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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg December 1, 2020

Croatia’s Presidency of the European Union and the Western Balkans . A New Momentum or a Missed Opportunity?

Tihomir Cipek

Abstract

This text will reconstruct the main determinants of Croatia’s foreign policy to the European Union (EU) and the Western Balkans. It will demonstrate why, after joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the EU, Croatia needs a new foreign policy goal. I will advocate a thesis that Croatia is looking for a place of its own within the EU, but that it has not yet managed to find it due to its dual foreign policies approach—the government’s, which was pro-European, and that of the previous president of the country, which was pro-American. The election of the new president and the presidency of the EU has given Croatia a chance to set a new goal for its foreign policy. Specifically, in its focus on Europe, could Croatia’s new role be found in guiding the enlargement process in the Western Balkans?

Croatia’s Accession to the European Union

After the coalition of left-liberal parties won the election in 2000, the main foreign policy goal of Croatian political elites was to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). This was understood as the project that would definitely set Croatia apart from the Balkans, ‘bring it back to Europe’, and guarantee its safety and economic development. This was the goal over which the two leading Croatian parties—the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Croatia (Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske, SDP)—managed to reach a consensus. Consequently, the Republic of Croatia signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in 2001. It applied to become an EU member in 2003 and was officially granted candidate status by the EU institutions in 2004. Accession negotiations began in 2005 and were successfully finalised on 30 June 2011 despite an initial blockade by Slovenia, which used its position to resolve a border issue with Croatia—On 9 December of the same year, Croatia signed the Treaty of Accession.

Once negotiations were finally concluded after ten years, Croatia’s reason for entering the EU was not as clear anymore, especially since the Eurozone was experiencing a substantial debt crisis. Many Croats feared Croatia would lose its sovereignty and once again become part of a supranational entity. [1]Political elites became aware of a growing Euroscepticism and decided to change the constitutional provision that mandated a referendum before entering into an alliance with other countries. A study from November 2010 (i. e. a year before the referendum) predicted the referendum turnout would be around 50 %, with 64 % voting in favour of EU membership and 29 % against it. In response, the Croatian Parliament changed the rules for referendum validity and eliminated the regulation that at least 50 % of all registered voters must vote in the referendum in July 2011. ‘The referendum on EU accession was held on 22 January 2012; the turnout was 43.5 %, of which 66 % voted in favour of joining the Union, and 33.1 % was against it.’ [2] The referendum turnout was 11 % lower than the turnout for the parliamentary elections held a month and a half earlier, on 4 December 2011. With this low turnout, Croatian citizens broke the previous lowest referendum turnout for EU membership held by Hungary in April 2003, in which only 45.6 % of the electorate took part. [3] Croatia’s low turnout happened despite the political elite’s narrative that joining the EU would signify a return to its ‘natural surroundings’, or rather a final departure from the Balkans. This discourse was clearly meant to flatter the Croatian public and convince them that Croatia’s accession to the EU is a process of recognising the European characteristics that the country always had, instead of a process in which Croatian state institutions are fulfilling prescribed economic, legal and political requirements. In other words, a process of building effective state institutions based on liberal-democratic values. Considering the attitude of a large part of the Croatian public was indifferent towards EU membership, the political and economic elites were forced to construct a reality and change statutory provisions. Without the change to the constitutional provisions regarding referendum turnout, Croatia’s referendum on joining the EU would not have been a success. However, this does not mean that Croats are big Euro-sceptics. When it comes to the EU, Croatian citizens are actually quite indifferent.

