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Debates
Tuesday, 6 February 2018 - Strasbourg Revised edition

Debate with the Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, on the Future of Europe (debate)
MPphoto
 

  Andrej Plenković, Prime Minister of Croatia. – Mr President, dear friends, thank you for the initial round of comments on the speech I delivered at the beginning of this great opportunity to discuss the future of Europe with you.

Several points on several questions and comments. First, on Jean-Claude’s comment on balancing the enthusiasm, ambition and the financial realism of what we would like to see implemented, what policies should be the guiding lines of our project and which budgetary means we have available. The fact that the UK is leaving is – as I know thanks to my earlier position as a Member of the Committee on Budgets here – not a positive thing. It is a downside. Let’s be very clear about it: we have a downside.

We all know that more or less 10 Member States finance around 80% of our budget. This is something we don’t widely publicise, but these are the facts, and the catch in the negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework will be how to fill in the void which will be there.

Can we have enough resources to implement all the objectives of our policies? Will this require more contributions from all Member States? Are some countries willing to increase it or to remain in the framework of what they are paying or contributing today?

The situation is not the same if you are looking at it from the optics of the countries which contribute with a substantial percentage, or coming from a country with more modest economic and financial abilities where the increase would not be so dramatic. So after the analysis which we have made in Croatia if there were an increased demand from our side we would be willing to do it, to be very clear at the beginning.

When it comes to issues of enlargement, something that several of you have mentioned, if ever there was a policy or a dossier that we know more than well it is enlargement. It is a very positive coincidence for me that the Commission will come up with a paper during the college a few hours later, bringing forward, as you said, the indicative timeline for the countries that remain within the group that we called the Western Balkans.

They are divided into three groups. Serbia and Montenegro as the countries that negotiate, Albania, our friends in Macedonia – who are now negotiating the issue of the name with Greece more intensively, and from what I understand, with a bit more optimism on finding a solution as the second group – and then Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, as the final two.

My country has no dilemma. First of all, we are helping all of them already. You are not aware of that, but so many Croatian experts are engaged in one way or another, transferring the freshest knowledge on the process of accession negotiations to all of our neighbours. We also know that, as Jean-Claude has said, the bilateral issues should not obstruct or slow down the process of any country’s accession to the EU.

We know it better than you, if I may be very clear. Having spent basically my entire life dedicated to the objective that one day my country would be around this table, I know what it means to lose a couple of years in the accession process. In my modest assessment around five years were lost, due to two main reasons. One relating to the bilateral issues, and the other to wider international conditionalities.

Five years from a historical perspective might not seem a lot, but it is an awful lot when you consider what it means to invest or lose in your economic, social development and take the benefits of EU membership. This is something I know well. That is why I see the role of my country as a bridge, as a facilitator and as someone who will advocate further enlargement.

There is no dilemma for us: we want to follow up on what the Bulgarian Presidency is doing in Sofia in May and that is the EU-Western Balkans summit after 15 years when it was last held in Thessaloniki. The first one was held in Zagreb. I was one of the organisers of it. My ambition is to have one in 2020, twenty years later, and we are trying to give a push because having the future of our neighbours anchored in the EU is positive for Croatia.

It will help us to address all the residual and open issues which stem from the times when Croatia, as I said at the beginning, was a victim of aggression. That’s why we will do our utmost to help all of our neighbours, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here we all have a historical responsibility, and that is why I mentioned it at the beginning, to safeguard the full equality of all the three constituent peoples and all other groups in the country.

When it comes to the issue of Slovenia, which you have raised, Slovenia is a friend of Croatia. It is the only country in our history, over many centuries, with which we have never had any conflict, which is rare in our part of the world, almost an exception. This is not perhaps the best forum or the place to go into details of our border issue, but what I would like to stress here is my government’s readiness and openness to solve this issue in a manner which would be acceptable for both countries, taking into account the interests of both Slovenia and Croatia. That is what I proposed to Miro Cerar about a month and a half ago, because at this a moment we have a good opportunity to do it.

At the same time, those of you who are following this in a little more detail will know that Croatia’s Parliament has withdrawn from the arbitration process that was facilitated by the EU in 2009 in order to unblock 14 chapters of the accession negotiations at a time stalled by Slovenia because of the fact that it was unfortunately the Slovenian representatives who violated the arbitration rules and violated in international law. We were there in good faith and we were investing all our efforts in this.

