It is rare the information offices of the European Parliament to organise events that contribute to finding a solution of problems, especially regional ones. One of these rare occasions was the conference [Croatian + English language] "Croatia - a bridge between the EU and South Eastern Europe", organised on 27 March by the office in Zagreb led by Violeta Simeonova-Stanicic. In the first panel the conference gathered together and literally clashed the chief negotiators of Serbia and Montenegro with some of the most influential Croatian members of the European Parliament. No question was uncomfortable, there were no taboos. Despite that there were many other issues in both panels the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina dominated both discussions.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a priority No. 1
If Bosnia and Herzegovina remains the last train of European integration it will be a great historic injustice, said the most influential Croatian MEP Andrej Plenkovic (EPP, HDZ), who is a deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee and heads the delegation for relations with Ukraine. At the moment, the situation of the Croatian people is not equal to the other two constitutional peoples - of the Serbs and the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). This opinion was shared by all participants during the discussion. That is why it is necessary the rights of the Croats to be enhanced as the concept of a federation is the best, Mr Plenkovic believes. All the three peoples should have a legitimate representation, decentralisation and federalisation, he added.
Those are the three elements on the basis of which a stable Bosnia and Herzegovina can become a member of the EU. The Dayton agreement is simply an extended truce which is outdated and its construction must be reconsidered, Andrej Plenkovic continued and proposed this question to be viewed in parallel with the British-German initiative approved a month ago by the EU foreign ministers and which was made possible thanks to Croatia's diplomatic efforts. This opinion was shared also by Bozo Ljubic, deputy speaker of the representation of the BiH parliament. He is to some extent a fellow party member of Andrej Plenkovic but not quite. He is a member of the coalition HDZ 1990-HSP BiH. According to him, BiH is an incoherent, unequal and asymmetric system which does now allow for reforms to be implemented.
To achieve internal agreement is also impossible. Today, 20 years later, the same political and national paradigms that accompanied the process of breaking up of former Yugoslavia are still present, he said. The solution is federalism because otherwise BiH would become a black hole of the Balkans and South Eastern Europe. As long as this hole is there the neighbouring countries cannot prosper, was Mr Ljubic's message. In his words, it should be studied how Belgium and Switzerland function because they, too, are multiethnic states.
And although they agree in principle that it is necessary to ensure equal rights for the three constitutional peoples in BiH, the other two very influential MEPs - Ruza Tomasic and Tonino Picula - had different views on how exactly to resolve this problem. Mr Tomasic entered the European Parliament in coalition with the Croatian HDZ but she is not a member of the EPP group but of the European Conservatives and Reformists group. In addition, she recently left her own Party of Rights Dr Ante Starcevic (HSP Dr Ante Starcevic) and joined a new conservative formation. According to her, no solutions should be imposed on BiH but rather the three peoples should decide themselves what to do with their state. Later she told euinside that at the moment everyone is interfering in the country's affairs. Everyone is saying what needs to be done.
Croatia should help with advice, proposals, to raise the issue at EU level but not interfere. Nonetheless, she agreed that Dayton must be revised and that should happen now on the basis of the equality among the three peoples. She also believes that Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina should move to the EU in a package because "you cannot have some EU or Schengen here and not have them there". This is expensive and inefficient, she said, especially from the perspective of Schengen. She again insisted that the people in BiH are those who should decide what to do. Tonino Picula, a former minister of foreign affairs and now an MEP (S&D, SDP), said that BiH is much more a process than a functioning state. Nevertheless, he believes that the German-British initiative should be given a chance and also the politicians in the country should be given time to start working together.
Many of the Western Balkan countries have problems with the functioning of the institutions, not only BiH. But he said that it is bad that the US is out of the process. In the State Department is still dominant the so called Dayton Orthodoxy, he said, but nonetheless USA should not be kept isolated from the future of BiH. He quoted some rumours that US felt ignored for not being consulted about the German-British initiative. Currently, there is no strong appetite in EU to renegotiate the Dayton peace agreement but to Croatia this is a top priority. The issue will certainly become a central one for the country's foreign policy if Tomislav Karamarko's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) wins the parliamentary elections later this year.
A mature resolution of bilateral problems
Both panels were moderated by some of the most famous Croatian journalists which was a reason even the most sensitive questions to be asked. That is why, the beginning of the first panel was marked by one of the most painful bilateral issues between Serbia and Croatia - the Veljko Maric case. It is about the so called 'regional jurisdiction' which Serbia applies when processing war crimes. The issue has turned into a major topic during the debate on the European Parliament resolution on Serbia's progress to EU. The reason is that on the basis of this jurisdiction Serbia expands its powers to process war crimes on the territory of neighbouring countries, as is the case of Mr Maric who is serving a prison sentence in Serbia. As euinside wrote, the problem was raised at the highest state level after Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic's victory at the presidential elections. Serbia Prime Minister Alexander Vucic promised during Ms Grabar-Kitarovic's inauguration to personally see to the resolution of this case.
