Slovenia is once again blocking Croatia's negotiations on admission to the European Union and is thwarting attempts to advance its neighbour's membership talks next week.
Slovenia held up the EU's talks with Croatia for most of 2009 over an unresolved border dispute and allowed negotiations to resume only in October, after the two countries agreed to submit the dispute to international arbitration.
But despite the agreement that bilateral questions should not further delay Croatia's accession bid, Slovenia is again obstructing the membership negotiations.
Croatia was scheduled to begin talks with the EU on Monday (21 December) on three policy areas, or ‘chapters' – on the environment, on fisheries, and on foreign, security and defence policy. But Samuel Žbogar, Slovenia's foreign minister, declared last week (8 December) that his government had “reservations” about the substance of the three chapters.
A spokesperson for the Slovenian government confirmed yesterday (16 December) that the situation had not changed in the meantime. She said that the three chapters were “in the process of being resolved” and would be ready “in early 2010”.
The Slovenian objections mean that the Swedish government, which is chairing Monday's talks, will not be able to open the negotiating chapters.
Žbogar would not elaborate on the nature of the Social Democrat government's objections, which were announced two days after the EU's energy ministers had decided on 6 December that Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, should host the headquarters of the European Agency for the Co-operation of Energy Regulators. Other member states – including Sweden – have been unable to obtain an explanation from the Slovenian authorities. Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, said after Žbogar's comments: “We will not allow anyone to politically veto their neighbours, as this is not the way we work in Europe.”
A spokesperson for Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for enlargement, said that he hoped that the chapters could be opened as planned. “We will see on Monday,” he said. “We are monitoring the situation, but at the end of the day it is the Slovenians' political decision.”
Alojz Peterle, a centre-right MEP who is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Slovenia and a member of the European Parliament's delegation to Croatia, said that he regretted that faster progress was not possible.
Despite the delay, Sweden has not cancelled Monday's inter-governmental conference between the EU and Croatia, because it also features an exchange by ministers from both sides on the overall state of Croatia's membership bid. One or two negotiating chapters are also expected to be closed at the meeting.
Croatia hopes to complete accession talks in the first half of 2010, although Croatian and EU officials suggested in private even before the latest delay that autumn next year was a more realistic target. The country is expected to enter the EU early in 2012.
The border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia dates back to 1991, when the two republics gained independence from Yugoslavia. October's agreement to submit the dispute to international arbitration has been ratified by Croatia. On the Slovenian side, the agreement is currently being scrutinised by the constitutional court in an accelerated procedure. The deal foresees that an international arbitration panel would rule on the exact location of the sea and land borders between the two neighbours.
Apart from the three chapters that have now been blocked by Slovenia, just two others remain to be opened, on competition policy and on judiciary and fundamental rights. The latter is blocked because the governments of the Netherlands and the UK believe that Croatia is not fully co-operating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.