovenia had remained unresolved since the two nations declared their independence in 1991. The most significant dispute regarded the maritime border in the Piran Bay. Both of the countries claim that the border should be determined using Article 15 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Croatia claims that the border should be the median line between the two shores in accordance with the first sentence of Article 15. However, Slovenia argues that the exception to the general rule found in the second sentence of Article 15 should apply, meaning that the border should be determined in accordance with historic and other special circumstances. The problem culminated with Slovenia's ten-month blockade of Croatian accession to the EU, beginning in December 2008. Ultimately, the Croatian and Slovenian prime ministers agreed that a panel of five arbitrators would resolve the dispute and each country would appoint one of the arbitrators, while the remaining arbitrators would be appointed by mutual consent.

Another issue constantly raised during the negotiation process was corruption, which is inherent in all transitional countries and is usually closely connected to the privatization process. The EU wanted assurances that Croatia was truly willing to remedy past corruption issues and carry on enforcement into the future. The declarative efforts of the Croatian government had little effect on the EU until corruption associated arrests in politics and business reached their highest levels during 2009 and 2010. These culminated in the arrest of the former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in December 2010. Sanader was taken into custody shortly after he abruptly resigned during his second term. His indictment reassured the EU that Croatia was serious in its efforts to fight corruption, and led the EU to conclude the negotiation process in December 2011.

As part of the EU membership and negotiation process, every state must harmonize its national laws with the EU legal framework. Croatia's negotiation process was divided into two phases. The goal of the first phase, often referred to as "screening," was to assess the differences between the EU acquis communautaire, divided into 35 chapters, and Croatian law. During this step, Croatia and the EU must decide how to proceed in order to fully harmonize the existing laws. The second phase included three steps for each of the 35 chapters. The first step was the opening of a particular chapter. The second was the negotiations of the terms and conditions of harmonization of the national law with a specific chapter, including negotiations on the possible transitory periods for certain relevant issues. And the third dealt with the closing of a negotiated chapter. When all 35 chapters were closed on June 30, 2011, Croatia officially finished the accession negotiations. The Treaty of Accession was signed on the December 9, 2011.

From a lawyer's perspective, July 1, 2013, signifies the beginning of real change in this arena. On that date, a set of completely new laws are going to enter force throughout Croatia, even though Croatian legislative body did not enact these laws and Croatian judges have not yet applied them in court. Thus, since the beginning of the negotiation process, Croatia's efforts have focused on educating public officials, judges and lawyers on how to apply the new rules and how to adapt to the impending changes to the legal system.

Dora Rotar received her master's degrees in law from the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Law in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2007. She works at the Zagreb Faculty of Law, in the Department of Private International Law. Rotar was also the 2011 on-site Associate Director of the Institute for International Commercial Law & Dispute Resolution, which is held each summer in Zagreb and Zadar, Croatia.

Suggested citation: Dora Rotar, Croatian Accession to the EU: Political Battles and Legal Challenges, JURIST - Dateline, May 16, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/05/dora-rotar-croatia-eu.php.



This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Imbarlina, the head of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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