Croatia aims to move faster on EU accession talks in 2007

ZAGREB – Croatia hopes to shift its European Union membership talks into higher gear this year and thinks stricter control from Brussels will only improve the process, the country’s chief negotiator said yesterday. Career diplomat Vladimir Drobnjak said he expected the former Yugoslav republic to have most problems in talks on agriculture, environment, state subsidies and competition. «The year 2007 is for opening negotiating chapters – and we aim to open as many as possible – while 2008, we hope, is the year of closing them,» he told Reuters in an interview. Croatia started EU membership talks in October 2005, at the same time as Turkey. Both made relatively slow progress in 2006, with Zagreb closing two of 35 policy chapters. Croatia moved ahead of Turkey in December, after Brussels partially froze talks with Ankara over its refusal to fully normalize trade with EU member Cyprus. Zagreb hopes to wrap up negotiations in time to join the bloc in around 2010. Drobnjak said the body of EU legislation that Croatia must implement was ever growing and a larger EU meant a more complex process than when the Union took in 10 new members in 2004. «The EU insists on strictly meeting all conditions, but… once you meet the conditions, all the doors are open,» he said. He said benchmarks – concrete conditions for opening and closing chapters which Brussels introduced after some members questioned the readiness of Bulgaria and Romania when they joined this year – could only help. «The benchmarks will only reinforce our credibility,» he said. He noted that Croatia expected the EU’s executive Commission to set benchmarks for roughly one-third of its 33 policy chapters. The most difficult benchmarks would be competition and state subsidies, he said, and Zagreb will have to overhaul state-owned shipyards and cut subsidies, their financial lifeline. Agriculture is also complex, dealing with a sensitive part of the population, while the environment is probably the most costly area, Drobnjak said. Drobnjak said Croatia should treat its EU neighbors with caution and work to improve ties but minor bilateral glitches should not slow its advance toward EU membership. Neighbors Italy and Slovenia have protested against Croatia’s plan to place its part of the Adriatic under stricter fishing and environmental supervision, while Slovenia and Croatia also have unresolved land and sea borders.