CROATIA AND THE ZERP: FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE END

Zagreb, 13th March 2008 - "The government held a session yesterday, until late at night, and it made the right decision to renounce the fisheries protection zone because the priority for Croatia is the process of accession to the EU", Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said today, at the end of his meeting with President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso.

The ZERP was proclaimed from the beginning of this year, but on 18th February 2008 the European Union asked Croatia not to apply to any of the member states the prohibition imposed by the ZERP.

It was not simple to renounce to the application of the ZERP, an area of 23.870 km2 which is delicate from the fishing point of view because it is characterized from shortage in ichthyic stock.

The parliament voted the renounce of the ZERP with 77 favourable votes on 153 parliamentarians. The European Commission, which welcomes Zagreb's decision, has ensured surveillance of the zone off the Adriatic coast, which Croatia intended to protect with ZERP (ecologic fisheries zone): "Now Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg, will be the one to think the protection of the area," Barroso added.

The president explained that after the resolution of the ZERP issue the accession talks, launched in October 2005, will proceed in accordance with an outline that the commission will draw up by the coming autumn and which could bring the negotiations to a conclusion by 2009, making Croatia the 28th member state of the EU: "If Croatia does all its tasks, we will be able to close the negotiations in 2009, before the end of the mandate of the current commission," Barroso concluded.

Zagreb shall do well its dues, as Barroso said, taking care on important issues as economic reforms, justice system and management of European founds - just some of the 19 chapters of the adhesion treaty which still have to be opened.

The background

Croatia's priorities for 2008 include furthering its Euro-Atlantic accession bids, fighting inflation and maintaining economic growth. The new government will also address the necessary issues for EU reforms.

For Croatia, the beginning of 2008 was marked with the inauguration of the new government -- the tenth since the country's independence. The country's main priorities were summarised in parliament as part of the new government's mandate.

The country is aiming to receive an invitation to NATO in April, and to continue on the path of implementing reforms in order to join the EU in 2010. Sanader said the new cabinet will do everything possible to speed up EU negotiations, which are expected to be closed by the end of this year.

"The government will do everything for ... a quick implementation of reforms and timely adoption of laws," needed to meet EU standards, Sanader said. However, the year's tasks are monumental, and may not be smooth sailing for the country.

EU accession

The country's goal of joining the EU remains a wish for the future. Croatia has not been as successful as expected where negotiations are concerned. Judiciary reform and the fight against corruption remain the biggest problems. Officials in Brussels are not satisfied with the measures the country is using to addresses these problems.

Also, a new EU-Croatia-related problem has popped up. The EU has blocked a number of financial programmes for Croatia, criticising the way the state administration handles these funding opportunities. Many experts have left the ministries and gone into commercial or financial businesses, and EU officials fear that the new, inexperienced candidates might slow the negotiation process even more.

If the country wants to keep in line with its goal of joining the Union in 2009, negotiations must be complete by the end of this year.

ZERP, troubles with Slovenia

Although EU entry is not imminent, Croatia must continue with negotiations and implementing EU measures. One of the main hurdles the country is now facing was the protected fishing zone (ZERP) that was implemented at the beginning of the year.

The zone, which affects EU-members Slovenia and Italy, has been a main major point of contention. As Slovenia is currently holding the EU presidency, the issue has heated up. "If Croatia wants to speed up the negotiations process, it clearly knows what to do," diplomats in Brussels said.

If Croatia refuses to budge on the fishing zone, and does not implement the necessary reforms in time, the country may lose six to nine months in its accession, because the ratification process in member states cannot be launched without the approval of the European Parliament.

Croatia and Slovenia have been unable to agree on a number of territorial issues since they declared their independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. As a result, numerous border incidents have occurred in the past years, including at Piran Bay in the northern Adriatic Sea and in the area of the Mura River.

The fact remains, however, that with so many open issues, Croatia must put forward a massive effort this year in all sectors to get on track for European accession.