Euro-Indifference in Croatia

A good description of the Croatian public’s attitude towards the EU, but also that of other nations in Southeastern Europe, was provided by Dejan Jović who defined it as ‘Euro-indifference’. [4] The term implies that the majority of the public is neither for nor against the EU, but considers their country’s accession to be an unavoidable process that they cannot do anything about. ‘Results of the referendum on the EU show that Croatia is primarily a Euro-indifferent, and not an especially Euro-sceptic or Euro-enthusiastic country. In this, it increasingly resembles current EU member states, as well as many other candidate and potential candidate countries.’ [5] Many citizens are aware that their respective countries are not—nor can they be—active players in international politics as such. That is why EU accession is simply accepted as a process that is entirely in the EU’s hands. Croatian accession to the EU in 2013 was primarily experienced emotionally, not rationally. This stemmed from an understanding of national identity and not of material interests. [6] Such attitude of Croatian citizens was explained by the features of the government’s campaign for joining the EU aimed at their emotions, but failed to highlight Croatia’s interest in joining up. Also counterproductive were the messages that Croatia would face an economic collapse unless it became an EU member. Today, the Croatian public thinks that the EU is divided into a core that profits from the Union, and a periphery that must abide by the interest of the core. [7] This attitude was also revealed by the 2019 European elections in Croatia. The consensus was that Croatian membership to the EU was good, and the magic words—European funds—were especially convincing. It is namely clear that Croatia received more funds than it invests in the budget. [8] Of course, other indicators such as foreign investments and the GDP growth are not so unambiguous. “After six long years of recession, in 2015 Croatia managed to realise real GDP growth of 2.4 percent. Economic recovery continued in 2016 and 2017. Despite this fact, it should be noted that real production (GDP) in 2017 is still lower compared to the 2008 level”. [9] There is also a demographic deficit caused by massive emigration from the country, as well as a trade deficit. But, despite all of this, the majority of Croatian citizens support EU membership. For one, this can be deduced from the election results for the European Parliament, in which Eurosceptic parties did not do well. [10] However, it is also a fact that a new wave of Croatian nationalism is gaining strength; by chasing the ghost of the past—‘commies’, ‘Yugoslavs’, and ‘Serbs’—it is actually protesting against the basic values of the Enlightenment and liberalism. [11] But so far, this nationalism has not succeeded in forming a strong party of the radical anti-European right. What has become clear is that radically-Catholic and nationalist civil society organisations are growing stronger. But even those organisations do not generally deny the need for Croatia to be part of the EU; they just ask that the Union returns to ‘Christian roots’ and becomes antiliberal. They are trying to tear down the achievements of Croatian republicanism and, more broadly, deny the contemporary attainments of the Enlightenment and the social consensus that has been achieved by the centre-right and centre-left parties in Europe. What is actually happening is that populist parties, and not only Croatian ones, are attacking the ideological core of the EU. Namely, not just the economic community that is the EU, but as a community of ideas and political values.

Two Croatian Foreign Policies

According to the Croatian constitution, foreign policy is led by the government and the president of the country. Of course, the assumption is that they would work in close cooperation and in mutual agreement. What is interesting is that, in spite of being from the same party, the prime minister Andrej Plenković (since 2016) and the president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović (from 2015 to 2020) have led quite different foreign policies. The president was the candidate of the radically-right part of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), led by Tomislav Karamarko. She conducted a policy of catering to the right-wing of Croatian politics, supporting the conservative referenda of the organisation U ime obitelji (In the name of the family) and the radically-right politics of nationality and security. Typically for Croatian radically-conservative politics, she supported the US and president Trump, singling them out as a role model to be followed.

In internal affairs she pushed for the privatisation of all public goods, including the healthcare system, and in foreign policy she clearly followed US interests. First of all, she constantly highlighted the Three Seas Initiative (Baltic, Black and Adriatic Sea), whose realisation would have effectuated some sort of a new wall towards Russia and turned the involved countries into permanent border guards of Europe. Secondly, she supported the idea of ‘new sovereignty’, which was code for US protectionism and renouncement of support for global institutions. his policy has manifested for example in the US cutting ties with the World Health Organisation. Thirdly, she fully followed US policy in the region. When the United States decided to support Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia who was seen as the politician to accomplish an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, Grabar Kitarović invited him for an official visit without squaring it first with the government, or rather with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some coordination did occur later, but the public was left with a strong impression that the country was leading different politics. [12] Fourth, despite organising the visit of the Serbian president, in her public appearances she emphasised that Croatia should not have anything to do with the countries in the region, and that it should form stronger ties with the countries of the Visegrad Group.

