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Interests Form The Basis Of Cooperation

Despite Croatia being an advocate for the EU accession of the Western Balkan countries and the fact that it has significant economic cooperation with both Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the structure of its political and economic ties are such that it is only partially connected to the region

The term “Western Balkans” was coined in diplomatic circles during the mid-90s, when proposals for the stabilisation of the territory of the former Yugoslavia began appearing publicly in Europe and around the world.

To put it simply, it emerged as a proposed term to connect the territory that was then referred to as being “to the south of Slovenia and to the north of Greece”. To simplify it even more, the region was tailored to encompass the countries that emerged from the collapse of the former Yugoslavia – with the exception of Slovenia – and Albania.

That proposal was met with fierce resistance in Croatia. Specifically, the 1991 independence of Croatia had been perceived by the Croatian public as the “final parting of ways with the Balkans”. And so it was that this new regional concept, presented immediately after the end of the War of Independence, was welcomed to Croatia ‘with a brandished knife’.

The authorities in Zagreb promptly defined Croatia as a “Central European and Mediterranean country”, with the Balkans as a “neighboring region”. The Constitution was even amended, with a provision added in 1997 stipulating that “It is forbidden to initiate the process of association of the Republic of Croatia into alliances with other states, in which the association would lead, or could lead, to the restoration of Yugoslav state unity, that is, some Balkan state alliance in any form.” And that provision remains in force today.

Croatia today has a greater political and economic presence in the Western Balkans than it had prior to joining the EU, when “fleeing the Balkans” was Croatian political dogma

The topic of regional cooperation has always been viewed with misgivings in Croatia. Even after the early 2000 rise to power of the left-liberal coalition led by the SDP, a party that rose from the ashes of the former League of Communists of Croatia, Zagreb officially remained faithful to the definition of the country as Central European and Mediterranean.

Moreover, efforts aimed at distancing the country from the Balkans were accelerated. As such, it was already in 2003 that Croatia joined CEFTA, the Central European Free Trade Area, which at the time included Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Trade with the Balkan countries was admittedly also liberalised, though bilaterally. Zagreb didn’t hide its opposition to any kind of multilateral trade agreement in Southeast Europe.

Following the 2001 signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, Croatia formally applied for EU membership in 2003 and became a candidate country the following year. It had opened membership negotiations by year’s end 2005, which were concluded in mid-2011.

Croatia joined the EU on 1st July 2013. That was the only case of the Union enlarging to include just one new country since Greece joined in 1981.

Croatia also applied for NATO membership already during the term of the government of PM Ivica Račan. It joined the alliance in 2009, in a “package” with Albania.

It should also be noted that the Euro-Atlantic integration policy was pursued and promoted with equal enthusiasm by the subsequent governments of the reformed HDZ. They also had EU and NATO membership at the top of their list of priorities, while cooperation with the Balkans was made a low priority.

In any case, Western Balkans is were written using quotation marks in Croatia, with the term “Southeast Europe” most often used instead.

Croatia’s flight from the Western Balkans concluded with its EU accession, after which the country has no longer been treated as being part of the region even in official EU documents. And international institutions generally hadn’t classified Croatia as being in the Balkans even prior to that.

With this year’s inclusion in the Eurozone and Schengen Area, Croatia has been integrated even more deeply into the EU. And yet, cooperation with the Western Balkans remains important to Croatia

The growing importance of other EU member states to the Croatian economy coincided with the country’s accession to the EU. As such, according to data from the Croatian Bureau of Statistics (DZS), the share of EU member states in Croatia’s total exports increased from 58.3% in 2012 to 68.9% last year. The EU’s contribution to Croatian imports also leapt from 62.3% in 2012 to 70.6% last year.

Nevertheless, the importance of CEFTA members hasn’t changed significantly compared to the period prior to EU accession, which confirms that the Western Balkan market remains important to Croatian companies. As such, according to DZS statistics, CEFTA’s share of total Croatian exports stood at 20.8% in 2012 and 19.1% last year. On the import side, CEFTA contributed 6.2% in 2012 and 7.4% a decade later.

Interestingly, the lion’s share of Croatia’s trade exchange with CEFTA members is conducted with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, which still rank among Croatia’s most important foreign trade partners.

With this year’s inclusion in the Eurozone and Schengen Area, Croatia has been integrated even more deeply into the EU. And yet, cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans remains important to Croatia.

For example, Zagreb has been stressing for years that it supports the EU accession of all countries of the region. Despite demands on the Croatian political scene that the resolving of outstanding issues from the past be set as a precondition for the EU accession of the Western Balkan countries – particularly Serbia – to date no Croatian government has done so. And it doesn’t appear as though they ever will, because the official position is that bilateral issues should not be bundled together with the accession process.

Whatever the case, it can be stated that Croatia today has a greater political and economic presence in the Western Balkans than it had prior to joining the EU, when “fleeing the Balkans” was Croatian political dogma. The prevailing view in Zagreb today is that it is in Croatia’s best interest to have a stable neighborhood that’s integrated into the EU.

The bottom line is that it’s no exaggeration to say that Croatia only “discovered” the Balkans after joining the EU. Something similar also happened to Slovenia, which had fled the Balkans before joining the EU, only to close the circle by having a presence in the region that’s stronger than ever.

Statistics

The lion’s share of Croatia’s trade exchange with CEFTA members is conducted with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, while the bloc’s other members are represented significantly less.

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