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Slovenia: Maritime dispute unlikely to obstruct Croatian EU membership ambitions
10 November 2003

The Slovenian Government is facing strong pressure from opposition leaders and some members of the governing parties to take a tougher stance on Croatia's decision, taken on 3 October, to extend its territorial jurisdiction in the Adriatic Sea. In particular there have been calls for Slovenia to use its future membership of the European Union as leverage against Zagreb, which will need Slovenia's support to start membership talks. However, it is unlikely that Ljubljana will take such a drastic step. While Slovenia has strong moral rights in the case, Croatia has the stronger legal position and moves to use EU accession as a stick would be unjustifiable. Instead, Slovenia is likely to pursue a more moderate policy of multilateral discussions among the countries of the region, even after its accession to the European Union in May 2004.

Croatia pursues maritime expansion

Tensions between Croatia and Slovenia have escalated following an announcement, on 1 August, from the Croatian Agriculture Ministry that Croatia intended to proclaim its rights to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Adriatic. Although Slovenia has only forty seven kilometres of coastline, access to international waters has symbolic significance for the country and thus the decision by Croatia has been met by a diplomatic offensive from Ljubljana, which has raised the matter with EU officials and with member-state embassies and even briefly recalled its ambassador in Zagreb 'for consultations' on 31 August, only to send him back as a gesture of goodwill. Soon afterwards delegations from the two countries agreed that maritime issues should be discussed at an EU conference in Venice in late November.

However, on 3 October, the Croatian Parliament nonetheless went ahead and proclaimed a somewhat ambiguous 'fishing and ecological' zone. Although an EEZ was not proclaimed, as previously announced, it is still not clear whether Slovenia will have access to the high seas. Moreover, the move also appears to close all hopes of reviving the 2001 agreement governing the demarcation of territorial waters in the Piran Bay, which had earlier been rejected by the Croatian parliament on the grounds that it had compromised Croatian national interests. (In fact many observers agreed that the agreement had been very favourable to Slovenia as it effectively envisioned new border line to furnish the neighbouring Slovenia with a narrow sea corridor to international waters in the Adriatic.)

Slovenian will respond in a 'European manner'

A month after Croatia's declaration of fishing and ecological zone, it appears that two clear blocks have formed in Slovenia regarding the type of response that should be employed. The opposition advocates immediate modifications to the maritime regulations that would allow Slovenia to declare an exclusive economic zone of its own. On the extreme section of Slovenia's political spectrum, Zmago Jelincic, leader of the right-wing Slovenian National Party (SNS), is provocatively proposing what many Slovenians privately think, namely that Slovenia should obstruct Croatia's future EU accession after it joins the Union. Also, some members of the establishment share the opposition view. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel and Agriculture Minister Franci have also threatened to withdraw previous support for Croatia's aspiration to join the EU in 2007, together with Romania and Bulgaria.

However, the government bloc - particularly President Drnovsek and Prime Minister Anton Rop - have emphasized that Slovenia requires a sensible response and that any unilateral measures are unacceptable. In their view, Slovenia should support Croatia's bid to join the EU irrespective of the disagreements between Ljubljana and Zagreb. Most of the media also support the government's official position that Slovenia must act prudently, in 'a European manner', and promote Croatia's EU membership on the basis that obstructing Croatia's EU ambitions would lead to unnecessary tensions whereas supporting Croatia's accession to the Union would ultimately benefit Slovenia.

Weak legal position also reduces chance of veto

Still, some observers believe that after becoming a full EU member Slovenia is likely to lean towards the opposition line of threatening to use its considerable political leverage to exercise a veto to Croatia's EU membership. Some have even drawn parallels with Cyprus, which many feel could try to veto consideration of Turkey's membership of the European Union if a settlement to the island's continued division is still not reached by the time Cyprus joins the Union, alongside Slovenia and eight other states, in May 2004. However, it is more likely that the Slovenia Government will try to negotiate in good faith and reach a mutually acceptable compromise, rather than threaten punitive actions against Zagreb.

For a start there would be little justification for threats. From a legal standpoint, Croatia is acting in accordance with its rights. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a coastal state is able to assert its exclusive right to manage all natural resources in a band up to 200 nautical miles from its shore. Although, the convention does make it clear that any decision of this nature should be made in cooperation with all interested parties and not unilaterally, Slovenian politicians have made it clear that they do not feel particularly confident about their chances if they were to dispute the decision and call for international arbitration. Indeed, the European Union only noted its 'regret' at the Croatian decision - a move that served as a rude awakening for the Slovenians, who had expected stronger support given its impending membership of the bloc.

Therefore, given its weak legal position, Slovenia is instead likely to pursue its case through political channels and bring about a multilateral discussion among the countries of the Adriatic about territorial waters within the framework of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative, which is currently chaired by Slovenia. This approach will offer the benefit of drawing in Italy, which is also displeased about Croatia's move. In any case, the Slovenes are unlikely to go so far as to veto consideration of Croatia's EU membership negotiations over the issue.

Biljana Radonjic

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