On the other side, prime minister Andrej Plenković led an unambiguously pro-European government. As current president of HDZ, he politically came of age in EU institutions and used to be a representative in the European Parliament. The EU was considered to be the proper institutional space in which Croatia should operate. Firstly, the government has tried to follow the European Commission’s policies related to development funds. Secondly, the importance of all European declarations have been highlighted, especially those that repeated the inane mantra about two equivalent totalitarianisms. [13] Thirdly, the government constantly tried to demonstrate that Euro-scepticism has no real foundation in Croatia, emphasised by rightly pointed out that Croatia received more money from EU funds than it paid into them. The fourth point is that the government could not openly oppose the US plan for the Three Seas, but it also did not support it. Lastly, as far as the EU’s enlargement policy, the government stood firmly by it. Joining the Schengen area is in Croatia’s interest, and the enlargement policy assist in achieving that.

Due to a lack of foreign policy coordination between the president and the prime minister, Croatia has usually opted for a policy of silence, or rather of non-antagonisation. This has gone so far that the public often claimed that Croatia had no foreign policy of its own. [14] It seems that, since joining the NATO in 2009 and the EU in 2013, Croatia has not managed to find a clear foreign policy goal.

The situation changed after Grabar Kitarović, as HDZ’s candidate, lost the presidential election at the end of 2019. The winner was the candidate with backing from the Social Democratic Party and other centre-left parties, Zoran Milanović. He has promised to run a foreign policy in coordination with the EU, spoke critically about the previous president’s policies including the Tree Seas initiative, and was also decidedly critical of Serbia’s politics as well as those of other countries in the region. It seems that Milanović will pursue a policy of trying to find a niche in which Croatia could be affirmed as a capable member of the EU. In their basic outline, the policies of the president and the prime minister do not really differ. Both think the emphasis of Croatia’s foreign policy should be on work within the institutions of the EU. A chance to develop a policy that would show Croatia affirming itself as an expert for the countries of the Western Balkan, and thus also for EU enlargement in the region, was provided by the Croatian presidency of the EU. Paradoxically, it seems that, while still part of the Western Balkans, Croatia was qualified to understand it. Now that it left the Balkans to join the EU, its foreign policy is struggling to find its place in what it likes to call its ‘natural’ environment—Central Europe and the Mediterranean. But it is not succeeding. Member states of the Visegrad Group remain cold towards Croatia’s occasionally exhibited desires at rapprochement, which reaffirms the impression that Croatia is lost in its own foreign policy.

Expert for the Western Balkans. A New Goal of Croatia’s Foreign Policy?

Croatia was thus left to focus on the same thing that it did before it entered the EU—the Western Balkans—even though its entry into the EU was supposed to mean that it was ‘leaving the Balkans’. It found itself in a paradoxical situation of wanting to have influence in the region it had left. Paradoxically, but true, Croatia lost a part of its influence in the Western Balkans precisely because it no longer belonged to this group of countries, and was thus forced to come up with a different strategy towards the region—this time, in coordination with other EU countries. [15] In forming its new foreign policy goal, Croatia can embrace one of the foreign policy strategies available to small countries, ‘which do not have the instruments to shape the international environment’. [16]

Croatian political scientist Dejan Jović firmly points to Hill’s theses. [17] He quotes Hill’s theory that, when it comes to foreign policy, small countries have the following possibilities: 1) foreign policy that is focused on preservation, or rather survival; 2) multilateralism as a form of shelter in international relations; 3) foreign policy focused on one specific task, meaning specialisation or a niche; and 4) foreign policy of silence (quietism). [18] Seeing how Croatia definitely belongs to the group of small countries, the most appropriate political strategies in the current circumstances seem to have been the strategy of silence, or now turning towards finding a foreign policy niche in which it can affirm itself.

