Croatia strives to help Serbia in its European integration process, and the issues highlighted in this process are important both for Serbia and for the whole process of building sustainable peace, security and reconciliation in this part of Europe. For them, the European framework is relevant, rather than the bilateral one. Among neighbours, there are always open issues, and as long as they are dealt with through mutual respect and openness for cooperation it will be possible to make progress, says H.E. Gordan Markotić, Croatian Ambassador to Serbia.
Even when these relationships in the eyes of the public reach boiling point, at many levels cooperation remains regular and makes life easier for citizens. One such niche is economic cooperation, which progresses without regard for everyday challenges.
How would do you evaluate the current level of cooperation between the two governments and can that cooperation be strengthened?
– Current cooperation between the two governments is determined by the election and post-election processes. It is to be expected that meetings will be organised between senior representatives of the two countries at which all outstanding issues will be discussed. Likewise, meetings between various joint committees responsible for dealing with certain issues should also be intensified.
However, regardless of this, regular cooperation continues at different levels and in various areas. Many areas have regulated that ease the everyday lives of citizens. In this context, I would mention the recent signing of the Agreement on the Exchange of Data of the Satellite System, which will allow construction companies, agricultural producers, scientific institutions, state administration and local government to utilise data with a greater degree of reliability on positioning in the border region of Serbia and Croatia.
It is also important to note that there will always be outstanding issues with neighbours, but that they should be addressed through the development of good neighbourly relations based on mutual respect, commitment, cooperation and respect for mutual interests.
Do you think there can be respect for suggestions from the European Commission that many outstanding issues between the two countries should be resolved bilaterally, rather than as part of the process of Serbia’s European integration?
– Serbia’s EU membership is to the long-term benefit of our interstate relations. For this reason, Croatia, as an EU member, strives to help Serbia on its path of sustained implementation of the reform process and the achievement of European values and standards that contribute to easing integration into the European Union.
In contact with the European Commission and other member states, we want to be constructive and we want Serbia to make progress. In this, it is necessary to strengthen awareness of the necessity to implement various reforms and I completely agree with those who say that the essential reforms ahead of Serbia are not to be done because of some EU member states or because of the EU, but for Serbia itself and because of its society as a whole.
In this context, we highlighted certain issues that are important not only for Serbia but also for the overall process of building lasting peace, security and reconciliation in this part of Europe, and which are based on the European values and standards to which we all aspire.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić announced that he would like one of his first visits in his new mandate to be to Zagreb. Do you see that as a step in the right direction?
– Interest in intensifying bilateral contacts and a desire for further improving relations has been expressed in both countries. Each bilateral meeting contributes to mutual trust and understanding and encouraging various forms of bilateral cooperation. In this regard, we welcome the initiative for bilateral gatherings and meetings. Precisely such meetings can equate to additional incentives for the continued operation of the joint committees that I have already mentioned, and which are very important for resolving outstanding issues.
Do you think this communication at the highest level could contribute to resolving the issues of the Serbian minority in Croatia and Croatians in Serbia?
– Croatia’s attitude towards the issue of minorities is clear. Croatia guarantees the protection and realisation of the rights of national minorities, but at the same time is interested in protecting the rights and interests of the Croatian national minority in other countries. We are interested, therefore, in the position of the Serbian minority in Croatia and the Croatian minority in Serbia.
For this reason, it is also important for us to implement the Agreement on the Mutual Protection of Minorities, which was signed in 2004. We believe that minorities can and should be the bridge of good neighbourly relations. I would remind you that the rights of national minorities in Croatia are regulated by the Constitutional Law on National Minorities, which guaranteed status in accordance with the highest European standards.
They are guaranteed representation in the representative bodies at the national, regional and local levels. Thus, for example, minorities are entitled to eight seats in the Croatian Parliament, for which members of the Serbian national minority should elect three representatives. We now have a strong interest in ensuring the political participation of representatives of the Croatian minority in Serbia’s representative bodies. It is precisely communication at the highest level that can contribute to resolving this issue.
We now have a strong interest in ensuring the political participation of representatives of the Croatian minority in Serbia’s representative bodies
The third anniversary of Croatia’s accession to the EU will soon be marked. This small anniversary comes at a time when the EU faces major challenges and countries such as the UK are considering whether there is any point in proceeding further. Are you afraid of the consequences of Brexit?
– It was three years ago that Croatia completed its long and difficult journey to the EU, which it had strived to reach since gaining its independence. That date will rightfully remain recorded as being among the most important in the country’s history. Accession negotiations with Croatia were opened in October 2005 and turned out to be among the longest and most complex negotiation processes in the history of the EU. They also differed from previous negotiation processes because each new enlargement requires more from the country aspiring to join.
