It is the newest member of the European Union and it just took a major step towards joining the Schengen Zone as well. At a time when the rest of the Western Balkans seem to be lagging behind, Croatia is considered the big success story of the region.
Global Conversation talked to the Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic to discuss the country's achievements, the next challenges, but also the challenges of the wider region.
To watch the full interview please click on the player above.
The Schengen Zone
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "So, you recently got a green light from the European Commission for the Schengen Zone. The decision came as a surprise to many because lately, Europe seems to be closing in rather than opening up. Are you afraid that you might not see the end of this road?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "Well, first of all, the decision of the college of the European Commission, of Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission in Strasbourg last week is actually a fruit of four years hard work by Croatia, by fulfilling the criteria which are structured in eight different chapters of the so-called Schengen acquis. In every (all) of these chapters, we have managed to elevate the readiness of Croatia to be part of Schengen. So this was a very thorough technical evaluation by the Commission services."
Croatia and Slovenia border
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "My question has a specific component and it is the open dispute with Slovenia over the Gulf of Piran. The Slovenian side has warned that it might even veto your way to the Schengen Zone if there is no solution. Do you see any solution in the near future?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "First of all the border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia is an open issue that we have on the agenda for the last 30 years. Had this been a condition for any of the two countries to join the EU or to join the Schengen, then Slovenia would not have entered either, in either of the two inner cycles."
"Our firm belief is that Schengen membership for Croatia should be completely separated from a bilateral border issue between the two countries. For us it is the Savudrija Bay, for them, it is the Piran Bay. At the end of the day, we can find a solution."
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "So you are not worried?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "I am confident that we can a solution. What we are saying towards our Slovenian neighbors “we have an open issue, there are ways to solve it, peaceful ways, good neighborly relations and a solution that can be acceptable for both sides, unrelated with our Schengen ambitions."
Protecting borders along the Croatian coast
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "In Croatia, you have a long coastline. In Greece, we know how difficult it is to stop boats with immigrants in the sea. Plus you have 1,300 kilometers of border with non-EU countries. Have you considered any special measures to protect your borders?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "Not only considered, but we have put them in place. Croatia has very much invested in the capabilities of our police force. We have 6,500 police officers fully trained and equipped to guard the external EU border, which is the Schengen border. We have not opted either for walls or barricades or bard wires, unlike some other countries, because we felt first of all that the relationship that we have with Bosnia- Herzegovina, in particular, was not the adequate way to guard the border. So we are cooperating between the police services of Croatia, of Bosnia- Herzegovina, of Croatia and Serbian Croatian Montenegro."
Symela Touchtidou,Euronews: "Some NGOs say that you might try too hard. There have been accusations for police violence against immigrants. Have you investigated these allegations, is there any truth in them?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "Absolutely. We have always respected the Croatian law, we have respected the highest standards, but we are also protecting our border. Any allegation that we have heard, it has been investigated. So far when it comes to the behavior of our policemen we can only praise their efforts for guarding not only the Croatian border but also guarding the border of all the other EU member states which are behind us."
North Macedonia and Albania
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "So, mass immigration is a major concern in Europe. Is this the real reason why North Macedonia and Albania did not get dates for accession talks?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "We felt that both countries have done a lot in terms of criteria that were required. And that is why the European Commission, again, just like in the Schengen case for Croatia, stated: “now is the right time to open these accession negotiations.”
Symela Touchtidou,Euronews: "So what went wrong?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "I think there were many reasons. Some of them were more the analysis of few member states whether the evaluation, whether everything was ready, was fully accurate or not and the other one was a more general consideration vis a vis the enlargement process and also the consideration vis a vis the better functioning of the EU as it is today, the EU of the 28."
Symela Touchtidou,Euronews: "Was it not just France who opposed?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "No there were other countries, unfortunately."
Symela Touchtidou,Euronews: "Shouldn’t we know (which ones)?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "Well we have an unwritten rule that we do not disclose the deliberations at the European Council. I will not change this practice. I think that the media have more or less identified which countries had some reservations but our ambition is to talk to those who are unconvinced and tell them that it is better for the stability of the region, it is better for the European future of our neighborhood that the process starts. So my argument was “let’s give them a chance and start and nobody can today, with the high level of uncertainty predict the length of the process”.
The case of Turkey
Symela Touchtidou,Euronews: "Do you fear that in the case of Albania and North Macedonia, we might see a repetition of happened with Turkey and EU? Turkey now seems very far away from the EU and the case of the incursion in Syria showed that there are other major powers like Russia that influence its politics."
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "I do not think we can compare North Macedonia and Albania with Turkey. Turkey has had a very specific European path. So I think what we need to do with the EU is to organize our relationship with Turkey, especially bearing in mind the potential ramifications of crisis that might take place in the middle east or elsewhere, which could, in turn, become either a refugee crisis or later a migratory crisis."
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "Do you think that’s possible?
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "I think it should be."
Waiting for the Brexit
Symela Touchtidou, Euronews: "You will be having the presidency of the EU Council next semester. So Brexit will happen on your watch. Are you hopeful that it will be a smooth transition?"
Andrej Plenkovic, Prime Minister of Croatia: "With Brexit, nothing was smooth the past three years and four months. Now we see further problems on the date of the elections and all the other issues. What we discussed in the EU is to give a go-ahead to the UK that we are ready to extend the potential Brexit date until the 31st of January but with the flexibility, if they solve the procedures internally we can do the necessary procedure at the level of the Council and European parliament, then the Brexit can be flexible a little bit before the end. But we as presidency we will take care of it once it happens in our time if it happens. Now with all the things we have witnessed, I do not want to be a great predictor of something that very few people managed to predict well.