Croatia withdraws from border arbitration with Slovenia

By bne IntelliNews July 30, 2015

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Croatian MPs have voted to withdraw from the border arbitration with Slovenia following revelations that the supposedly neutral Slovenian judge had allegedly discussed the case with a government representative.

On July 29 all present 141 MPs of Croatia’s 151-seated parliament voted in favour of withdrawing from the trial. The move comes days after Croatian daily Jutarnji List published alleged excerpts from a leaked tape in which the Slovenian representative in the arbitration tribunal, Jernej Sekolec, discussed strategy with Simona Drenik, the Slovenian finance ministry’s representative before the court. The transcripts revealed disclosure of confidential information and a joint plan to influence other judges.

Both Sekolec and Drenik resigned on July 23. On July 28, the Slovenian government appointed Ronny Abraham, the president of the International Court of Justice in Hague (ICJ),  as the new Slovenian arbiter, hoping to save the trial.

However, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said in the opening speech before the parliamentary session that Croatia will not recognise the tribunal’s decisions. "We've got to get out. Whether the arbitral tribunal will continue its work or not, we have nothing to do with it anymore. The tribunal may continue to work, but we won't recognise any of its decisions,” quoted Milanovic as saying.

The European Commission made it clear on July 29 that the tribunal will continue to operate, despite Croatia’s withdrawal. The commission does not see a sustainable alternative to the arbitration procedure, quoted EC spokeswoman Mina Andreeva as telling a news conference ahead of the parliament’s vote. Although there was no deadline for the final ruling, it was widely expected to come this year.

Slovenia and Croatia have tried to agree on the boundary since declaring independence. The long-standing dispute over land and sea in the Piran Bay led Slovenia to block Croatia’s EU memberships negotiations in 2008. After a series of meetings, the two countries signed an arbitration agreement in November 2009 and agreed to submit the unresolved border issue to arbitration.

The tribunal was expected to determine the entire course of approximately 670km of land borders, as well as the maritime boundary and the regime for the use of maritime areas.

The coming general elections in Croatia, which should be organised by February 2016, will only complicate the restart of the arbitration. Polls suggest that there will be a tight race between Croatia’s ruling coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HSZ). A recent poll carried out by marketing agency Ipsos Puls earlier this month showed that the HDZ-led coalition would be backed by 32.3% of the Croats, while the coalition led by SDP enjoys the support of 28% of the voters.

Should SDP give in to possible pressure coming from the EU to restart the trial, nationalist HDZ could portray the move as a defeat of the government and thus gain more support in the coming elections. SDP has no intention to look weak before elections and will probably try to take advantage of its current popular move and delay taking any other decision before elections.

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