Many people know the distinctively horseshoe-shaped nation of Croatia for several things: As the dramatic medieval backdrop for “Game of Thrones”; as the originator of the modern necktie (the cravat, derived from a kerchief worn by 17th-century Croat cavalrymen); as a European sports powerhouse, battling France for the World Cup title in 2018; and as the birthplace of luminaries such as inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla. Even explorer Marco Polo, widely assumed to have been born in Venice, may have in fact been born on one of Croatia’s 1,000-plus islands.
Now, the small country of 4 million hopes to bring some of the same grit and entrepreneurial spirit to its tenure as head of the European Union presidency until June 30, 2020. This marks the first time that Croatia, the EU’s youngest member, has assumed the rotating six-month presidency, and it does so at a moment of significant change and challenge for the bloc, from the Brexit divorce to migration pressures on Europe’s southern borders to transatlantic trade wars and global security threats.
Yet the EU presidency no longer wields the clout it once did, and the priorities each nation spells out for its presidency often read like a mind-numbing list of bromides and buzzwords. Croatia’s list is no different, pledging a “Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects and an influential Europe.”
But behind the dry diplo-speak, Croatia plans to take on some of the most urgent challenges bedeviling the bloc. That includes tackling climate change; creating an integrated energy market; developing a sustainable migration policy; responding to terrorism, cyber threats, fake news and populism; elevating the EU’s status on the world stage as a top trading partner; and serving as a forceful advocate for its Balkan neighbors to one day join the EU — just as Croatia itself did during the last wave of expansion in 2013.
But first, Croatia’s ambassador in Washington, Pjer Šimunović, says one of his country’s most important jobs will be “simple, yet not always easy to do” — to help EU nations and their ministers really get to know one another.
“We’re really good at convening, at bringing people together,” Šimunović said of his Balkan nation, which has stood at a crossroads of Europe for centuries and is now a popular destination for tourists from around the globe. Šimunović said that “it takes time and effort” to make real connections and that a large part of Croatia’s role will be “to preserve the human chemistry” between European ministers and civil servants as they become more familiar with each other. As the most recent EU parliamentary elections were held last May, many MEPs are still relatively fresh on the job and many are working together for the first time.
Šimunović said that another important role of the EU presidency is building consensus among the EU’s 27 — until recently 28 — member states. On that note, the EU faces the unprecedented challenge of navigating what Šimunović calls “the Brexit divorce,” with the United Kingdom becoming the first-ever nation to withdraw from the European economic and political union.
While the U.K. formally left the EU on Jan. 31, the next eleven months will be critical in negotiating the terms of their future relationship. Much, including trade, security, cross-border movement and the status of foreign nationals, will have to be worked out. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set an ambitious — some say unrealistic — deadline to conclude a massive trade deal with the EU by December 2020 or else the U.K. will walk away without a deal in place, essentially setting up yet another Brexit-style do-or-die cliff.
Šimunović believes that Croatia can help keep a steady hand on what are sure to be contentious negotiations.
“Part of our job is ensuring that the divorce is passing alimony in a friendly fashion,” Šimunović said with a touch of humor. “We have to preserve those things that are of mutual benefit, and there are a full spectrum. The U.K. was a fundamental part of the European Union, and we have to disentangle that very judiciously and very gradually. It’s in everybody’s interest to preserve our friendship and our alliances, such as in NATO. We’re tied defense-wise and also economically. So, if the U.K. left with bitterness, it would be a tragedy. We will employ all the instruments we have to reach the best possible solution [to Britain’s exit].”
Šimunović notes that the issue of the Northern Irish border is one of the thorniest and has yet to be resolved (also see “Messy Divorce: With Irish Backstop Gone, How Will Northern Ireland Move Forward After Brexit Breakup?” in the February 2020 issue). However, the ambassador is confident that both the EU and the U.K. will not let that undermine the peace established in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Šimunović himself was a correspondent in Belfast during some of the last years of The Troubles in the early 1990s.
That’s when the ambassador worked as a foreign affairs correspondent for the Večernji list, a daily Croatian newspaper, and later as a journalist for BBC World Service Radio before transitioning into diplomacy in 1998.
Since then, he has served as deputy head of mission at the Croatian Embassy in France; national coordinator for NATO at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; director and then state secretary of defense policy at the Ministry of Defense; ambassador to Israel; and director of the Office of the National Security Council in Zagreb before arriving in Washington in the fall of 2017.
