On the eve of Croatia’s Accession to the EU, DIPLOMAT magazine spoke to the country’s President, Ivo Josipović, about how Croatia’s transition from war to peace has allowed the country to change substantially from what it was 15 years ago into a fully fledged member of the EU
1) Do you believe that Croatia is now fully ready for EU membership? Can the country meet the goals that the EU has set without repeating the problems that Romania and Bulgaria have had in recent years? Is Croatia’s economy prepared for the challenges of EU membership?
If you are asking me if Croatia is now a perfect country, my answer is clearly no! But other countries are far from perfect too.
Yes, I think we are ready for EU membership despite our various problems. We cannot compete with Germany and it is not necessary to, but if we compare ourselves with other EU countries, then I think we compare well. There are no guarantees that we will be Germany or Great Britain in 10 or 15 years time, but we will definitely be a solid and prosperous European country.
In terms of Human Rights, I think Croatia has improved a lot. If we consider the fight against corruption, Croatia is incomparable today to what it was five years ago. Everyone who was and is involved in corruption will be prosecuted. I think that change is visible and it is also seen in Romania, Bulgaria and other South East European countries.
2) You talked about the progress that’s been made on corruption, but the latest Ernst and Young report on corruption ‘Navigating Today’s Complex Business Risks’ found that Croatia had the second highest rate of corruption in Europe.
It’s not realistic, neither Croatia nor Slovenia (also listed) are top corrupted countries. Yes, we have had problems with corruption and we still have problems with corruption, but we are far from being a top corrupted country, so I would like to see the methodology that Ernst and Young used. It’s simply a fact that the EU would not have signed a treaty with a country as corrupt as this report suggests.
3) Other surveys like the World Bank still rate Croatia rather low on several measures. Are you not concerned that this could hamper your ability to attract foreign investment?
This is a real problem for Croatia, and one the government is well aware of. New legislation has been enacted and we are motivated by strategic investments. Aside from corruption, slow and complicated administrative procedures are also another problem. A stable tax system should be enacted and we must have a better strategy for Croatia’s investors. We also have to change the mindset of our citizens; people must understand that new investments are the only way to increase our economy. But I think we are on the right track. The government’s new legislation and investment plans look optimistic.
4) Croatia had to make some painful reforms when it wanted to join the EU. The EU is now in a process of reform. What would you like to see changed in the EU and secondly, what is your view on the Conservative government’s idea of renegotiating its relationship with Europe?
The EU needs the different approaches by its members and I don’t think it is surprising that different countries have different views on both the EU’s future and its present situation. I think it is one of the benefits of democracy.
From time to time we read in the media that Great Britain is going to leave the EU, but I’ve been informed by your Ministers that this is very far from reality.
I think that the EU should consider whether all administration, bureaucracy and low level decisions are really necessary on the European level or whether it should be left to different states instead. If we are managing or tuning our own states, why don’t we do the same with the EU?
In my view, generally speaking, in the next decade we will have more Europe, not less Europe but it is likely that there will be a time when ambitions to regulate everything will decrease.
5) What do you think is the most important value that Croatia will bring to the EU?
We are not a big economy so our participation will be visible but not decisive. We are going to bring our important and interesting cultural heritage along with the natural beauty of the country. We are going to bring a society of good will, which I think is very important; our crime rates are relatively low, and we have a very open society that is accepting of foreigners.
Finally, we can be part of a roadmap to peace. The EU will not be complete without the membership of other South East European countries. Unlike other member states, Croatia has a unique historical, social, cultural and political connection to these countries, thus we are in a strong position to support and motivate these countries towards their own membership to the EU.
6) Vice President of the European Commission, Baroness Ashton recently praised Croatia’s entry to the EU, saying that its accession would benefit all the Balkan states at their various stages of wanting to join. Do you see Croatia as a leader in the region, possibly as a mentor to countries like Serbia?
Bearing in mind the situation in the region, I try to avoid the word ‘leader’. I prefer the word ‘partnership’ and Croatia can definitely be part of a new chain of new partnerships between the EU and other South Eastern European countries.
Yes, I think we can have an important role in the region. I think it is in Croatia’s strategic interest, but also in the EU’s interest to link it to all South Eastern European countries because Europe is not complete without them. They will need some time to meet the criteria, but they have good will and could make it a relatively quick process. The main obstacle for them is, of course, their internal problems, but they can only resolve these issues by themselves. I think our task is to support and motivate these countries and to make them understand that the EU is the future.
