“Croatia was left with one single move to push the ball back into the EU’s court:
to formally apply for membership.”
When Andrej Plenkovic joined the Croatian Foreign Ministry’s European Integration Department in 1994, it was hardly the obvious choice for a young law graduate.
EU membership was a far way off. Serb forces still occupied a third of Croatia’s territory. The country was heavily engaged in the war that raged across the border, supporting and directing Bosnian Croat forces in their fighting against the (mainly Bosniak) forces of the Bosnian government. By that time, as former Croatian foreign minister Mate Granic wrote, “Croatia unfortunately had already lost its status as a victim.”
Yet Plenkovic, born in 1970 in Zagreb, felt attracted to Europeanization. As a student he had been very active in the European Law Students’ Association (ELSA). As the head of ELSA’s international committee, he had spent a year in Brussels in 1993, also interning at the European Parliament and at Croatia’s mission to the EU.
In 1994, Croatia’s Deputy Foreign Minister was Ivan Simonovic, Plenkovic’s former law professor (and now UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights). Simonovic recruited several young law graduates to join his team. These included Plenkovic, current Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, current Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic, and current Deputy Foreign Minister Josko Klisovic.
“Croatian diplomacy was being created at that time and it seemed to me that as a legal expert interested in international relations who speaks four languages, I could make a contribution to the Europeanization of Croatia.”
Croatia’s almost uncontested leader at the time, president Franjo Tudjman, is now criticized for attempting to carve up Bosnia and Herzegovina, driving a majority of Croatia’s Serbs from the country, and refusing to prosecute Croats who committed war crimes. In fact the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was preparing an indictment for Tudjman himself, but he died before it could be completed. Plenkovic joined the Tudjman-founded Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in June 2011, long after Tudjman’s death, but shows respect for Croatia’s founding father.
“We must pay tribute to the person – and that’s first Croatian President Franjo Tudjman – who succeeded in liberating Croatia and then, on top of it, peacefully reintegrated Eastern Slavonia in 1998. If someone who didn’t have that kind of decisiveness had led Croatia at the time, it is questionable how all that would have turned out.”
Plenkovic says that Tudjman’s rule was “of historical importance”, but he acknowledges that in terms of EU accession Croatia “got stuck with the so called political conditions like human and minority rights, media freedom, and cooperation with the ICTY”.
In 1994 Croatia could still be given the benefit of the doubt, with the EU opening talks with the country on a trade and co-operation agreement and on eligibility for the PHARE programme. However, following the launch of military operations that ended the Serbian occupation of central and southern parts of Croatia but also produced more than 200,000 Serbian refugees, negotiations were put on hold. With Croatia becoming increasingly isolated, the second half of the 1990s was a period that Plenkovic describes as “rather frustrating.”
“We had no contractual relation with the EU whatsoever and we were denied from using its assistance programs for almost 10 years …
It was so unpleasant watching us lag behind our neighbours in the accession process. We had to look on as Slovenia signed an association agreement in 1996 and applied for EU membership the same day. We were analysing the European Commission strategic document about the enlargement process from 1997, entitled Agenda 2000, and Croatia was not there.”
But, says Plenkovic, there was hope.
“All of us working on EU issues at the time were convinced that we will reach the goal in the end. Despite the setbacks we were enthusiastic … But I have to emphasize that none of us who were involved in the European affairs in Croatia thought that it would take so long.”
Tudjman died in late 1999, and in early 2000 a centre-left government under Ivica Racan came to power. The new leadership, including the newly elected president, Stipe Mesic, had a clear priority: Croatia’s accession to the EU and NATO.
On the suggestion of France, a big EU Summit was organised in Zagreb in November 2000. A year later, Croatia signed an EU Stabilization and Association Agreement. In 2002, however, Racan’s government began to come under fire from the EU for failing to turn over Croatian generals indicted for war crimes by the ICTY. Some EU countries put the ratification of Croatia’s SAA on hold.
“Our assessment was that it would take 12 to 18 months for EU members to complete SAA ratification. But, because of the blockade and delays in some member countries, it came into force only on 1 February 2005, three years and three months after it was signed …
In these circumstances, Croatia was left with one single move to push the ball back into the EU’s court: to formally apply for membership.”
In 2002, therefore, Croatian ministers and diplomats, including Plenkovic, began to sound out their EU colleagues.
“The official version of almost all of the answers was: ‘Wait, you should go step by step. First, the SAA has to be ratified and then you can apply for membership’.”
But Croatian political leaders called the EU’s bluff. On 18 December 2002 all parliamentary parties voted in favour of submitting an official application. Croatia did so on 21 February 2003. For Plenkovic, this was “the crucial moment when we turned around institutional dynamics in relations with the EU.”
On 20 April 2004 the Commission issued a positive opinion of Croatia’s application. The European Council promptly granted Croatia candidate status on 18 June, and in December the European Council set 17 March 2005 as the date for opening accession negotiations.
The talks were delayed, however, once again due to insufficient co-operation with the ICTY. They finally opened on 3 October 2005. Even then Croatia had to overcome several hurdles, including a 10-month freeze imposed by neighbouring Slovenia over a bilateral border dispute and strict EU demands concerning the rule of law. But Croatia pushed on.
“It is very simple. We were aware that there was no real alternative. Could we have said that we didn’t want to join the EU? And then remain fenced off by ‘Schengen walls’? We know that however painstaking and sometimes unjust, the European path is the right development path for economic prosperity, for democratization, the functioning of the rule of law, for [attracting] investment and generally for a better life for citizens.”
The reforms necessitated by EU membership have changed Croatia for the better, Plenkovic says. In order to harmonize its legislation with the EU’s, Croatia has adopted more than 550 laws and 1,400 bylaws since 2002. “Our legal system is no longer the same.”
Plenkovic worked on Croatia’s EU accession in the foreign ministry for 18 years – as an adviser, as a member of Croatia’s SAA negotiation team, as deputy head of the national missions in Brussels and Paris, as head of the ministry’s department for European integration, as state secretary, and as the public face of the former government’s pro-EU campaign. He has tirelessly promoted EU entry in print, radio and TV interviews and dozens of lectures and roundtables across Croatia. After the 2011 elections Plenkovic became a member of the Croatian parliament for the HDZ. Since 1 April 2012 (along with Milorad Pupovac and 10 other Croatian MPs) he is also an observer in the European Parliament.