The European Union held its Autumn Council in Brussels this weekend, with significant concerns and nuances expressed on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, as well as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. European leaders also discussed EU enlargement, borders, immigration, and the EU’s economic outlook and rules. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, whose country, an EU member since 2013, entered the Eurozone and the Schengen area last January, is our guest.
The European Union witnessed confusion and hesitations, after the visits to Israel by several European leaders, in scattered order. But at the last Council, the 27 came to the common conclusion calling for pauses in the conflict and humanitarian corridors. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic would first like to recall the “deliberate provocation” of Hamas during the terrorist attack of October 7 and the EU’s support for Israel’s right to “protect its security, but also to defend themselves, while respecting international law and humanitarian law” because “civilian victims must be avoided, Israeli responses must be targeted at Hamas and not against the Palestinian people who are located in Gaza”.
The European Union is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians (1.2 billion euros over the last two years), but its action does not seem to have much impact in the region. “The tripling of humanitarian aid, by decision of the Commission with the support of member countries, was essential and necessary,” maintains the Croatian Prime Minister. Recent political visits by representatives of European institutions and heads of state and government “sent a clear message: condemnation, avoid civilian casualties and avoid regional escalation. Because we have too many conflicts now around Europe”. Andrej Plenkovic is obviously referring here to this other conflict which occupies the minds of Europeans, the war between Russia and Ukraine.
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Because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky fears that the conflict in the Middle East will distract the attention that the European Union pays to the war which has been raging for more than 18 months in his country. Andrej Plenkovic wants to be reassuring: “It is always difficult to manage several crises (…), but I believe that there is no reason to be worried when it comes to Ukraine. Support for Ukraine is very, very broad (…) and it is always the priority of the European Union”. And this, he assures us, despite the recent return to power of the Slovak populist Robert Fico, who declared that he no longer wanted to support Kiev militarily and that his aid would be limited to humanitarian aid: “the important thing is is the opinion of the vast majority of member countries (…) and over time, I believe that Slovakia will align itself with the main lines of European policy”.
Another troublemaker of this European policy in this conflict, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who met Vladimir Putin during a recent summit in China. This meeting “did not surprise” Andrej Plenkovic: “there is a certain consistency in what he does, because he has always had a separate position regarding support for Ukraine. (…) And this is not at all the policy of the vast majority of member countries.”
Croatia, for its part, has promised five million euros in additional aid to Ukraine for mine clearance. But her position remains ambiguous for some, because she declared that she could not rule out banning the import of Ukrainian cereals, like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. The Croatian Prime Minister wants to clarify the situation. “It has been said that Croatia can offer its ports for the transportation of Ukrainian grain. (…) The idea is to offer Ukraine transit, and not import. That’s the big difference.”
He also recalls his country’s support for Ukraine “from the beginning. It was among the first five countries to recognize Croatia in 1991. And from the start, ten years ago, we were there, behind Ukraine.” He also emphasizes aid in “humanitarian demining” and legal aid for future “trials of war criminals”, because “we were victims of the Slobodan Milosevic regime and no one else can bring our level of expertise to Ukraine in this area”.
Barely ten months after Croatia entered the Schengen area, which thanks to this experienced its “best tourist season”, some internal borders of the EU are closing, due to the conflict between Israel and Hamas and of the terrorist risk it poses on European soil: Italy first with its Slovenian neighbor, which followed suit twenty-four hours later, reestablishing border controls with Croatia and Hungary. “Reestablishing internal borders is not going to solve the problems of extremism or terrorism because if the terrorists want to do something, they will do it,” argues Andrej Plenkovic. “But we are going to talk with our Italian and Slovenian friends to see how we can make this new situation as short as possible (…) because Schengen is important for us, as for all tourist countries.”
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But since entering the Schengen area, Croatia has also seen illegal immigration to its territory increase by 140%. Now that the country is at the external border of the EU, it finds itself torn between what the Frontex agency is asking it to do, that is to say to properly lock the borders, and the NGOs who want to document the violations of the rights and illegal evictions. Andrej Plenkovic assures him, “Croatia has one of the strongest border police in Europe (…) and the intensification of migratory flows on the route to the eastern Mediterranean and the western Balkans in recent months has only just begun. not in Croatia, but on the border between Turkey and Greece, between Turkey and Bulgaria or thanks to the visa regime policy, much too liberal in our opinion, of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (…) And we believe that Frontex must be located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is also in the process of signing a contract with the agency.”
For Croatia, a Western Balkan country that joined the European Union in 2013, it is important that the expansion of the club to other Western Balkan countries continues. “Our ambition is to help our friends in South-Eastern Europe, in particular Bosnia-Herzegovina, because among the three constituent peoples of the country, there is the Croatian people towards whom we we have constitutional obligations. Croatia is the largest advocate of Bosnia and Herzegovina among EU member countries. (…) We also support other countries, but we must respect the only possible principle in my opinion, that of the specific merits of each country with regard to the membership criteria. (…) And when it comes to preparation to become a member of the European Union, everyone must make progress and do their homework”. He also considers the renewed tension between Serbia and Kosovo as an annex: “These are bilateral relations”. Even if he “condemns the terrorist attack by Serbian paramilitary groups in Banjska in northern Kosovo”.
Croatia’s economic health is “quite positive, because the growth rate is much higher than half of the European Union, and even the Eurozone, with 2.8%”, according to estimates from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Finance. Andrej Plenkovic also recalls that the country’s public debt has been reduced by 20 points since he came to power in 2016, from 79.5% to 60.7% of GDP. At a time when the EU is revising the criteria of the stability pact, “a certain flexibility and state interventionism are the two things necessary to succeed, everyone together, in getting through this period of crisis ”, maintains Andrej Plenkovic.
But the inflation rate remains very high in his country, at 8.3%. “We have taken measures and the trend is clearly downward: for next year, we estimate that inflation will be around 3%.” “Croatia’s economic results have never been as good as today!”, he concludes
A program prepared by Luke Brown, Perrine Desplats, Sophie Samaille, Juliette Laurain and Isabelle Romero