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Statement by Minister of State Michael Georg Link to the German Bundestag on 1 February 2013 during the first reading of the German bill on the Treaty concerning the Accession of Croatia to the EU of 9 December 2011

01.02.2013

-- Translation of advance text --

Mr President, honoured colleagues,

At the end of 2011 the representatives of the EU member states and the Republic of Croatia signed the Treaty concerning the Accession of Croatia to the EU. Once all member states have ratified the Treaty, Croatia will be the second former Yugoslav country to have joined the European Union. This is a unique success story. Only 22 years ago a civil war was taking place in Europe, with expulsions, ethnic cleansing and massive human rights violations – things that nobody in Europe had thought were still possible.

Maybe you have the same memories and have drawn the same conclusions as I do. I still remember the first major clashes of the civil war which shook Croatia in April, May and June 1991. The TV images of the destruction in Vukovar still haven’t left me. The things that happened then are things we cannot simply banish from our minds; they are things that fortunately are no longer conceivable on our continent. That is why it is important to remember that it all happened a mere 22 years ago. In other parts of the former Yugoslavia, the wars are even more recent.

Honoured colleagues, as you know, great and decisive changes have since occurred in south-east Europe. The newly established successor states of the former Yugoslavia had to cope with significant economic, political and social instability. It was obvious that the European Union had to foster stability in these new countries by offering them the prospect of membership and giving them a vision for the future. However, when the idea of these countries joining the EU was first raised, it was highly controversial. Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl acted on the issue with the urgency and decisiveness it required. That is also something that should be clearly remembered today.

The European Union came to understand its responsibility and its strategic common interest in promoting security, democracy and economic development in this region, and in safeguarding such development by holding out the prospect of EU accession. The prospect of joining the EU – and let me say this very clearly – worked and is still working as a catalyst for reform in the countries of south-east Europe.

Membership may still be a distant prospect for many of the states in the region. Many haven’t even obtained the official “candidate country” status or haven’t commenced accession negotiations. Precisely because of this, we know that the accession of Croatia will send a vital and inimitable signal to the entire region, to the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and Albania.

Germany has thus supported and fostered the EU aspirations of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and Albania from the outset. Let me clearly state that the German Government will uphold the promise made in Thessaloniki in 2003 – that these states will become an integral part of a united Europe if they live up to their political responsibilities and adopt and implement the necessary reforms to that end.

I’d also like to note here that the Nobel Prize Committee, when awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, expressly mentioned Croatia’s forthcoming accession and the role the EU’s enlargement policy has played in promoting reconciliation in the Western Balkans and supporting stabilization in the region.

Distinguished colleagues, Croatia had a long, difficult journey behind it by the time it signed the accession treaty. It applied for EU membership in 2003. The European Council decided to open accession negotiations in October 2005. These were conducted on a strict system under which criteria had to be adequately met before the negotiations could be concluded. The German Government attached paramount importance to this condition.

It is worth stating that this represented a change in the way negotiations were conducted. We had learned our lesson, not least at the insistence of the Bundestag. We had learned the lesson from previous negotiations, in which some tricky issues had perhaps been glossed over and we had given credence to our own wishful thinking, concluding certain chapters prematurely.

Now we err on the side of caution. Our negotiating tactics changed several years ago. The present approach – adopted for the first time in the negotiations with Montenegro – is to open the negotiations with the difficult chapters, which include rule of law issues and combating corruption. These are the first issues on the table. It is absolutely clear that only those countries that meet the criteria, that have not only incorporated the EU acquis in their own legal systems but also apply it in practice, may ultimately become members of the European Union. Anyone who wants to continue down the path of enlargement – bit by bit, I’m not suggesting any major round – must make it clear that accession always comes at the same price. There are no special offers on membership.

The negotiations with Croatia were successfully concluded on 30 June 2011 with the completion of all chapters. Then, in the Act of Accession, it was agreed that in the final pre-accession phase, Croatia’s further reforms and their implementation by the Croatian Government and Parliament (the Sabor), would be closely monitored and reviewed. The EU Commission’s most recent report on Croatia was published in the autumn of 2012. It concluded that Croatia had made significant progress. Back in the spring of 2012, the Commission had identified 49 specific measures that Croatia still had to implement by early 2013; by autumn only ten were outstanding. Of these ten, the Croatian Government now states that eight have been achieved or are due to be adopted by the Croatian Parliament in the next few weeks.

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to call on Croatia and the Croatian Government to remove the last remaining stumbling block in its bilateral relations with Slovenia quickly and promptly before its accession.

The Commission’s spring report is due at the end of March. That’s important, because we have timed this ratification process – which includes the reactions of the Bundestag – so that it will not be concluded until the last progress report is available. We’re certain that the EU Commission won’t be granting any favours. But we’re also confident that the report will be positive.

A bill to amend federal legal provisions – i.e. an accompanying law – has now been drafted. It was submitted to parliament on 16 January. The main issue covered is the free movement of workers. The Accession Treaty allows for transitional measures regarding access to the labour market. Germany is making use of the option thus granted of imposing a two-year limit on the freedom of movement for unskilled and low-skilled workers.

Mr President, I am now coming to the end of my remarks. To date, the Treaty has been ratified by Croatia and 22 EU member states. The Netherlands and Denmark have, like us, started the process of ratification, but are awaiting the Commission’s final monitoring report before their parliaments take any decisions.

The Federal Government is today presenting this honoured House with the Croatian Accession Treaty for its deliberation. We are confident that Croatia will meet all the necessary criteria by 1 July 2013 and will be able to become the 28th member of the European Union.

We are looking forward to welcoming Croatia into the EU. We await with anticipation Croatia’s contribution to our common mission of making clear progress on the long road towards the reunification of our continent. Thank you.