In the spotlight of the international media last year following the performances of its team in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Croatia will be now given a significant opportunity for political visibility with the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2020. Its first term ever since the Former Yugoslav republic entered into the bloc in July 2013.
Its assertive foreign policy, with the current Head of State and Prime Minister both former career diplomats and keen on playing an important diplomatic role, has recently helped raise Croatia’s profile within the EU. It is therefore no surprise that after five years as the “new kid on the block”, the upcoming EU Presidency will give Croatia the opportunity to make its voice better heard.
Against the backdrop of a fragile global scenario and of yet uncharted dynamics in the European Union, where traditional setups are currently being reshaped along new dividing lines, a post-recession, now economically growing Croatia needs to be looked at now from a more geopolitical perspective. That is linked to the position of the country, that lies at the crossroads of diverse political areas. On the one hand, the former Yugoslav republic is an offshoot of the Euro-Atlantic mainstream towards South-Eastern Europe, its external border with the Western Balkan region, whose six countries are on course towards future integration into the bloc. On the other one, it is adjacent to the “Višegrad 4” area, with which Zagreb shares common ties and interests, but not some of its sovranist postures. Additionally, Croatia sees itself as an Adriatic and Mediterranean country, hence seeking a role in the intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms regarding that region.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the former Yugoslav republic is on the radar screen of the largest global players, whose agendas in the region obviously go far beyond Croatia.
Geographically crucial for Russia’s Central Europe-bound gas export policy, the country is seen by Moscow as an outlet to the Adriatic Sea and its possible foothold, especially after Kremlin recent setbacks in Montenegro.
On its part, China is eyeing Croatian harbours as future entry points for its goods arriving via the Suez Canal and, in a far wider perspective, a potential springboard for Beijing’s BRI-related interests in Central Eastern Europe. Especially after the “17 plus 1” Summit last April in Dubrovnik, huge funds are likely to pour into the country for Chinese turnkey infrastructure and transport projects. In parallel, an ever-growing inflow of tourists from the People’s Republic is making its visibility greater and greater.
The US, too, has a keen interest in Croatia, further aiming at containing Russia’s and China’s activism and appetite for influence in the country and in the region. Equally strong are the interests of its defence industry, which is keeping a watchful eye on the opportunities offered by the NATO-related military capability enhancement programme that Zagreb is undergoing, while some US oil companies are considering geopolitics-related gas projects in the wider region. For Washington the former Yugoslav republic also plays a role in connection with the neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since they are pragmatically aware of the role that Croatia has in that country based on its interpretation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords leading Zagreb to invoke a “droit de regard” on the Croatian constituent people in Bosnia.
BiH remains a matter of constant concern for Zagreb but also the source of an emotional bond as large swathes of its political and economic elite are of Herzegovinian origin and there are strong links between the HDZ parties in the two countries. Croatia views the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina slowly and worryingly slipping into an Islam less secular than in the past, with radical Islamic cells and non-Bosnian jihadist infiltrations in areas beyond its borders. Furthermore and considering the growing influence in that country of some non-European state actors, Zagreb fears a prospective recurrence on its doorsteps of the very same divisions that have been traditionally gripping the Middle East.
In this context, Zagreb considers the constantly decreasing number of Bosnian Croats in Bosnia as an alarming signal; a development that Croatia blames it on the emigration pull factor resulting from poor economic perspective in the country, an alleged feeling of political marginalization linked to an electoral system seen as unfair as well as on opportunities for mobility offered by a commonly held dual citizenship (mostly Croatian). The defence of the interests of the Bosnian Croats is thus viewed by Zagreb as serving the purpose of solidifying their presence as a stronghold against the growing imbalance between the overwhelming majority of Bosniaks, the Muslim population, and the increasingly smaller number of Bosnian Croats, one of the “constituent peoples” of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A trend that it assumes it could even lead in the long term to the prospective dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina should Republika Srpska, which is close to Belgrade and perhaps even more to Moscow, break away from BiH and clear the way to a Bosniak-only Bosnia in the heart of the Balkans. A Bosnia having Turkey as its mentor and some other key players in the “Middle Eastern great game” keen on further projecting their economic interests, if not their political influence. Zagreb obviously fears this scenario for both the risk of a “spill over effect” all across the Balkans and the ensuing detriment to its own economy, starting with tourism, a sector that now accounts for approximately 20% of its GDP. This is why the Western Balkans and political stability ensured by the integration of the “WB6” into the EU before “non-European actors” step in to fill up the vacuum remain for Croatia a strong priority.
Surely, not the only one for a country pivotal for the various regional geopolitical dynamics. Zagreb’s foreign policy is active on several fronts: 1) within the EU, in search for its own better place and, at the same time, strengthening its bilateral cooperation to those partners it considers as strategic; 2) in the Central European theatre, where is guiding together with the Poles, the US-inspired “Three Seas Initiative”, an ambitious energy, infrastructure and digitalisation project designed to better connect among them the Baltic, Adriatic and Black See regions; 3) on a global scale, keeping the priority eye on economic diplomacy, towards China and beyond, as a source of infrastructural investments and tourism, as well as a potential market for its goods.
In this broad context, an economically-growing, self-confident Croatia is now getting ready to take over the presidency of the Council of the EU and guide the club throughout the first semester of 2020. It will surely be confronted with some still pending questions. From the likely definition of the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 to the consequences of a prospective Brexit (or its cancellation, should the process be revoked), not to mention keeping alive an EU enlargement prospect for the six Western Balkan countries and maybe Turkey. They might all turn out to be ambitious objectives, not least when it comes to the Western Balkans, considering the lack of consensus among the 27 (or 28) Member States on furthering expansion of the EU. Enlargement appears to be an uphill race in particular in the aftermath of the EP elections and taking into account the difficult dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, the fragile stability in BiH and the problematic domestic framework in Albania. Not to mention some still pending problems between Croatia and Slovenia (starting with the definition of the border in the Bay of Piran) and at least eight open issues with Belgrade (starting with the sensitive topic of “missing persons” during the 1991-1995 war).
The current second-half year of 2019 will be surely crucial in the run-up to Croatia’s first ever term at the helm of the Council of the European Union.