Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Ceisteanna (9)

John Bruton

Ceist:

9 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if Croatia fulfils the Copenhagen criteria for membership of the European Union; and if not, the respect in which it is deficient. [9559/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Foreign)

The Government welcomed Croatia's application for membership of the European Union when it was presented in February 2003. At the request of the Council, the Commission is preparing a formal opinion on the application as required under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. This opinion is expected in the near future. If it is positive, Ireland, as EU Presidency, will facilitate its consideration by member states with a view to a possible decision on candidate status by the June European Council.

The Commission's opinion will be based on an assessment of Croatia's progress toward fulfilment of the Copenhagen political criteria for candidate states. These criteria, which were agreed by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993, stipulate that membership requires a candidate country to achieve stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for, and protection of, minorities. Issues of particular importance in Croatia's case will include progress in the wide-ranging institutional reform process, minority rights and the implementation of measures to enable the return of refugees forced to leave their homes during the conflicts of the 1990s. The assessment of Croatia's co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will be crucial.

Croatia has made considerable progress in its reform process and in the development of a functioning market economy in recent years. It signed a stabilisation and association agreement with the European Union in October 2001. In its report last year on progress under the agreement, the Commission noted that Croatia had continued to make progress in the transition process. It concluded that to meet EU political and economic standards further efforts were required to implement the reform agenda and to tackle remaining shortcomings.

The new Government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, which was formed following a general election last December, has made the application for EU membership its top priority. The Taoiseach had discussions with the Prime Minister in Berlin on 9 January. The Croatian Foreign Minister, Dr. Miomir Zuzul, visited Dublin for a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, on 10 February. Deputy Cowen headed the EU Troika which met Dr. Zuzul in Brussels on 23 February. At each meeting, the Croatian Government emphasised its determination to do everything possible to achieve a positive Commission opinion. Prime Minister Sanader and Dr. Zuzul underlined their commitment to strengthening the reform process, improving minority rights and developing regional co-operation. They stated also that they would make every effort to ensure that Croatia fulfilled all its obligations to the tribunal in the Hague.

The EU-western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in June last year agreed that the future of the countries of the region lies in their eventual integration into EU structures. Progress will be made through the European Union's stabilisation and association process for the region which involves the implementation of detailed and wide-ranging reforms. It is accepted that the pace of reform will be different for each of the five countries of the western Balkans and that their eventual membership of the EU will require the development of closer regional co-operation. The progress made by Croatia in its relations with the European Union should, therefore, encourage its neighbours in their own reform processes. It should also contribute to peace and stability in the western Balkans.

While I thank the Minister of State for his lengthy reply, will he answer the question he was asked? Does Croatia fulfil the Copenhagen criteria? If not, in what respect is it deficient?

The Commission will make the decision and the opinion is expected later in the spring.

I am trying to establish the Government's opinion.

Arising from our contacts with Croatia, we accept its bona fides and that it is determined to put in place reform processes, deal with minority rights and develop regional co-operation. There is also the issue of the war crimes tribunal at the Hague and this is an important aspect. I think of a Croatian general, whose name now escapes me. Deputy Bruton has his name.

I do not need his name. If the Minister of State would only answer the question I asked. Where is Croatia deficient in meeting the criteria? It is a simple question.

It is General Gotovina. The reaction of the Croatian Government to this case is crucial. There is an opinion that General Gotovina's case will be a hindrance to the progress made. There are a number of areas in which the Croatians must improve. While the Commission will make the decision, the Government will be anxious to support it in every way possible.

Is the Minister of State aware that theper capita GDP of Croatia is approximately four times that of Bulgaria and Romania, and higher than that in Hungary? Croatia has a well-developed economy and would clearly be a useful contributor to the EU. Will the Minister of State re-read his notes and find out which of the four criteria Croatia is failing to fulfil? The general is not mentioned in criteria, nor is the court. Will the Minister of State take the trouble to establish what criterion Croatia is breaching and let us know?

I will.

This House should know what is the breach, if there is one.

Following a meeting with the foreign affairs committee of the Croatian Parliament a month ago, I noted a concern among members that the decision on Croatia would not be made on the basis of its case or compliance. Members of the committee were concerned that the position of Croatia's neighbours would be taken into account and would serve as an effective block and may delay the decision. I also understood that all the parties contesting the last election were committed to co-operation with the Hague tribunal.

Deputy Bruton has raised an interesting question. As I understand it, the difficulty lies with the army officer, Ante Gotovina, and co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia. The EU is open to every democratic European state. Presumably the difficulty for Croatia lies in meeting democratic standards. Does the Minister of State anticipate that these problems will be overcome so that Croatia will join the EU, presumably with Bulgaria and Romania in 2007?

Deputy Higgins is correct; the major issue is the achievement of a positive Commission decision and it requires co-operation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Britain and the Netherlands have suspended their ratification of the stabilisation and association agreement with Croatia in order to underline their concern on this issue. The Croatian Government has made a good start in co-operating with the tribunal and has improved in a relatively short time. Full co-operation is an obligation on all states in the region.

Deputy Bruton is correct to point to Croatia's economic progress. Reforms have been impressively implemented across a wide range of areas. As far as I am aware, Croatia would be in line for accession along with Bulgaria.