After achieving its foreign policy goals of joining the NATO (1 April 2009) and the EU (1 July 2013), Croatia has not manage to find a new goal for its foreign policy, which has led it to the strategy of silence. Happy to be ‘out of the Balkans’, it initially did not consider the possibility of specialising precisely in the region of Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia). Today, Croatian foreign policy is facing the following question: can it, and does it want to, specialise in a specific area? Can it become the EU member specialised in the enlargement into the Western Balkans, or rather for the development of cooperation in this region? Of course, this decision is also a matter of Croatia’s internal affairs. Parties of the centre-right and left are disposed to pro-European policies and the development of regional cooperation, while the radical-right has built its politics on fomenting conflict in the region, particularly with Serbia.

Croatian presidency of the EU (from 1 January 2020 to 30 June 2020) has posed new challenges for its politics. At the forefront was further enlargement of the EU to the region. This is an issue that is strongly connected with the EU’s global ambitions and its place in the system of international relations in which an increasingly important part is played by China. [19] The new system of international relations is also reflected in the situation of the region. In addition to the EU and the US, the Western Balkans are increasingly marked by the presence of Russia, China and Turkey. This has also affected the attitude of Croatia’s foreign policy towards EU enlargement into the Western Balkans. Croatia has decided to stand firmly behind the enlargement process, leading to trying to find its niche as a country that understands the circumstances in the region.

The Goals of the Croatian EU Presidency

Almost all the priorities of Croatia’s EU presidency—‘Europe that develops, Europe that connects, Europe that protects, and Influential Europe’—received heavy blows on a daily basis, perhaps the heaviest in the history of the EU. Already in its early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU’s most important achievements were overturned. Overnight member states independently and without agreement at the European level closed the Schengen borders to protect their territories and their citizens. States have limited or banned the export of medical equipment to other member states in order to secure enough medical supplies for their own citizens. Some states have initiated overt campaigns of buying and selling only domestic products, while the free market has been put on hold. In the eyes of millions of Europeans, the ‘Influential Europe’ disappeared overnight while anticipating any kind of reaction from its institutions. A similar fate was suffered by the key goals set by Croatia at the beginning of its EU presidency. ‘As well as its basic priorities, the Republic of Croatia will be placing focus on the following issues during its upcoming Presidency: a) An ambitious, sustainable and balanced Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021–2027, b) Implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, c) Stopping negative demographic trends Connectivity: the Trans-European Transport Network and the CEF (Connecting Europe Facility), d) Implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, f) Security, strategic guidelines for free, safe and just European Union, g) Enlargement policy and the EU-Western Balkans summit, h) Green Europe and a ‘Green Deal’, i) New job markets, the importance of knowledge, education, innovation and lifelong learning, j) Connecting the EU with the public, particularly young people, k) Democratisation, the fundamental values of the Union, the fight against fake news, intolerance and disinformation on digital platforms.’ [20] This turned out to be a mere recital of all the challenges facing the EU today, without any particularly original contribution from Croatia.