Along with Brexit, Šimunović says another top priority for Croatia’s EU presidency will be the establishment of a multiannual financial framework, i.e. the all-important joint budget. The proposed EU budget of just over €1.2 billion will cover the period from 2021 to 2027 and is an increase from the previous budget, in part because of the loss of the U.K. but also to fund initiatives to address newer challenges such as climate change, migration, youth unemployment, digitization and defense. Croatia will have to work to find consensus on a budget that takes into account the effects of Brexit as well as the probable inclusion into the EU of candidate countries Albania and North Macedonia.
“It can be very tricky, very touch and go,” Šimunović said of the budget negotiations. “With the recent elections [for the European Parliament], it hasn’t been resolved who is contributing how much and for what. It’s now up to the present European Commission and the presidency to smooth out the rough edges and guide discussions to find the most fruitful common denominator.”
For Croatia, one of its most personally important priorities will be working to help two of its Balkan neighbors one day join the bloc. The ambassador said this will entail ensuring that any expansion of the EU is sustainable while at the same time reducing economic and social gaps between and within countries. This can be a special challenge when welcoming poorer states into the bloc, such as the two current Balkan candidates, Albania and North Macedonia, which were set to begin accession talks with the EU late last year.
But the two countries were caught off guard when French President Emmanuel Macron blocked them from starting talks on the grounds that the EU expansion process needed to be reformed and that both countries needed to make more progress in areas such as migration.
It was a big blow to Western Balkan nations, which had been told since 2003 that if they undertook reforms, they could one day join the EU. In particular, it was seen as a betrayal to North Macedonia, whose government took a significant risk in resolving a 30-year name dispute with Greece to qualify for eventual EU membership.
Jean-Claude Juncker, then-president of the European Commission, called Macron’s opposition “a historic error.” Other EU officials warned that abandoning the Balkans would leave them vulnerable to Russian and Chinese influence, and that accession talks give the EU leverage to demand tough reforms.
But one of Macron’s arguments was that once accession talks formally begin, the EU in fact loses its leverage to effect change. Indeed, many still criticize the decision to allow Bulgaria and Romania into the bloc in 2007 given that both still struggle with corruption and the rule of law.
The EU has tried to assuage Macron’s concerns and last month announced a proposal that would give existing EU member states more power to suspend or reverse the process of admitting new members if they were backsliding on their commitments, or even force countries to restart entry talks in some policy areas. The plan has sparked hope that Macron will drop his opposition and that accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia can move forward this spring.
That’s precisely what Šimunović is pushing for.
“We are promoting the value of enlarging the European Union for stabilizing unstable regions,” the ambassador said of the Western Balkans and Albania and North Macedonia in particular. “But they have to fulfill the terms of the accession process.”
Šimunović, who was Croatia’s chief negotiator in its application to NATO, describes the EU accession process as “like a boot camp,” with multiple inspections and negotiations over “grace periods” when deadline extensions become necessary. In May, Croatia will host an EU-Western Balkans summit to address these issues with prospective members. At that meeting, Šimunović said the message will be “[t]he door is open for you, but you have to undertake reforms, meet agreed-upon standards, tackle issues of corruption, meet a level of economic development, human rights and an independent judiciary. There are a lot of issues which we have to work with once we open negotiations,” Šimunović said. “It gets serious.”
Another serious issue facing not only the EU at large, but also Croatia specifically, is migration. In 2015, nearly 1 million undocumented migrants, largely from North Africa and the Middle East, made their way to Europe through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Hungary. The crisis ebbed when the EU struck a deal with Turkey to curb migration and European countries began sealing their borders.
But with renewed violence in Syria and Libya, and Turkey threatening to open the floodgates if the EU does not deliver on the funds it reportedly promised, Europe’s refugee crisis could easily reignite — potentially on Croatia’s doorstep.
Indeed, today migrants are increasingly turning to the less tightly controlled Bosnian-Croatian border to make their way to the rest of Europe.
“Two years ago, just 750 migrants were recorded passing through Bosnia. In 2019, that figure rose to about 29,000 — most of them fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan,” wrote Patrick Kingsley in a Jan. 24 article for The New York Times.
But the article says that migrants who make it past the hills and mountains that line the Bosnian border “are usually met with a brutal response by the Croatian authorities.”
Recent reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused Croatian authorities of arresting, summarily deporting and, in some cases, beating migrants who arrive in their territory without documentation — charges the Croatian government strongly rejects.
“Accusations that Croatia is treating migrants in a particularly aggressive fashion, that’s certainly not the case,” Šimunović insisted. “If there have been instances of abuse, they have been thoroughly investigated and acted upon.”
