During its Presidency of the European Union in the first six months of 2020, Croatia wants to organise a summit attended by the EU and the six Western Balkan countries to put the focus back on EU enlargement, Croatia's Foreign Minister, Marija Pejcinovic-Buric, said on Wednesday.
EU leaders are meeting with leaders of Western Balkan countries in Bulgaria's capital Sofia on Thursday, which will be the first such meeting since the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003. Although enlargement of the bloc has been put on the back-burner because of the difficulties faced by the EU in recent years - and there is still no appetite for admitting new members in the foreseeable future - Bulgaria, which currently holds Presidency of the EU, has decided to put the issue back on the agenda.
"Putting the focus back on Southeast Europe, on the six countries that are still not members of the European bloc, is already a big step forward, and Croatia advocates the same approach. We would like to organise Zagreb Summit 2 and we would like it to be an enlargement summit, to reinforce the message of putting the focus back on countries in our neighbourhood," Pejcinovic-Buric said in an interview with Croatian public radio.
Eighteen years ago the EU held a summit in Zagreb on the subject of enlargement, the first summit to be held outside its then-borders. Pejcinovic-Buric said that enlargement was no longer seen as an important issue in the EU, given the challenges facing the bloc today, but added that Croatia believed such summits should be held every two years as was the case with the Eastern Partnership (EaP), inaugurated in 2009.
She added that the Sofia summit marked an important step forward, because it would send a message that there were clear membership prospects for all six countries, including Kosovo, which is still not recognised by five out of 28 EU member states. "It has been agreed that all six countries have membership prospects, and their tasks have been clearly defined, in order for them to meet the political and economic criteria. The focus will also be on reconciliation, and on efforts to resolve their mutual issues," Pejcinovic-Buric said.
The preparation of the Sofia summit had met with a lot of difficulties due to Spain's refusal to attend, because of the presence of Kosovo, which had unilaterally proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008. Spain is one of the five EU members that do not recognise Kosovo, but unlike the other four countries - Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia - it does not even want to sit at the same table with representatives of Kosovo.
In order to accommodate Madrid, the Western Balkan countries are referred to as "partners" and their leaders are not identified by function, but only by name. Despite these difficulties, Brussels considers it a success that a joint declaration has been agreed at all.
Pejcinovic-Buric noted that the path towards EU membership had a transformative effect, because these were all transitional, mostly post-conflict, countries.
"It is important for them to transform into modern states with a functioning democracy, to complete the European project with their membership, and certainly to contribute to security as the issue of all issues... Hardly can there be security in Europe unless these countries join the common project," she said.
Croatia to assume Presidency of the Council of Europe
Pejcinovic-Buric also talked about Croatia's taking over of the six-month presidency of the Council of Europe (CoE) from Denmark, to formally come into effect on Friday. In preparation for Croatia's presidency, the Secretary-General of CoE and former Prime Minister of Norway, Thorbjorn Jagland, visited Zagreb in April and gave an exclusive interview to N1.
"After 22 years of membership, Croatia will for the first time hold presidency of this large pan-European organisation. It is one of the many institutions we have joined, and which were important for the confirmation of our independence, and our inclusion into the international system of multi-lateral organisations," Pejcinovic-Buric said.
The Council of Europe promotes democratic stability, free speech, and human rights, and no country joined the European Union without joining the Council of Europe first. Since joining in November 1996, Croatia ratified 93 conventions of the Council of Europe, the last being the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, ratified by the Croatian Parliament in April.
Pejcinovic-Buric said that the priorities of Croatia's Presidency of the Council of Europe would be the fight against corruption, the effective protection of the rights of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups, the strengthening of local government, and the conservation of cultural heritage.
"Croatia has prepared a programme consisting of 26 events, most of which concern human rights protection, while ten will focus on culture," she said.
Sixteen of these events will be organised in Croatia, in the cities of Zagreb, Rijeka, Dubrovnik, Zadar, and in the Brijuni islands and the Istria peninsula. "In Strasbourg, the seat of the Council of Europe, we will present 10 topics, ranging from architecture to music and film, and we have been granted permission by the city authorities to cover one of the city's trams with Croatian symbols," Pejcinovic-Buric said.
Commenting on the latest Council of Europe report on racism and intolerance, which commented on the rise of hate speech in Croatia's public discourse which targets ethnic minorites and vulnerable groups - particularly singling out ethnic Serbs, Roma, and LGBT persons as targets of abuse - Pejcinovic-Buric said that Croatia had made progress on this issue, and has devised plans to combat such problems, including action plans for the education and employment of Roma people.