EU urges Croatian reform

BRUSSELS – The European Union urged Croatia yesterday to hasten painful reforms of its judiciary and state-subsidized shipbuilding sector to keep its bid to join the 27-nation bloc in 2010 on track. European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said after talks with Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic that Zagreb needed to meet key EU reform benchmarks within three months so it can open talks on difficult policy areas such as competition and public procurement. «There is plenty of work ahead, for instance on judicial and public administration reform and in the fight against corruption,» Rehn told a joint news conference. The European Commission has said it hopes to wrap up accession negotiations with Croatia before European Parliament elections in June 2009 provided Zagreb meets all key benchmarks by the end of June this year. «It is essential to do it by June because otherwise the technical timetable becomes almost impossible to achieve the target date of concluding negotiations,» Rehn said. The Commission’s envoy in Zagreb, Vincent Degert, said Croatia was set to open talks on two more policy areas in April and possibly several more by the end of June, when France takes over the six-month EU presidency. «The clock is ticking, the deadlines are approaching… but it’s feasible. We expect most, if not all, chapters will be open during the French presidency,» Degert told reporters in Zagreb. He said Croatia could close up to 10 of the currently opened 14 policy areas by the end of the year. Due to slow reforms and a border row with neighboring EU member Slovenia, Zagreb has closed only two out of 33 negotiating chapters since accession talks started in late 2005. He said Zagreb was likely to struggle the most with the reform of the judiciary, which involves closure of many local courts and a stronger fight against corruption, and the overhaul of its five shipyards, which survive on high state subsidies. «It is not only a matter of time but of the quality of the process. It will be very difficult to come up with a credible restructuring plan for the shipyards in a short time,» Degert said. Jandrokovic reaffirmed Croatia’s strong commitment to meeting the deadline, telling reporters in Brussels, «We are ready to do it and we will do it.» Congratulating Croatia on receiving an invitation to join the NATO defense alliance at a summit last week, Rehn said, «I trust this step of success in Euro-Atlantic integration will be shortly repeated in terms of integration with the European Union.» The EU’s Rehn said he saw no reason to delay the opening of talks on fisheries and foreign policy because of a dispute between Slovenia and Croatia on the application of an agreement on border traffic, since ways of applying the accord had been recommended.

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