Croatia external relations briefing: A Summary of 2020 Key Foreign Affairs Events in Croatia

Croatia external relations briefing: A Summary of 2020 Key Foreign Affairs Events in Croatia
ISSN: 2560-1601

                                                                                       Vol. 35, No. 4 (HR)

                                                                                          December 2020

                               Croatia external relations briefing:
        A Summary of 2020 Key Foreign Affairs Events in Croatia
                                           Valentino Petrović

                                                                1052 Budapest Petőfi Sándor utca 11.

                                                                +36 1 5858 690
Kiadó: Kína-KKE Intézet Nonprofit Kft.
Szerkesztésért felelős személy: Chen Xin
Kiadásért felelős személy: Huang Ping                 

A Summary of 2020 Key Foreign Affairs Events in Croatia


     The year 2020 was supposed to be a turning point for Croatia in foreign affairs portfolio
for the reason of long-awaited presidency over the Council of the European Union. This process
of Croatian “recognition” on European scale was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but
after a six-months period the Government commented that much has been done considering the
circumstances. Most of all, the Zagreb Declaration has been adopted during the virtual Zagreb
Summit held in May where the EU leaders have met with Western Balkans partners. In addition,
the 2020 was marked by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Croatia, as well as
the recent political development in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


     The Croatian Government had major plans in foreign affairs portfolio at the beginning of
2020 mostly due to the fact that Croatia took the rotating presidency over the Council of the
European Union on 1st January, an event that was often highlighted as one of the greatest
successes in Croatian modern political history and diplomacy, even though the presidency is
merely a historic sequence that awaits every member state of the European Union sooner or
later. Since Croatia is the youngest member state and the government is ran by Andrej
Plenković, a former member of European Parliament who seemed to be predestined to lead
Croatia during the EU presidency period and who managed, in his own words, to transform the
ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in modern, pro-European, yet Christian democratic
political party, the presidency was seen as an opportunity for Croatia to shine in European
foreign affairs and gain a widespread recognition among the “big players”.

     However, the foreign media spotlight was stolen by COVID-19, while the Croatian
domestic political agenda was mostly structured around the July parliamentary race and the
relations between the Prime Minister and the newly-elected President. For this reason, it seems
as the presidency over the Council of the European Union has never really happened.
Nevertheless, during the parliamentary elections campaign, Andrej Plenković underlined
several times everything that has been done during the six-months presidency, but the
opposition would often undermine the Government’s influence within the European structures.

With regards to Croatian 2020 foreign affairs highlights, one has to mention the October visit
from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as the relations of Croatia with other
countries in the region.

      The Presidency over the Council of the European Union

      In the program presented during the last October’s conference “A Strong Europe in a
World of Challenges”, the Prime Minister mentioned four priorities to be accomplished during
the Croatian presidency: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects,
and an influential Europe. Apart from these charming and well-written phrases, Croatian
presidency coincided with the negotiations on 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework
which enabled Croatian ministers to preside over the various Council meetings in ten different
configurations and to push for Croatian interests at European scale. But it appears that everyone
was aware of the fact that the agreement on Multiannual Financial Framework will be reached
during the German presidency which ended up to be true and Croatian focus was shifted
towards the enlargement policy and the relations with the Western Balkans countries, especially
regarding Albanian and North Macedonian accession. On 26th March, the member states have
given their consent to formally open the negotiations with the above-mentioned countries and
Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Gordan Grlić-Radman, was quick to
declare it a Croatian accomplishment by saying: “Croatia has made all foreign policy efforts to
convince all member states that it was necessary to open negotiations with these two countries
(…) this is a great political success for Croatia”. Prime Minister joined him by describing this
as a fulfillment of one promise given by Croatia at start of its presidency. He further
acknowledged Croatian initiative to influence France, the Netherlands and Denmark to change
their views when it comes to EU’s enlargement.