Still, as the central event of its presidency, the Croatian government planned a summit in Zagreb, May 2020, inviting all EU heads of governments and states. The purpose was to use this meeting to highlight the need for the countries of the Western Balkans—North Macedonia and Albania in particular—to become members of the EU. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting was held online and its conclusions were disappointing for the Western Balkan states. In fact, the 2000 EU summit held in Zagreb was much more forthright in promising to enlarge and accept Western Balkan countries as its members than this one, held twenty years later. ‘The European Union confirms its wish to contribute to the consolidation of democracy and to give its resolute support to the process of reconciliation and cooperation between the countries concerned. It reaffirms the European perspective of the countries participating in the stabilization and association process and their status as potential candidates for membership in accordance with the Feira conclusions.’ [21] Even more clearly: ‘This stabilization and association process is at the heart of the Union’s policy towards the five countries concerned. It takes account of the situation of each country and is based on respect for the conditions defined by the Council on 29 April 1997 concerning democratic, economic and institutional reforms. On the basis of these criteria, the Union proposes an individualized approach to each of these countries, the content of which appears in the Annex. The prospect of accession is offered on the basis of the provision of the Treaty on EU, respect for the criteria defined at the Copenhagen European Council in June 1993 and the progress made in implementing the stabilization and association agreements, in particular on regional cooperation.’ [22] Namely, it has become clear that the enthusiasm around EU enlargement emerged precisely at the time when the region came under the increasing influence of Russia, China and Turkey.

Besides the hesitation and reluctance on the part of France and the Netherlands regarding the opening of accession talks voiced in October 2019, another obstacle to EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is the state of democracy in those countries. [23] What is especially interesting is that, unlike the previous situations when the process of negotiating and meeting conditions for joining the EU also brought the development of democracy in member states, the Western Balkans went through a reverse process. For example, according to the Freedom House study Nations in Transit 2020, the level of democracy in the Western Balkans even regressed. [24] It appears that Montenegro, which has been negotiating for admission since 2012 and has opened 32 negotiating chapters—meaning all but the one on competition policy—did not experience any development of democracy. The situation is similar in Serbia, which began membership negotiations in 2014. According to the Freedom House report, these countries were semi-consolidated democracies but ‘recently dropped into the Transitional/Hybrid Regime category’. Furthermore, ‘Montenegro joined Serbia in leaving the group of democracies in the 2019 report, after hovering above the threshold for a decade. Both countries registered further declines.’ [25]

Table 1

State of democracy in the Western Balkans and Croatia in 2020

CountryTotal ScoreDemocracy PercentageDemocracy Score
Albania47 Transitional or Hybrid Regime47.023.82
Bosnia and Herzegovina39 Transitional or Hybrid Regime38.693.32
Kosovo36 Transitional or Hybrid Regime36.313.18
Montenegro48 Transitional or Hybrid Regime47.623.86
North Macedonia46 Transitional or Hybrid Regime45.833.75
Serbia49 Transitional or Hybrid Regime49.403.96
Croatia54 Semi-Consolidated Democracy54.174.25

  1. Source: Zselyke Csaky, Nations in Transit 2020. Dropping the Democratic Facade, Freedom House, 6 May 2020, 24–25, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/05062020_FH_NIT2020_vfinal.pdf.

Paradoxically, studies have shown that countries that did not open membership negotiations achieved more progress in terms of democracy than those that met the conditions for accession. ‘Positive news emerged elsewhere in the Balkans, as Kosovo and North Macedonia earned multiple score improvements. Kosovo is the only country in the report’s coverage area to secure gains in each of the last five years. Still, recent developments in both countries have cast doubt on future progress.’ [26]

It should be noted that transitional/hybrid regimes have a democracy score between 3.01 and 4.00 on the Freedom House scale. Countries with this score are electoral democracies, but their democratic institutions are fragile and there are significant challenges in protecting political rights and civil liberties. It is interesting that Slovenia, as a consolidated democracy with a score of 5.93, is included in the same group as the democratic countries of Western Europe. According to the same study, Russia had a score of 1.39, and was grouped in with the consolidated authoritarian regimes. The report also stated that Hungary, an EU member state with the level of a consolidated democracy and a score of 5.61, has fallen to the level of a transitional/hybrid regime with a 3.96 score. [27] These Freedom House studies thus show that EU membership does not in itself guarantee a development of democracy. Despite years-long membership in the Union, part of the public in Eastern European countries is having trouble accepting the liberal features of democracy. [28]

