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The President of the Council of the European Union, Jean Asselborn, discussed in an interview with the Croatian daily newspaper "Vecernji Lis", the opening of the accession negotiations with Croatia.
Stojan de Prato: Croatia is the first country in the history of EU enlargement who has seen a postponement of the opening of accession negotiations. Does this decision show that further enlargement will be a considerably more difficult process than the previous five waves?
Jean Asselborn: Throughout the enlargement process, each country and each policy issue will be judged on its own merits.
In the case of Croatia, the European Union is not yet satisfied that the country has indeed met a crucial precondition for the start of accession negotiations: full cooperation with the ICTY in The Hague. This condition was clearly set out in the conclusions of the European Council in mid-December and remains relevant.
Stojan de Prato: Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader said that the responsibility for delaying the opening of negotiations lies not with his government, but with the EU, because it has failed to reach a consensus. How do you comment this statement?
Jean Asselborn: The start of negotiations has been delayed because Croatia has failed to convince all member states that it is cooperating fully with ICTY. The message from Brussels is clear: the European Union is not just about economics and trade, but it is also a community of shared values, in which member states must respect their international obligations.
We therefore expect Croatia, over the coming weeks, to step up its efforts and improve cooperation with ICTY. The next few weeks and months will be a crucial time for Croatia during which it needs to demonstrate that it can live up to its commitments.
Stojan de Prato: It is a fact that the member states are at present split over what full cooperation with ICTY means. Some, like Carla del Ponte, insist that it amounts to "Ante Gotovina in custody in Scheveningen". Others say that the greatest possible efforts to find him would suffice. Who will now judge what "full cooperation" means?
Jean Asselborn: The Council of ministers has the sole authority to decide whether the conditions for the opening of negotiations have been met. Since any decision on the opening of negotiations must be taken unanimously, each and every one of the 25 member states needs to be satisfied that Croatia has taken all necessary measures to meet the set conditions.
Stojan de Prato: Carla del Ponte insists that gen. Gotovina is within reach of the Croatian authorities. We have not been able to get confirmation from diplomatic sources that she has shared her information on his hideout or whereabouts with any EU member state. Neither has she shared this information with the Croatian government. Can the fate of one country be decided on the basis of unsubstantiated claims by one woman about one man? Ms. Del Ponte has a history of indictments that have been sent back to her office by the Council of Judges for being too superficial and lacking facts. Will she finally be asked to produce some evidence on the Gotovina case, or will her words again be taken at face value?
Jean Asselborn: We must look at the facts of the matter. For negotiations to start, the Council must be able to establish that Croatia is cooperating in substance, and not just by way of declaration, with ICTY.
The pre-conditions for the start accession negotiations have been known for a very long time. Many of the decisions taken by the Croatian government over the last few weeks - the convening of a special body to track down Gotovina, the freezing of his assets - go in the right direction. It is also important that the Croatian authorities demonstrate that they have a firm grip on their intelligence and police efforts and that there are no obstructions of their work from within the system.
Stojan de Prato: Prime Minister Sanader insists that Croatia is already cooperating fully with the ICTY and cannot therefore further improve its cooperation. You said yourself that a few more weeks of such cooperation might bring an opening of the negotiations. Is there a real possibility that a consensus can be reached at the April GAERC?
Jean Asselborn: The Council of ministers has shown its good will by adopting the negotiating framework for Croatia. We have thereby delivered our part of the bargain and opened the way for Croatia to join the European Union.
The key for the actual start of negotiations now lies with Croatia. Every substantial step or measure that the Croatian government takes over the next few weeks will bring us closer to the start of accession negotiations.
Negotiations might begin in a few weeks, or in a few months, but it makes little sense to talk about a new date before we see further concrete progress by the Croatian government in meeting the conditions for negotiations.
Stojan de Prato: The negotiating framework has nevertheless been approved. What are its main characteristics and in what way does it differ from the framework for the fifth wave of enlargement? How do you envisage the negotiations to proceed once the decision is taken to open them?
Jean Asselborn: According to the adopted negotiating framework, Croatia will need to complete negotiations on 35 chapters, all reflecting different aspects of the acquis communautaire. Previous candidate countries had been given a slightly lower number of chapters, but the Commission believes that the negotiations will be less cumbersome if the most challenging and time-consuming subjects are split into smaller chapters.
Throughout the negotiations, the European Union will also monitor very carefully the fulfilment of the political criteria, such as the respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Stojan de Prato: Is there still a real possibility that the negotiations could be concluded in time for Croatians to vote for the next European Parliament in June 2009?
Jean Asselborn: The year 2009 is a reasonable, albeit a very ambitious target. In order to meet this deadline, Croatia would need to start negotiations this year and complete each step in the process without major hick-ups.
Stojan de Prato: A majority of Croatian citizens think that Croatia has been treated unfairly by the EU in this case and euroscepticism is therefore on the rise. At present, less than half of the population favours EU membership. Is there a fear that Croatia’s turning back from the EU might have negative effects on the region, or even on the EU itself?
Jean Asselborn: Membership in the European Union requires full respect for the rule of law and human rights. There can be no exception to this rule.
I don't think that our decision will have a negative impact on the wider region. On the contrary, the EU has sent a clear message to all political actors throughout the Western Balkans: only the rule of law and coming to terms with the past will pave the way for European integration. The last few months have shown that our policy is bearing fruit, as more and more war crimes indictees are accepting to surrender to the Tribunal in The Hague.
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