One of the unique characteristics of the European Union that critics target and Europhiles point out is the system of rotating presidency. Come January 1 or July 1, a new nation takes over the helm of the rotating presidency, responsible for setting the agenda for the 27 nations.
Last year, the presidency was held initially by Romania, then Finland. Since New Year’s Day, Croatia holds the rotating position. Even though the order is set well in advance, the timing right now is more than a little awkward for the former Yugoslav nation that won independence from the terror and turmoil of the Balkan wars.
First off, there’s the question of who will actually be the Croatian president to welcome the EU heads of state to Zagreb. On Sunday, Croatians head to the polls in a run-off presidential election that will most likely see Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic returned for a second term against former prime minister Zoran Milanovic — but she won 27 per cent of the vote on the first round of voting just before Christmas, with Milanovic topping the polls with 29 per cent.
For Grabar-Kitarovic to win a second term, she’ll have to pick up votes that went to the far-right and nationalist candidate, Miroslav Skoro. He finished third, picking up 23 per cent support.
She has shifted to the right during the two-week run-off campaign and says there’s a need for Croatians to unite under common national values. That sits awkwardly in Brussels, particularly that one of the aims of the Croatian term of the EU presidency would be to look at opening up the bloc to new members from the Balkan states. Albania and North Macedonia want an entry into the EU club and a Zagreb summit will also look at granting Bosnia and Herzegovina the status of a candidate country.
Schengen zone expansion
And Croatia’s record hasn’t exactly been stellar when it comes to its treatment of refugees attempting to pass through its territory. Croatian police have adopted heavy handed tactics dealing with refugees — one was recently shot and seriously injured in what police say was an accident.
Up to now, Croatia hasn’t been part of the Schengen zone — the world’s largest multinational free-travel area. In October, the EU said that the government in Zagreb had met the criteria to fully join the system.
Croatia would represent Schengen’s first territorial expansion in more than a decade when the accession of Switzerland was completed in 2008. It would also mark an expansion of ambition for a scheme that has been weakened by the refugee crisis over the past five years. As things stand now, 22 of the 28 EU member states are in Schengen along with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, is one of six members not in Schengen, alongside the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus.
Full Schengen membership will provide an immediate tourism boost — but it might still fall yet at the final hurdle.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expressing doubts that Schengen doesn’t work anymore and wants a rethink of the open zone — even if that means fewer member states.
First off, there’s the question of who will actually be the Croatian president to welcome the EU heads of state to Zagreb. On Sunday, Croatians head to the polls in a run-off presidential election that will most likely see Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic returned for a second term
Although held up as a major part of the European ideal allowing for the free movement of people, Schengen was one of the first casualties of the refugee crisis and the terrorist threat — with many members throwing up internal border checks and temporary security controls in 2015 and 2016.
Temporary? Most of those are still in place five years on.
As well as Schengen, Croatia is also looking to join the club of 19 EU nations currently using the euro as their common currency.
In late 2019, the Croatian central bank sent a letter of intent to Brussels saying that it wanted to adopt the euro, and the government in Zagreb is eager to join the European Exchange Mechanism — the waiting room if you will for potential Eurozone members. If all goes to plan, Croatia would fully switch to the euro early in 2024 — consigning its kuna to the economic dustbin.
One of the legacies of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia is that the Balkan states still have yet to finalise their national boundaries in several instances. That’s the case between Croatia and Slovenia, with the EU Court of Justice recently initially deciding that settling the border between the two EU states was not an issue for the court.
Slovenia has argued that, by not implementing an arbitration tribunal’s determination in 2017 of the land and sea border between Croatia and Slovenia, Croatia was violating EU law and could be sued under EU law. The dispute risks complicating Croatia’s accession to Schengen. The EU court will likely give the full ruling early this year — another complication for Zagreb’s EU presidency.