The process of accepting new members into the EU is plagued by challenges. It seems that there is at least some truth to the thesis that we are witnessing a play in which the EU is pretending to want to spread to the Western Balkans, while those countries are pretending to want to introduce reforms. However, not all countries in the region, or rather their general public, have the same attitude toward the EU. [29] The biggest enthusiasm for joining the EU is displayed by Albania and Kosovo, while Slavic countries in the region are showing less and less ambition. The attitude that prevails among the general public in these countries, especially in Serbia, is Euro-indifference. There is no great opposition to accession, but not much enthusiasm either. The accession is viewed as a process which cannot and should not be resisted, but one which depends entirely on the decisions of the EU central states. This opinion is not baseless, but it does not account for individual responsibility of democratic and economic development. A possible solution can be found in renewing the process of negotiation and a long-term strengthening of democratic values through civil society, but also through the respective political institutions.

Croatia’s EU presidency remained in the shadow of the crisis caused by the coronavirus, but there is no doubt that Croatia tried to prove itself as an expert for EU enlargement to the region. This is where it saw its foreign policy niche. Croatian diplomacy considers the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in March 2020 to be the great success of its presidency. [30] On 24 March 2020, EU ministers in charge of European issues reached a political agreement on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. [31] Another thing that Croatian diplomacy counts to its success is the revised methodology for EU membership negotiation. [32] It was emphasised that, with these new rules, the European Commission is trying to open up new prospects for the Western Balkans. Another accomplishment is the establishment of an EU fund for helping the Western Balkan countries fight against the crisis caused by the pandemic. The EU has earmarked a financial aid package of more than 3.3 billion euros. It was stressed that the way in which the EU and the Western Balkans have been dealing with the pandemic is proof that challenges are easier to overcome together. [33]

Despite the disappointing conclusions for the Western Balkan states, the Zagreb Declaration of 6 May 2020 states that the EU is also a community of values. In particular, item 7 of the Declaration emphasises the importance of democracy and the rule of law. [34] Another important issue is the need to respect human rights, gender equality and the rights of national minorities. This shows that the EU’s enlargement policy depends not only on economic interests, but also on the adherence to European values, i. e. ideology.

The EU’s Ideological Core and Its Global Ambitions?

The process of European integration was the answer to political conflicts within and between European countries. This process began even before the Cold War between the West and the East, which offered very different types of political orders and ideologies. In standing up for its own other world of ‘real socialism’, the EU developed strategies of economic and political integration that were based on the ideology of liberal democracy. Initially established as the European Coal and Steel Community, the process of integration then brought about the European Economic Community, a customs union and finally the EU became a common market. So, at the beginning it was an alliance between economic and financial interests. In the end, economic integration also turned into political integration. Throughout, it has become clear that should economic integration be effective, the development of political institutions are required on which it can depend. The prevailing formula was that free market economy (meaning capitalism) and liberal democracy were irreversibly tied. It is precisely because it questions this formula regarding the ties between capitalism and democracy that China currently presents such an important phenomenon. To wit, the Chinese example has shown that capitalist economy can also develop in a one-party dictatorship. It turned out that market economy does not require a liberal-democratic order. This Chinese combination of a dictatorship and market economy has fired up the imagination of the European radical-right, which had already wanted to tear down liberal ideology and its political institutions.

