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Croatia’s accession to the European Union

01.07.2013 - Interview

Croatia has become the 28th member of the European Union. Minister of State Link represented the Federal Government at the accession celebrations.

Since 1 July Croatia has been the 28th member of the European Union. Minister of State Link represented the Federal Government at the accession celebrations in Zagreb. In an interview with Deutschlandfunk he stressed that Croatia was sending an important message to the countries of the Western Balkans (broadcast on 1 July 2013).

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Germany’s head of government did not come herself, and in Croatia this has been understood as a sign that the Chancellor is not happy with the progress of the reforms. Even when a clash of dates is cited as the reason a hundred times, the impression given cannot be denied. Nonetheless, Croatia has been a member of the European Union since midnight.

On the phone I now welcome Michael Link, the just-mentioned Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office. He represented the Federal Government in Zagreb yesterday. Good morning, Mr Link.

Good morning, Ms Klein.

Let’s start with what we heard in our correspondent’s report, and let’s get this straight: the Chancellor accepted the invitation to the festivities and was bandied about in Croatia as the most important guest attending the celebrations, then a few days ago she pulled out because of a clash of dates, amid great disappointment. Was that the right message for the new member?

Firstly, I want to say that the Chancellor has herself very clearly quashed all speculation that she cancelled her visit for political reasons. Last week she discussed the subject again in great detail with Prime Minister Milanović, the Croatian Prime Minister, and has said herself publicly that the reasons were not political but purely a matter of scheduling, and that is something that can always happen. I don’t think people should read anything mysterious into that.

But a reference to the diary, of course, also implies that it wasn’t a top priority, it didn’t have top priority in the Chancellor’s diary.

It has an extremely high priority. That is reflected by the fact that she has announced plans to visit Zagreb in the near future, with Croatia as her sole destination, and I think that also shows how important the country is for us. After all, yesterday’s celebrations, as important as they were, are, of course, merely a symbolic act. We have enjoyed extremely close cooperation and above all trust with Croatia over many years. This was in evidence before its accession and will be demonstrated again after its accession.

You referred to the Croatian leader. In television interviews at the weekend, he stated in no uncertain terms that Germany is in election fever and Croatia doesn’t score any points with German voters so the German leader preferred not to come herself. Is that right? Does Croatia’s accession to the EU not score any points with German voters in the election campaign?

I think people are reading a bit too much into this. Let me say this again. If we wanted to turn it into an election issue, we would hardly now be pursuing the issue of enlargement in other areas, too. We, the Federal Government, want to continue to advocate a viable prospect of enlargement for the countries of the Western Balkans, and Croatia is sending a very important message to them. We therefore support the prospect of enlargement for all these countries and stand by the new member Croatia in particular.

But does that not possibly contain some element of what could be termed reservation in view of the massive problems Croatia is facing and the fear that the EU is overstretching itself by taking on board another candidate or member which does not yet comply with all the conditions and standards of the EU?

Yes. But that is precisely the reason why we are taking these reservations seriously, for we have to concede that in the past some accession candidates were maybe not subjected to sufficient scrutiny. Not in the sense that someone wrongly became a member, but in the sense that we thought they were all adequately prepared. That is why in Croatia’s case we put it through a tough and unprecedented monitoring process prior to its accession.

I believe that Croatia has had to meet tougher and more difficult conditions than any other new member so far, and incidentally, even after accession it will be subject to certain safeguard clauses for a transitional period, so that we can take the necessary action if problems subsequently arise with regard to the internal market or with legal and judicial cooperation, for instance. So we are paying close attention. We, too, have learned from past mistakes and we want to emphasize that accession – after all, a country is “never” finished, accession isn’t the end of the road – is an incentive for new and further-reaching reform measures.

Some problems were just raised by Ralf Borchard in his report from Zagreb. We mentioned the justice system, and corruption is also a major problem in Croatia. Can you give us an example – what is the timeframe for implementing changes and how will their progress be measured?

For example, for the field we in Europe term the area of freedom, security and justice, so for everything to do with tackling corruption, organized crime, judicial cooperation, in all these areas we expect Croatia to rapidly implement all the regulations that have not yet been implemented, that are still open, and this will determine whether Croatia can also become a member of the Schengen area one day. For accession does not mean that Croatia can now become a member of the Schengen area or join the euro. Both of those require further reforms and that is why I want to reiterate that the accession we saw yesterday is not the end of the road but an incentive for further reforms, so that one day Croatia can also join Schengen or the euro.

The EU has to maintain the pressure – that is what many observers, including some of those in the country, keep saying, and that raises the question of what sanctions are available to keep motivation high and to maintain the pressure. Would it be advisable to consider a scaling system, for example a warning – that would be relatively minor – and then at the other end of the scale the option of withdrawing the right to vote? Would it be a good idea to consider sharper differentiation within the EU?

Yes, indeed we must do so, and my role as Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office is precisely that, to discuss with our European partners how we can work together to better comply with our European regulations.

What is the range of options between the two extremes we mentioned?

Exactly. But that, Ms Klein, wouldn’t then just apply to Croatia, it would apply to all the members. Between those two extremes, for example – as we proposed, as Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle proposed – is the introduction of a new initiative, the basic values initiative, the basic rights initiative.

At the moment we have only the sharp sword of Article 4, the withdrawal of voting rights, et cetera, or the normal infringement proceedings. Between that we would like to see an effective political mechanism which could be used to address problematic developments. Note that this, though, would then apply to all members. We are not talking about a law exclusively for Croatia.

And what kind of timeframe are we talking about to put that in place?

We discussed this last week in the Council of Ministers. The Commission will now submit a proposal on how the rule of law initiative could be implemented as a political mechanism. We could do this without amending the treaty. Here, I believe, we could certainly make concrete progress within the next year, so that its implementation can be seen to be within tangible reach.

To conclude, Mr Link, let’s take a look at the economic situation. Unemployment of almost 20 percent, debt of almost 60 percent of GDP – it is a small country but the figures don’t look very good, and in view of the crises in other EU states, such as Greece and Cyprus, they give cause for public concern. Can you guarantee that billions are not soon going to be channelled to Croatia?

Croatia, as the Foreign Minister reiterated only yesterday, doesn’t want a cent from Germany, it doesn’t want any support in the area of funding, like we are now giving to states in the euro area, for example. But I think we ought to be honest here and say that of course we are supporting Croatia, as we support all the member states, within the context of the European treaties.

But Croatia itself, the Croatian Government itself knows very well that the country still has a lot of homework to do particularly with regard to its competitiveness and its attractiveness for foreign investment. It is absolutely clear that we will support Croatia within the framework of the normal European treaties. But we need to make a distinction here – we are not talking about the measures we are taking at the moment to stabilize the euro area. That is a totally different issue. And the main thing is that Croatia has declared its willingness to take the necessary steps. Our support can only ever take the form of helping others to help themselves. We cannot implement reforms on behalf of others. Let me therefore repeat that this accession is an incentive for further decisive steps towards reform so that Croatia can boost its own competitiveness.

Michael Link from the Free Democratic Party, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office. He represented the Federal Government yesterday at the celebrations marking Croatia’s accession to the EU. Thank you for talking to us today, Mr Link.

Thank you very much!

Interview: Bettina Klein. Reproduced here by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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