After tough negotiations that lasted many years, Croatia is finally joining the club of European Union nations, becoming its 28th member. In terms of justice and citizens rights, the country has had to undergo major reforms to become aligned with European standards. Right On reporter Seamus Kearney caught up with four people from different sectors in Zagreb to find out whether Croatia will be ready to extend the new European legal protections and rights to its citizens.
“GONG” civil society organisation
“Firstly, I have to emphasise that the process of joining the EU was not open enough; the public wasn’t participating enough. So we now actually have the problem where the public is not informed well enough about the EU process, especially not about EU laws.
“We had the situation in Croatia where the majority of laws were changing very fast to become more in accordance with European laws, of course. But they didn’t hold a lot of public debates and so on because the process was so fast and also pretty tight.
“That’s why we created a platform of civil society organisations – Platform 112 – to focus on some aspects of joining the EU and to encourage the government to be more open in this process, especially on Chapter 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights). We created this platform at the end of the joining process, so Chapter 23 was still open, so we focused more about the rule of law and so on.
“The public is still not informed enough. The government should definitely have more measures to open up this process, to inform the public better, so that ordinary citizens would be able to participate better, especially to use more EU rights and EU laws. Of course that is not only the role of government. It’s also a role of all segments of society and all sectors, but of course the government should be open for that.
“For instance, now we have this joining party, but that party is still government oriented, and they are organising it and so on. So we would like this process to be more participatory.
“It’s very important to create active citizenship, and that’s also of course very important for the general public, for ordinary people to be able to use all of the advantages and all of the rights from EU membership.”
Law professor, University of Zagreb
“July the 1st is certainly going to be a very big day. However, it is the end of a very long process, and in that process many steps have been made. However, it is still far from enough and there are many more things to be done, especially in the area of implementation.
“We changed a lot of laws, we made a lot of changes on the surface. However, especially in some sensitive areas like the judiciary and human rights, things changed not as fast as people would have liked, and therefore we will now face the biggest challenge of all, to start to work from our own impetus, from our own ambition to change things.
“In fact, in the process until now, the main driver was the wish to please the European Commission, to show that we have undertaken the reforms that were requested from Croatia from the outset. And in some areas, especially in the judiciary, it led to the situation where things had to move faster than objectively possible, so many things are now done only half way, and therefore the biggest challenge of all will be to continue with the reforms.
“Because on the other hand, there will also be significant opposition to the continuation of reforms. Many people are tired of reforms, many people in institutions, both in the judiciary and around it, think that the reforms have gone too far, and they would like to reverse them back.”
Judge, Zagreb County Court
“The role of Croatian judges during the time of Croatian accession to the European Union was significant, since they contributed to the legislative alignment with their work and the interpretation of applicable regulations in the spirit of European law.
“The basic assumption of that important assignment was the good understanding of EU law. But before the launch of the Bologna Process at Croatian faculties of law, courses in EU law were elective. Therefore most judges never attended EU law classes during their studies. That deficiency had to be compensated with the systematic education of judges, judicial officials and public prosecutors in the field of EU law.
“This lifelong education of judges and public prosecutors is the responsibility of the Judicial Academy, which was founded in 2004 as an institute within the Ministry of Justice. In 2010 the Judicial Academy became an independent and autonomous public institution.
“Most of the activities of the Judicial Academy are related to professional training in EU law. Besides the lifelong education of judges and judicial officials, training in European law is expanded in the initial professional training of trainees in judicial bodies and those attending the State School for Judicial Officials.
“The training programmes are conducted through various activities and in several ways – in the form of workshops, seminars, round tables and conferences, and sometimes professional training is conducted in the form of study visits.
“Since the establishment of the Judicial Academy, and since the beginning of professional training in EU law, over 300 different activities were organised – the exact number is 337 activities, with over 6000 trainees participating, sometimes in several activities. These activities were organised by the Judicial Academy or in collaboration with different EU programmes such as CARDS 2001, CARDS 2003, PHARE 2005, IPA 2008 and IPA 2009.
“On July the 1st, 2013, us judges in the Republic of Croatia are becoming European judges. That means new tasks and the obligation to apply European law in the same way that our European colleagues do. That also means a good knowledge of European court practice and our obligation to follow that practice, to implement new directives and to study European law, which is a developing system.
“Croatia’s entry into an association of European states such as the European Union represents a turning point that will be manifested in the field of law implementation i.e. the obligation on the Republic of Croatia to implement European law.
“Croatia already did a tremendous amount of work in this area through the professional training of judges and public prosecutors, as well as in the field of aligning Croatian law with European law. However, we are aware of the work that lies ahead, and Croatian judges are ready to accept the new missions and challenges before them in joining the European Union.
“Croatia is a member of the Council of Europe, it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and it has access to the European Court of Human Rights – and that raised the bar in terms of legal protection for Croatian citizens. Our experience from the accession negotiations tells us about the benefits in the field of legal protection through the European judicature, which is mandatory in Croatia.
“The appliance of European law represents additional legal protection and the rule of law. Certainly, the initiative to strengthen the legal protection will grow further, so the rights of Croatian citizens will be additionally protected in the European Union.”
Zagreb lawyer, Gugić & Kovačić law firm
“Training courses held by the Croatian Bar Association were necessary and indescribably important, mainly because of our entry into the European Union and because European law and European court practice will be absolutely necessary in the everyday lives of our citizens, and during the process of reaching verdicts for us lawyers.
“There will be some significant changes. Our clients will definitely seek an extension of their rights, and they will definitely try to apply them in regard to the State, mainly because the Constitution guarantees the use of European law and European court practice in Croatian courts.
“Therefore, our clients will go to European courts to ask for the protection of their, some might say, ‘expanded’ rights, which will be ensured after the accession to the European Union. We will most definitely apply European court practice in our everyday practice.
“Citizens will be able to see and get to know this European practice online. Once they get to know European practice, citizens will compare it to their everyday situations and they will recognise the same events and situations that are current in their own legal case. They will ask us to apply this court practice in their own case, which might be of vital importance to them in order to win the case or to get the best out of it.
“For the last three years, maybe even more than the last three years, during the accession negotiations, we have changed our legislation. We have changed the Constitution, so that it guarantees to each citizen that European law will be applied during every court procedure and during every decision of the court.
“We already aligned most of our legislation with EU law, primarily because of the European Union Directive. We find, and we will probably continue to find, some mistakes in our legislation, but these mistakes will be handled promptly. Such mistakes can be found in our everyday practice, court decisions, appeals etc., but we will try to ameliorate our legislation in the foreseeable future. But I must say that we are definitely ready to join the European Union, because our legislation is almost fully aligned with European legislation.”