Serbia chief negotiator with the EU Tanja Miscevic was not as specific as Premier Vucic or his deputy Ivica Dacic but pressed during the conference she said that Serbia reads very carefully the European Parliament resolutions and especially the criticism and recommendations. "We accepted every commendation but much more seriously we read every concern in the resolution because this is about issues that need to be a subject of our talks with Croatia and other nations", she said. According to her, regional cooperation is not a clichй. "We should all start thinking in the same frame of reference". MEP Ruza Tomasic said, however, after recalling that she is a former policewoman and is not a diplomat, that it is good to know what happened in this region and this cannot be forgotten. "If we have unresolved issues with Serbia we need to resolve them bilaterally and publicly. Truth leads to justice and justice leads to peace. I want a policy of square accounts and clean hands", Ms Tomasic added.
Is it possible with Russia in the EU?
The two-polar foreign policy of Serbia - between EU and Russia - was also a major issue during the two-hour long first panel. Tanja Miscevic assured that Serbia understands very well its obligations, one of which is gradual alignment with the EU foreign policy which practically means imposing sanctions on Russia. Something Montenegro has done, recalled the country's chief negotiator with the EU Alexander Andrija Pejovic. Ms Miscevic said, though, that if Serbia imposed sanctions now this would mean no gas, no energy resources and no one to trade with. According to her, the energy union of the EU should involve the candidate countries as well because this is a powerful weapon of the foreign policy, of the security policy and of the economic policy. Without the energy union the candidates will be slow in aligning their foreign policies, she said.
Asked by euinside if Serbia would take into account the EU strategy against the Russian propaganda and disinformation, which EU high representative for foreign and security policy is expected to present in June, the Serbian chief negotiator said that we must await and see what the proposal will be and then decide. She said, however, that at the moment there is no television station that is owned by Russia or by a foreigner who comes or is sponsored by Russia. No strong propaganda can be felt in Serbia, she added. And although Ukraine is one of the issues in the Serbian public domain, much more attention is paid to the issue that people from the region are joining foreign conflicts.
For his part Alexander Pejovic said that Montenegro completely supports all European affairs. "We have supported 100% the EU sanctions". If the EU decides on fighting the propaganda and Montenegro is invited to join Podgorica will take a decision, the country's chief negotiator said.
Does the EU have a common foreign policy?
This was another issue touched upon during the conference. According to some, there is no such thing as common external policy but others said that in the recent years it has gradually been built. Ruza Tomasic was among those who were of the opinion that there is not only no common foreign policy but no common economic policy as well. "Those countries who understood that EU is a means not a goal have won. All the others, Croatia including, who think that the EU is a cash box and when we join they will take care of us and we will no longer have problems, are now in trouble", the Croatian conservative MEP added. Andrej Plenkovic disagreed with this saying that the European foreign policy is growingly common. He also disagreed with the opinion of the Croatian foreign policy analyst Vlatko Cvrtila, dean of the private diplomatic university VERN in Zagreb, that the European administration does not understand well the South Eastern region and its specificities.
There are many specialists who know very well the European legislation and know how well the candidates are prepared, said Mr Plenkovic. Vlatko Cvrtila was of the opinion, though, that the EU does not and will not have a common foreign policy. It is in the hands of the member states and at this level the integration will be the slowest, the analyst added.
A call for encore
Through the years, while the euroscepticism has slowly been piling up in the public moods across Europe, it was these institutions - the representations of the Commission and the European Parliament - that were called to communicate the EU as something we all need and they failed. Often the events they organise are completely non-interesting to the broad audience. European priorities are being promoted that have been too far from the everyday lives of the people and their own national discussions. There are rare occasions, however, when the EU proves that it can and must be a platform for (its) crucial issues. It can, through its representations in the member states, and should seek ways to restore the already severely damaged fabric of our common interest. The investment plan, the rule of law, immigration, the European semester, foreign policy, the energy union are all issues that affect all the member states together but in a different way. It is important the national debate to be brought up at EU level and vice versa - the EU level to come down to the national one. When in such discussions take part the decision-makers then they are worth every euro invested in them. Otherwise the question 'do we need these representation offices' remains completely valid until the next negotiations on the multiannual EU budget.