Feb 8, 2013 | 11:15 GMT

4 mins read

Croatia's Illustrative Pursuit of EU Membership

Jure Makovec/AFP/GettyImages

Bilateral disputes between Slovenia and Croatia, along with growing political instability in Ljubljana, are delaying the ratification of Croatia's accession to the European Union, tentatively scheduled for July. Croatian membership in the bloc is still likely, especially in light of a recent announcement that the two countries may be close to resolving key differences. But the issue highlights how political developments in one EU member state can endanger the entire bloc's foreign policy. Moreover, the tensions between Croatia and Slovenia illustrate obstacles to EU accession common among Western Balkan states.

Slovenia and Croatia share a long history. Both countries were part of the Habsburg Empire, which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, the two joined the short-lived Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and from 1943 until gaining independence in 1991, they were part of what was called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Due to its greater geographical distance from Serbia, the center of power of Yugoslavia and its legal successor, Slovenia's ensuing independence was not as explosive as other countries in the Western Balkans. Croatian independence, in contrast, was marked by a prolonged military conflict with Serbian forces that lasted until a peace agreement was reached in November 1995.

Eu Candidates

In 2004, the rapid resolution of Slovenia's border dispute with Italy and strong political support from Austria allowed the Balkan state to become the first former Yugoslav country to join the European Union. The same year, Slovenia also joined NATO. Croatia's path to EU membership, however, has been much longer. Zagreb applied to join the bloc in 2003, but Croatia was not designated as a "candidate country" for accession until December 2011. During that time period, Slovenia stalled accession talks due to unresolved bilateral disputes and only supported Croatian candidacy status under pressure from Brussels.

According to EU procedures, the accession of new countries requires ratification by each current member state. So far, 18 of the 27 EU countries, including heavyweights such as Italy and Spain, have ratified Croatia's accession, while the parliaments of eight countries, including France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, are still mulling the issue. The only EU member where parliamentary discussion over Croatian accession has not begun is Slovenia — an impediment that is jeopardizing Brussels' goal of incorporating Croatia in July.

Slovenian Obstruction

The delay in the Slovenian National Assembly stems in part from domestic political factors. The fragile government in Ljubljana is mired in crisis over accusations of corruption against Prime Minister Janez Jansa. Some members of the ruling coalition plan to leave the government by the end of February. In this context, Jansa's minority government could be forced to call for early elections, a development that would further delay a vote on Croatian accession.

Slovenia's stalling is also motivated by two notable bilateral issues with Croatia. The two countries have been locked in a long-running territorial dispute over the Gulf of Piran, which is located in the north Adriatic and is a key entryway to the Mediterranean Sea. Demarcation of the maritime boundary between Croatia and Slovenia has been in dispute since the collapse of Yugoslavia. The issue is partly economic — disputed fisheries are at stake — but also geopolitical. Depending on where the border is drawn, Slovenia could lose access to international waters.

In 2009, under pressure from the European Union, Slovenia agreed to international arbitration over the Gulf of Piran issue and other smaller territorial disputes with Croatia. On Jan. 17, nearly four years later, the two countries agreed on the members of the arbitration panel. Ljubliana and Zagreb have agreed to accept whatever judgment the panel reaches, but the demarcation process will still be long and remain a source of tension in the coming years.

The second issue complicating Slovenian-Croatian relations also stems from the collapse of Yugoslavia. Zagreb is pushing for financial compensation for more than 130,000 Croatian depositors who lost their savings in the 1994 liquidation of Ljubljanska banka, a Slovenia-based Yugoslav bank. Indeed, Slovenia has linked its support for Croatian accession to the resolution of this dispute. But the two governments resumed negotiations earlier this year. And on Feb. 6, Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec told reporters that Croatia and Slovenia are "very close" to ending the dispute after reaching a solution that would be acceptable to both sides.

Europe's Unanimity Problem

The two Balkan states likely will resolve their disputes — or at least prevent them from delaying Croatian accession. But Zagreb's pursuit of EU membership has magnified two structural issues afflicting the European Union. The political crisis in Slovenia demonstrates how developments in even the smallest EU states can jeopardize Brussels' foreign policy objectives — in this case, membership expansion. Since unanimity is required for the European Union's most important decisions, including treaties, reforms and expansion, delays from any of the 27 members affect the entire bloc.

Moreover, the territorial dispute between Slovenia and Croatia highlights the problems involved with integrating Western Balkan states. Currently, most of the candidates to join the European Union were formerly part of Yugoslavia, and for most of these countries, accession has been complicated by various bilateral disputes. The European Union believes that expanding into the Western Balkans would bring political stability and economic opportunities to the region. But as demonstrated by Slovenia and Croatia, regional feuds will make incorporating other Western Balkan states slow and troublesome as well.

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