Šimunović pointed out that Croatia accepted its legal quota of foreign asylum seekers in 2015 and continues to do so today. “We provide them the means to restart their lives and centers for accepting those seeking asylum. But what we are facing these days on our border with Bosnia is mounting pressure, almost 10,000 people,” Šimunović said of the new influx of undocumented migrants.
“We are a country of 4 million. Look at the numbers of people on the move. We don’t want to be a frontline state having to face all of that all alone, and at the same time, we don’t want to build new walls in Europe, particularly with Bosnia, which is a very friendly country.”
He added that “the European Commission should be able to create [better] conditions where [the migrants] are coming from so that they will return. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.”
The ambassador suggested that a pan-European policy on migration is still sorely needed, especially for countries like Croatia that are carrying the brunt of the current influx.
While migration has been a divisive topic among EU member states, trade has driven a wedge between the whole of Europe and the U.S. under President Trump, whose disagreements with Brussels not only over trade, but also defense spending, Iran and climate change have strained the traditionally strong transatlantic alliance (also see “European Union’s New Envoy Says Bloc Will Weather Transatlantic Storm” in the June 2019 issue).
Since coming to office, Trump has slapped tariffs on a range of EU products such as wine, aircraft parts, steel and aluminum, prompting the bloc to respond with its own retaliatory tariffs. Most of the president’s attention, however, has been focused on his trade battle with China, and so far, he has refrained from hitting Europe’s all-important auto sector with tariffs ever since a trade détente was reached in mid-2018.
But the EU still looms large in Trump’s crosshairs as he presses for more access to Europe’s coveted agricultural market — one of the most sensitive issues for the bloc. In recent weeks, the EU and U.S. have been reportedly discussing a “mini” trade deal to cool tensions, although details are scarce and agriculture remains an enormous obstacle.
“It’s no secret that the issue of trade has emerged as a point of friction,” Šimunović said. “The EU as a whole has had to take adequate measures to protect itself” against U.S. tariffs. “So the whole cycle should be stopped, and we should be able to find a set of agreements to ensure a level playing field between the two biggest markets in the world. Despite what’s in the news, we are still by far the main partners when it comes to trade exports.”
Šimunović believes that a January meeting between EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and President Trump represents “a fresh start” in bilateral economic relations. “It was primarily about … reversing the existence of tariffs and establishing a fair, free market space across the Atlantic, respecting the interests of both sides,” he said.
As Croatia’s ambassador to the U.S., it is no surprise that Šimunović has good things to say about the overall relationship between the EU and the United States. “The U.S. is an indispensable country in terms of global leadership,” he told us. “Europe can play a role on the global scene with its values, its ability to act, but Europe and America acting together, that’s when things get done. The uniqueness of the ideas that the United States stands for, its strength, its global reach, its promotion of human rights, religious rights, free market economy, protection of the environment, that’s indispensable.”
But on the environmental front, the EU and U.S. have diverged sharply under Trump, who in 2017 announced he would withdraw from the landmark Paris climate accord. Despite America’s absence, however, the EU has pressed ahead as a leader in the global fight against climate change, a key plank of Croatia’s presidency.
It’s an issue that hits close to home. Croatia’s booming tourist industry attracted almost 650,000 U.S. visitors last year, drawn by the country’s historic cities and stunning perch above the Adriatic Sea. (Reader’s note: the famed King’s Landing from “Game of Thrones” was filmed in medieval Dubrovnik, overlooking the Adriatic.) At last year’s U.N. General Assembly, then-Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović emphasized the importance of protecting the environment and putting a stop to human-caused pollution in the Adriatic Sea, which is so crucial to Croatia’s image and economic livelihood.
“It’s important to us all,” Šimunović said. “The Adriatic is very fragile, but it is an essence of who we are. It provides our identity and the source of our biggest industry.” Any significant rise in sea level, Šimunović warned, could “fatally jeopardize” cities like Dubrovnik.
“Croatia can provide an example for others,” the ambassador suggested. “If [protecting the environment] is important for us, it should be for everybody. We just have a singular interest in advocating for it.”
Indeed, Croatia is drawing more visitors than ever before. It contests much larger countries in world sporting events (like that 2018 World Cup final). It is helping its fellow nations in the European Union take the next steps into a new, if somewhat uncertain, future. And it is still showing the world how to dress for success, à la cravat, which makes some people — especially men — happier than others. About that (i.e. the necktie), Croatia’s ambassador is fairly stoic. “It’s our brand, really,” he said. “So we have to wear it. Unfortunately.”
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.