Croatia, therefore, faced much greater demands than merely fulfilling the requirements of the EU legal framework. At the end of this process, which involved all segments of Croatian society, the EU assessed that Croatia had implemented all reforms in a credible, sustainable and satisfactory manner.
During our accession process, the EU also confronted many challenges, from the financial and economic crises to problems related to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Croatia, of course, monitored this course of events but was not discouraged by them. Equally, it is important for Serbia to continue with reforms and fulfilling the requirements for membership. The European Union has in the past solved many difficult challenges, and I am therefore certain that the process of integrating European countries will continue, just as it has successfully endured for nearly seven decades.
As of joining the EU, Croatia ceased to be a CEFTA member, thus it cannot take advantage of the benefits of regional cooperation. Has that had economic ramifications?
– By becoming an EU Member State the country became part of the European single market and began acting according to its rules and standards, which means that all previous bilateral and regional free trade agreements ceased to be valid. The Republic of Croatia prepared for this eventuality in a timely manner, knowing how important the market in the immediate neighbourhood is and with whom it has traditional economic and trade relations.
The CEFTA market is ranked second in terms of importance and contributed more than 10 per cent of the total goods trade. This was also the case even before the accession of Croatia to the EU, and so it has remained until today. Exports from Croatia to CEFTA countries at a percentage of total Croatian exports accounts for about 20 per cent (from 2010 to 2015 this varied in the range from the minimum of 18 per cent in 2015 to nearly 21 per cent in 2012), while imports from CEFTA countries to Croatia account for around five to six per cent, which confirms the importance of the CEFTA market to Croatia.
Even after the accession of Croatia to the EU, total trade with the CEFTA countries continued to grow, so that in 2015 it amounted to just over three billion euros and was higher compared to the previous year by 2.6%. At the same time, exports amounted to a total of 2.06 billion euros, while imports were worth 3.08 billion.
Thus, Croatia’s entry into the EU did not lead to major distortions and negative consequences in trade with CEFTA countries, although there are still some problems, such as with Bosnia-Herzegovina, they are also slowly being resolved.
The businesspeople of the two countries successfully resist all turbulences, both those caused by the challenges of the market, as well as others
How would you assess economic cooperation between Serbia and Croatia, which appears to be able to resist changes in communication at the political level?
– I think that our overall economic cooperation can be assessed as good. Entrepreneurs have achieved some kind of rhythm of their own and successfully resist all turbulence – both in terms of those challenges conditioned by the market and those, as you said, “at the political level”. Mutual interest and partnership have been found, which is natural and should continue. Of course, there is still room for improvement in terms of the creation and improvement of the legal framework and an incentive framework for doing business better.
Today in Serbia there are about 200 companies operating with the capital of Croatia, of which 150 are active in the business. Among them are major companies, such as Agrokor, Atlantic, Podravka, Vindija, NEXE Group, Croatia Insurance and others, which employ a significant number of people, contribute to Serbian exports and the development of local communities, filling the budget of Serbia.
Croatian investments in Serbia have increased by 700 million euros, which is a large amount for such a small country like ours. Serbia is the third investment destination for Croatian investors who invest elsewhere in the world. The trade exchange between the two countries last year reached nearly a billion euros, which was a record for the last five years. At the same time, exports from Croatia to Serbia are also growing, while exports from Serbia to Croatia are increasingly dynamic, which is significant for the development of good partnerships.
Serbia is an important foreign trade partner and businesspeople recognised that on time. What is missing is the larger and more successful linking of SMEs and more work needs to be done on that, precisely because they comprise the core of both economies, maintaining its vitality and ensuring it has a future.
The chambers of commerce and other business associations, such as, for example, clusters, have a serious task of encouraging such cooperation and raising it to the level that it deserves, and thereby enhancing the dynamism of overall economic relations between the two countries.
In the era of globalisation and fierce market competition, smaller economies are advised to make joint participation in large markets. Does such a possibility exist for the economies of the region?
– This is a region that requires more work and practical moves, because, apart from sporadic initiatives, mainly declaratory ones of a few years ago, not much progress has been made. It can often be heard how important this is at conferences and meetings that bring together participants from the neighbourhood, or which are held between our two countries.
Such were the latest messages also emanating from the recent conference “Food for Europe”, held under the auspices of this year’s Agricultural Fair in Novi Sad, with examples of such cooperation relayed. However, as I have already said, this needs more work, research (which markets are they, how ready are we, do we have what is sought and in what quantities), via particular projects and investments that are economically justified by the objective of such realisation.