These circumstances represent new challenges for the EU’s goals that are based on the principles of the Enlightenment and liberal democracy. Until recently, the Union was successful in ensuring peace for its member states, enabling the development of human rights and the freedom of individuals, ensuring economic development based on a market economy, and establishing mechanisms for some sort of solidarity between members and the preservation of the social state. These are clearly not just material, but also ideological values. The EU can be effective and influential only if it is an ideological community. The undermining of its fundamental, liberal-democratic ideological paradigm would lead to its breakup, just like the collapse of the communist ideology resulted in the collapse of the Warsaw military-political pact. But today, liberal democracy does not only face threats from outside, but also from the illiberal systems that are taking shape within the EU itself. The 2008 global financial crisis proved that the Eurozone’s debt crisis was very difficult to resolve because the appropriate political institutions did not exist. Hence the crisis was not just economic, but also political. The crisis in the Ukraine, caused by the coup d’état and Russia’s military aggression, revealed that the Union is also facing a new geopolitical challenge, or rather that, at least when it comes to the Ukraine, the boundaries of EU enlargement have been set for the unforeseeable future. The next challenge is from the US which, under Trump’s leadership, is challenging the current rules of international cooperation. President Trump overturned the TTIP free trade agreement (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and effectively started a trade conflict with the EU. This conflict is also spreading to the understanding of energy politics. The controversy related to the construction of the Nord Stream 2, for example, clearly shows that. Furthermore, China is emerging as an ever-growing competitor of the EU. Global challenges facing the EU are thus getting bigger every day, and Croatian politics is often unaware of them. Admittedly, as a small country, it cannot have a significant influence on international relations. Up to now, Croatia’s foreign policy did not manage to realise its intention of becoming the expert for EU enlargement to Southeast Europe, often due to circumstances that were outside its control. The mentioned challenges are still unresolved, waiting for Germany’s presidency of the EU.

Actually, the key question is whether the EU wants to, and can it assert itself as an independent and influential subject of global politics, a new global player. Of course, this ambition requires a new policy toward the US, China and Russia. Germany’s presidency will reveal the EU’s position on this matter. The first test will be talks on establishing a fund for the recovery from the economic crisis caused by the corona pandemics; this will show to what extent the EU really is a community of solidarity.

Conclusion

With the election of the new president Zoran Milanović, Croatia has the opportunity to streamline its previously two-pronged foreign policies and rather significantly improve the coordination between the government and the president regarding a coherent foreign policy. Both leaders of Croatia’s foreign policy—the prime minister and the president—are oriented toward the EU. The government believes that it can find a foreign policy niche in which to establish itself as an effective player in the EU enlargement of the Western Balkans. It has been shown that Croatia’s role in EU enlargement to the Western Balkans depends on the will of France and the Netherlands, where the first retained and then approved negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania. Of course, the activity of Croatian foreign policy contributed to that, but again it turned out that due to the need to reach a consensus, decisions in the EU are difficult to make. . It is interesting that their scepticism has persevered despite the obvious strengthening of Chinese and Russian influence in the Western Balkans. It is also obvious that there is a lack of coordination between US and EU politics toward this region, and that each is acting alone and is governed only by their own interest. Another issue lies in the fact that the Western Balkan countries that are already in accession talks—Montenegro and Serbia—have not improved the state of their democracy, despite the fact that they succeeded in meeting some of the conditions for accession. On the contrary, they have even regressed, and turned from half-democracies into hybrid regimes. Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are another issue, or rather Kosovo’s introduction of tariffs on products from Serbia, which violates the principles of a free trade zone between the countries of Western Balkans. Naturally, there is also the fact that five EU members do not recognise Kosovo as an independent country. But, these problems notwithstanding, it seems important that Croatia has unambiguously decided to support the EU enlargement process to the Western Balkans. It has thus demonstrated that it has accepted its geopolitical position, as well as its political and economic interests. Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković has strongly supported the idea of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, and thus opened an opportunity for Croatia to find its foreign policy niche in which it can affirm itself as a successful player of European politics in the region. Despite the fact that the Zagreb summit did not unambiguously declare EU enlargement in this region as its political goal, and only discussed the process, Croatia succeeded in proving that it was interested in the enlargement policy. From their part, the countries of Western Balkans have clearly stated their desire to join the EU. Of course, this is not a process in which they are the dominant subjects. A much greater challenge for the EU is its attitude to the idea of being affirmed as an independent global political subject. And it is precisely the attitude to this idea and to the establishment of adequate European institutions that dictates the Union’s policy of enlargement in the Western Balkans.

Published Online: 2020-12-01
Published in Print: 2020-12-16

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