7) You say that Croatia can act as a bridge between the EU and other Balkan countries but do you think those other Balkan countries can aspire to membership within a reasonable and reasonable time frame? Some argue that given the shift in mood in the EU towards enlargement that Croatia may just have sneaked in before the door closes to anyone else for a very long time.
The President of the EU came to the conclusion that the EU is interested in enlargement, so we should listen to him, not to what other sources say.
8) Mr President, what else does Croatia have to offer economically, aside from tourism or football?
Firstly, we have a strategic position in terms of transportation from East to West. Goods traditionally travelling via the Suez Channel and around the Mediterranean to Hamburg or Rotterdam, can save between seven to 10 days if the same route ends in Croatia’s port, Rijeka.
Croatia can also have an important role in the energy sphere, not only in its transportation, but also because there are signs the country has significant amounts of oil and gas. Soon the tender will be announced for research of Croatia’s oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean and on the land.
Croatia also has the capacity for good agriculture, especially healthy food. But it is important that we increase our agricultural capabilities going forward. We have a good ICT sector competing not only in Croatia but also in the US. Mid-sized firms like ŠESTAN-BUSCH, specialise in military equipment. Guns and rifles are exported to the US by another leading Croatian military company. Croatia is also starting to regain capabilities that we lost after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, which will open us to other possibilities.
9) Which EU countries will invest in Croatia?
I really expect Great Britain to invest not only because of our football but because of pure interest. Of course, part of this expectation is based on the need to restructure our laws and our economy but I hope that we are going to be successful. We’ve also had a lot of interest from Turkey, Russia, China and other big markets. We already have investors from Italy, Hungary, Austria and the US.
10) UK-Croatia trade rates are pretty low. What can be done from the Croatian side to improve on this?
Firstly, all our measures or reforms are not meant solely for the benefit of the UK, we are improving our legislation to appeal to all investors.
The state can motivate people but I think that the enterprises should be more on the ball. They should have more information about our market and I would stress that the state is to establish the framework and to motivate and then the enterprise must come in.
11) Are you saying that Croatian entrepreneurs aren’t doing enough?
I think that enterprise is not developing on a cultural level. We missed several decades during socialism and now we have to motivate, young people in particular, to accept entrepreneurship. It is not easy.
12) Croatia is eligible to receive significant funds via EU structural funding. Is the country ready? Does it have the administrative capacity to absorb these funds properly and if so, what areas are you expecting them to flow in to?
There is optimism in Croatia and everyone is thinking about European funds, from small enterprises selling bread to large, transnational companies. I think the most important goals will be achieved with the money for infrastructure, which is very important. We are thinking about a new bridge, an irrigation system for agriculture, which is also very important. Some money may go to tourism corporations, and science and education as well. We have many needs and it’s not going to be hard to spend the money.
13) The problem doesn’t seem to be one of the foreign perceptions of Croatia, which are very positive. But when you speak to the Croatians themselves, they’ll often tell you about how bad everything is.
Yes, it’s a psychological issue, especially with the unemployed. If people are not satisfied with the present situation then we have to fight for a better society. On the one hand, I would like our government and officials to listen carefully to the requests or complaints of the people, and on the other, I hope that those people will encourage the government to perform better.
I’m happy that you mentioned tourism. More and more Brits are coming to Croatia, many of whom are buying second homes. The Brits are fairly demanding, which is good for us, as it ensures that we must maintain certain standards.
14) Will you be supporting Serbia’s entry into the EU?
Definitely, Serbia’s entry into the EU is in our strategic interest, and we have a declaration by our party that we are going to support all countries.
15) Obviously relations with Serbia’s President Nikolic haven’t always been good. Did he accept your invitation to Croatia’s accession event on 30 June?
I have no information about the President’s response, but I hope that he accepts. The media always ask about icy relations between Serbia and Croatia. There has been a visible change in the past five years: we are discussing sensitive issues and we are working together to find missing people. There is significant cooperation now – we even have a military agreement with Serbia regarding refugees, borders etc, and all these issues are being handled in good spirit.
I have had the opportunity to meet President Nikolic on several occasions, including at the Olympics, and very soon we are going to meet again in Macedonia and Slovakia for meetings. He and the Prime Minister are invited to the celebrations and I hope they will be there.
16) What is your opinion on that agreement between Kosovo and Serbia?
The agreement between the two countries is very positive, but now it must be put in to practice. If this is done correctly, I think it will be the beginning of other agreements that will make this region more and more peaceful and successful, so my compliments go to Serbia and to Kosovo for it.