So what we need to do now is find a compromise where both Slovenia and Croatia can be happy. I am willing to do that. I have the courage to do it, but the only thing I cannot do is close my eyes and say ‘no, everything was okay’. This is something I cannot do. But what I can do is to refrain from any unilateral actions, refrain from making this state-to-state problem into a citizens’ problem. This is what I can do, and some of you know what I mean, and that includes fishermen. Because I do not think that is smart and that is useful. On the contrary, it can create an environment where it will be more difficult to achieve an agreement.

So from my point of view, with a bit of patience, with a bit of a sense and sensibility we can make progress, while refraining from unilateral actions, because even if arbitration was to be considered under international law both countries have to agree for it be implemented. Things are relatively clear to all of those who know a bit more detail. I will do everything in my power to eliminate tensions and ensure that a solution is found. At the same time, let me be very honest and clear with all of you. There are so many other still open bilateral issues among many Member States and they never arrive on the table of the European Council, or the European Parliament. This is something we should remember.

A few points on the social elements that you mentioned. On the social elements it was a very timely initiative that we had in Goteborg, initiated by Sweden. The social pillar principles, 20 of them, are items that we can all improve on a national level. I am in favour of social dialogue with our social partners, both at European and national level.

We have taken account of the fact that minimum wages and the average salary have increased, and that major tax reform which we have undertaken at national level has had an overall positive impact on our citizens, including on the demographic issue by leaving more money to mothers and fathers, by via some additional allowances for those with children and larger families. These include subsidising interest rates on the housing loans and a number of other measures that we have taken in order to address the most critical issue, a structural issue affecting my society at least, and that is the question of demographic revitalisation.

A few points on the Spitzenkandidaten and transnational lists. In the last elections in 2014 I was privileged to be on the list of the Croatian EPP family and I was always mentioning Jean-Claude at every single event we had – and he was more popular than he can imagine! But it took us a lot of effort to communicate to Croatian voters who Jean-Claude was. It wasn’t always easy, it took me a lot of effort, as Dubravka and Ruža and the others know, so my point is that we have to be realistic. We have different budgets for campaigning, we have different legislative frameworks for campaigns. We have an issue of accountability to our constituency.

I am very much, as you can see, a pro-European leader of the Croatian Government, but I need to see that it is the right time and that there is sufficient preparedness. We need to look at things from all aspects. So I advocate the Spitzenkandidaten, absolutely. Are we ready for transnational lists, will they be adequately and fairly represented everywhere across the 27? For that I would need to see a little more concrete evidence that it is feasible. This is what I think from the experiences I have had personally so far and the consultations with my friends.

A few points on the issues of climate change, renewable energy, and the protection of nature. You are right. We are lucky to have such a place in Europe, with all the benefits of being on the Adriatic and the Danube, being a country which is really rich in water and natural resources, but we are also aware of our energy needs. So we are looking at the ecological aspects of every single project in a very detailed manner in dialogue with local communities and in dialogue with the NGOs looking at various projects and various items.

On the Istanbul Convention, which you have mentioned, few people know that Croat experts initiated the whole exercise within the Council of Europe just next door here. Here we signed it in 2013. I don’t know why the Social Democratic government at the time didn’t pass to the step of ratification. It remains a mystery to me because they had two years.

What I have done is ensure we have completed the public consultation. The process of preparing the legislation to forward to Parliament is almost over. Unfortunately, the debate on this Convention which was there, in my view, to protect and prevent violence in the family – especially violence against women – has somehow acquired a different dimension in many public debates, a sort of gender ideology debate which is trying to put a different angle on the substance. I am willing to debate this within the Croatian Parliament, within the political parties and with the public, and try to distinguish the wood from the trees. This is my task ahead in the months which will follow.

Finally, an issue of identity, which was rightly mentioned by Manfred, thank you very much. We have always longed to be part of this European project. It was on the lips of most of the Croats ever since we became independent in 1990. And therefore the national identity which we acquired, in terms of international recognition and finally having our own state after nine centuries, is very strong.

We will nurture it and respect it Ruža, as you know. But at the same time, trying to build this European project from the perspective of a country that is aware of what war means – and luckily most of your generations in your Member States are not aware of this – gives me another argument that this very project should be strengthened by all means, and by consensus if possible.

 
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