Serbian PM cuts short Brussels trip as Croatia blocks opening of EU Chapter 26

Serbian PM cuts short Brussels trip as Croatia blocks opening of EU Chapter 26
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade December 13, 2016

Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic left Brussels the day before the Serbia-EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) as Croatia blocked the opening of Chapter 26 in Serbia's EU accession negotiations, which was expected to be opened at the conference on December 13.

Croatia has been putting obstacles on Serbia’s path toward EU membership for months, which has been expected bearing in mind the long-standing competitiveness between the two countries and the memories of the wars of the 1990s which are still fresh on both sides. Blocking or at least hindering Serbia’s accession process is a chance for Croatia to show its strength as an existing EU member, and rally popular support for the government. 

Vucic decided to leave Brussels on the evening of December 12 after a meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini. He will not now attend the December 13 IGS, according to the Serbian government’s statement

Vucic said after the meeting in Brussels that this was his response to the fact that the EU has not removed obstacles to the opening of Chapter 26 in the negotiations between Serbia and the EU, namely that no agreement has been reached with Croatia to withdraw its blockade on the opening of that chapter.

Serbia currently has four open negotiation chapters. It originally opened Chapter 32 on financial control and Chapter 35 on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina on December 14, 2015.

Earlier this year, the opening of two other chapters was blocked for several months after Croatia initially refused to approve the opening of Chapter 23 in April, though its veto was later lifted. The opening of Chapters 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on justice, freedom and security was officially announced at the third meeting of the ministerial level accession conference with Serbia in Brussels on July 18. 

However, it now appears Belgrade could face a similar struggle at each stage of its negotiation process, with the historic tensions between the two countries colouring Zagreb’s position on its neighbour’s path to EU membership. 

Tensions between the two countries increased this summer as the Croatian general election approached in September. While the situation has since calmed, yet another war of words between the two historic adversaries erupted earlier this month after Croatian President Kolinda-Grabar Kitarovic gave Mony chocolates, made by Serbian firm Pionir, to Croatian children on December 6, the national day of the Defenders of Dubrovnik. Later Kitarovic apologised, sparking anger from Serbia. 

Speaking to local media on December 12, Serbian Labour Minister Aleksandar Vulin called on the EU to intervene in “chocolategate” as the scandal has been dubbed, and take a stance against Kitarovic’s “incomprehensibly racist” comments about Serbian chocolates.

Croatia’s objections to opening Chapter 26 on education and culture are reportedly because Zagreb wants to insert issues related to the Croat minority in Serbia and the return of cultural goods into the negotiations, Beta agency has been told by sources in the EU Council in Brussels. 

Beta’s unnamed source added that the Slovak presidency was still considering the possibility of requesting the so-called written procedure that would see EU members declare themselves on opening Chapter 26, "with minor amendments”. However, other sources in Brussels said it was unlikely that the procedure would be used.

Vucic said he had “difficult and open talks” with Mogherini, but thanked her for her “fair attitude and respect shown towards Serbia.”

“I did not hide the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Serbia with the behaviour of certain EU member states, especially the Republic of Croatia,” Vucic said.

Vucic had scheduled several meetings in Brussels for December 13 but these have now been cancelled. Instead, Serbia’s Minister without Portfolio Responsible for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic will attend the IGC, at which chapters 5 on public procurement and 25, which covers science and research, are due to be opened.

“The Serbian delegation, with the exception of Minister Jadranka Joksimovic, who must be present at the talks on the implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, is returning to Belgrade,” Vucic said.