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EU says fishing row may delay Croatian membership

Croatia’s European Union membership bid will suffer unless Zagreb urgently resolves a fishing row with Slovenia and Italy, its Adriatic neighbors, who are EU members, a top official from the bloc said on Thursday.

“This is a very serious, and now the most urgent, issue for Croatia, which is making some clouds on its sky in terms of EU accession talks,” Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said after meeting Prime Minister Ivo Sanader. “If it is not settled shortly, it can cause serious delays in the talks. But if it can be settled shortly, there is a bright future and rapid progress can be made.”

At the start of the year Croatia added EU countries to the list of those it has barred from fishing in its ecological and fisheries zone, which reaches into the middle of the Adriatic and is aimed at preserving fish stocks and limiting pollution. Brussels, Italy and Slovenia complain this breaches Zagreb’s earlier pledge not to apply the zone to EU countries. Rehn said he was now confident an agreement “in the EU spirit” could be reached to end the row, but Sanader, who has repeatedly called for talks with Brussels, Italy and Slovenia, struck a more cautious note. “Italy is facing elections and the technical government does not want to assume responsibility. A meeting of all four sides now looks difficult and if there is no meeting, we will have a problem in our (EU) talks. In that case we’ll have to do something else,” he said. Italy is ruled by a caretaker government until a parliamentary election due in April.

Decisive year

Croatia, with 4.4 million people, hopes EU membership will boost its economic prosperity, ease trade with the continent’s biggest market and ensure political stability after the turbulence of its Yugoslav past. Rehn said 2008 could be a make or break year for Croatia’s tentative plan to join the bloc in 2010 or 2011. “The government will have to make some difficult decisions on reforms so negotiations can continue at a good pace,” he said. Sanader said he was confident Croatia could wrap up the accession talks by the middle of next year. “We shall try to complete most reforms this year, particularly the judiciary, fight against corruption, restructuring of the shipyards and the tax system,” he said.

The World Bank, which is involved in all areas where major reforms are necessary, also urged Zagreb to tackle key structural reforms seriously as soon as possible. “I hope the government will start dealing with the most important structural reforms in the coming months,” the Bank’s country manager for Croatia, András Horvai, told Reuters in an interview. He said Zagreb was aware of reform priorities but their implementation was socially sensitive. (Reuters)