      A highly-expected Zagreb Summit was held on 6th May as a follow-up event to this
decision and it brought up leaders of EU member states and six Western Balkans countries –
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo,
respectively. The Summit was considered a central event of the Croatian presidency but had to
be organized virtually due to COVID-19 circumstances. First and foremost, all actors included
in the Summit expressed their reciprocal interests to further strengthen the integration process
of the Western Balkans countries. Thus, the European Union gave its full support for the
European perspective of the six countries, while the Wester Balkans partners reiterated their
commitment to European values “as their first strategic choice”. The member states also

committed themselves to financially aid the six countries during the socio-economic crisis and
post-pandemic recovery. To that end “the EU has mobilized a package over €3.3 billion,
including €750 million of Macro-Financial Assistance and a €1.7 billion package of assistance
from the European Investment Bank”. Prime Minister Plenković highlighted that Croatia has
intensified the emergency action activities during the crisis period and held multiple
conferences in each of the Council’s configurations.

      A Brief View of Croatia-United States Energy and Military Relations

      Croatia’s relations with the European Union could be analyzed from the United States
perspective, especially after the win of Joe Biden on the November US presidential elections.
Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was warmly welcomed in Croatia, mostly due to his
knowledge of the relations on the Western Balkans, but also for his understanding of nineties
war-time. However, a month before the US elections, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a
visit to Croatia during his second tour around Central and Eastern European countries. As soon
as the visit was announced, Croatian media started to speculate on what was the true nature of
it: economic cooperation, energy security, visa waiver program or double tax convention. If we
dismiss the bilateral dimension of Croatia-US relations for a minute, and focus on somewhat
broader aspect of European Union-US relations, we could argue that Croatia has an important
role in reaffirmation of ties between the EU and US through energy convergence. The energy
security of EU member states has been and still is important for the US. The energy market of
EU is still widely dominated by Russia, while the US is looking to counter it with rising export
levels of LNG. A major energy project of Croatia is the LNG terminal on the Adriatic island of
Krk that will connect Croatian transmission network with Slovenia, Italy and Hungary, as well
as Serbia and Montenegro, and will have a capacity of 2.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas
per year.

      The project was in talks ever since 2016 when Croatian former Prime Minister Tihomir
Orešković met with State Department’s special envoy for international energy affairs Amos
Hochstein. Hochstein acknowledged the importance of the Krk LNG terminal and said that it
serves both Croatian and US interests. Joe Biden shared the same enthusiasm during his tenure
as Vice President in Obama’s administration and gave his support for project in 2014. Now,
with Mike Pompeo’s recent visit and Biden soon to take the Office, it appears that major
preconditions for energy cooperation or better to say, the joint-interest project, between Croatia
and the US have been fulfilled. Other than energy security, Croatia has interest in purchase of

F-16 block 70 fighter jets from US. Of course, the US was not the only tenderer in the process.
The offers have been submitted from Sweden, France and Israel as well, but Pompeo’s visit has
been characterized as “some kind of a pressure” by President Zoran Milanović who, after all,
said that American jets should be Croatia’s first choice due to a long-lasting military
cooperation between the two countries. The process, however, does not possess a virtue of
transparency, as Croatian public, media and military experts have not been informed almost
about anything, except the above-listed tenderers.


     Finally, the inevitable matter in Croatian foreign policy is the situation in Bosnia and
Herzegovina. Both Plenković and Milanović have expressed concerns about the position of
Croats in that country and underlined the need to ensure equal rights for all three constituent
peoples. To meet that end, Prime Minister and the President have welcomed Milorad Dodik,
the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a meeting that took
place in Zagreb and provoked many critics including those from Šefik Džaferović and Željko
Komšić. A day earlier, Dodik called for a unification of Republika Srpska and Republic of
Serbia, but the two heads of Croatian executive commented that Dodik came to Zagreb as a
representative of the Serb people, not as a member of the Presidency. Bottom line, the year
2020, shadowed worldwide by the COVID-19 related circumstances, affected the notability of
Croatian foreign relations. Regardless, the outlined events and milestones, preserved Croatia’s
position as a growing actor in both the sphere of EU developments and regional occurrences.

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