Thirty-ninth Report of Session 2012-13 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents


14   Croatia: monitoring the accession process

(34812)

7999/13

COM(13) 171

Commission Communication: "Monitoring Report on Croatia's accession preparations"

Legal base
Document published26 March 2013
Document deposited5 April 2013
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Basis of considerationEM 9 April 2013
Previous Committee ReportNone; but see (34320)14854/12: HC 86-xxi (2012-13), chapter 12 (28 November 2012) and HC 86-xvii (2012-13), chapter 1 (24 October 2012); also see (33848) 9170/12: HC 86-ii (2012-13), chapter 19 (16 May 2012); also see (33669) 6228/12: HC 86-ii (2012-13), chapter 21 (16 May 2012) and HC 428-lviii (2010-12), chapter 2 (25 April 2012); also see (33387) —: HC 428-xlvi (2010-12), chapter 16 (11 January 2012) and HC 428-xliii (2010-12), chapter 22 (7 December 2011)
Discussion in Council22 April 2013 Foreign Affairs Council
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared

The Committee's Report of 24 October 2012

14.1  The Committee reported on the previous Commission report on monitoring the pre-accession process for Croatia in October. We took the view that, logically, the House should not have been asked to ratify the accession treaty until this pre-accession monitoring process had been completed, and it had been demonstrated that Croatia was indeed fully prepared.

14.2  In the meantime, we would have recommended that that previous monitoring report be debated on the Floor of the House, in order to help with that final judgement. That option, however, had been taken out of our hands, since the Government had already begun the ratification process.

14.3  We therefore asked for our Report to be "tagged" to the Second Reading debate, so that it could provide relevant background.

14.4  We also drew it to the attention of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

14.5  Finally, we cleared the Commission Communication.[43]

The Minister's letter of 16 November 2012

14.6  The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington), wrote in connection with the undertaking that he gave during the 6 November 2012 House of Commons debate on the EU (Croatian Accession and Irish Protocol) Bill, to respond formally to the points raised in the Committee's Report.

14.7  He set out the Government's position on what he acknowledged were important concerns relating to Croatia's readiness to join the EU on 1 July 2013 — "confident that the Government and the Committee have a shared objective of ensuring that Croatia is ready in full before accession, that the pre-accession monitoring process is working to deliver this, and that the credibility of the enlargement process remains intact".

14.8  The Minister's response is set out in detail in our most recent Report. The main points were as follows.

Cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), domestic war crimes and the issue of impunity

14.9  He agreed with the Committee that full cooperation with the ICTY had been, and remained, vital to Croatia's accession. The Minister noted that the Chief Prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, had confirmed publicly that there were "no outstanding issues that might burden relations between Croatia and ICTY". The failure to locate important missing military documents was unfortunate but did not prove that the Croatian authorities had been uncooperative. Looking ahead, he expected Croatia to continue to cooperate with the ICTY and to respect any further judgments.

14.10  The slow progress on processing domestic war crimes and the issue of impunity remained a key challenge for Croatia. But domestic war crimes were a separate issue from Croatia's ICTY commitments, covered instead by Croatia's obligations under the Accession Treaty and the European Commission's pre-accession monitoring.

14.11  The Minister listed some of the progress noted in the Commission's report and Monitoring Tables.[44] However, the Minister agreed with the Committee that addressing impunity remained a major challenge; that the majority of war crimes were yet to be successfully prosecuted; and on the importance of ensuring that witness attendance was facilitated and protection provided.

Croatia's ability to manage its borders and the threats posed to UK and EU security from organised crime networks

14.12  The Committee raised these concerns because Croatia will have the longest external border of any EU country upon accession. The Minister said Croatia did not present a high risk to the UK either as a source or transit country for illegal migration. Border controls between Croatia and neighbouring EU countries would continue until Croatia became a member of the Schengen area. The UK retained its border controls. Third country nationals would therefore continue to be subject to the same level of controls after accession; he therefore did not expect any increase in illegal immigration or asylum applications to the UK as a result of Croatia's accession. Accession would ensure that the UK could work together with Croatia to tackle illegal migration.

Corruption

14.13  Croatia continued to tackle this issue and remained on track to meet its commitment in this area. Croatia has taken several high profile steps in tackling corruption. The focus was now on the amendment and immediate and efficient implementation of the Police Act, to ensure transparency of recruitment procedures, professionalism and depoliticisation. The Conflict of Interest Commission should be established before the end of 2012.

Comparisons with Romania and Bulgaria

14.14  Croatia had faced the toughest accession negotiations to date, and had gone through a much more demanding process than that demanded of Romania and Bulgaria or earlier accession States. If issues of concern were identified, then the Council, acting by qualified majority on a proposal from the Commission, could take "all appropriate measures". On the basis of their track record, the Government took the view that Croatia would be ready in full to join by 1 July 2013. In response to the Commission's October report, the Croatian government had produced a new Action Plan, detailing the steps that Croatia planned to take to meet the Commission's recommendations. However, as this was not a public document, the Minister could not place a copy in the Parliamentary Libraries.

Our assessment

14.15   We reproduced the Ministers' letters verbatim, since we judged it important for the House to be aware of their contents, now that the ratification process was under way.

14.16  On the question of ICTY cooperation, given the recent acquittal of Messrs Gotovina and Markac, the question was now somewhat academic; it would never be known if the missing artillery documents would have been material to the issue upon which the acquittal turned (failure to prove a criminal conspiracy). However, we remained unconvinced that, as defined by the Minister — committed and sustained activity demonstrating one hundred per cent effort and political will — full cooperation had ever been truly forthcoming.

14.17  The Minister was not just sanguine about the border issue, but also confident that all would be well on the day, and thereafter, despite all the work that remained to be done between last autumn and this July on this and other key issues — plus, presumably, that which he did not mention revolving around public procurement and local government, and a demonstrable ability to handle EU funds without prior scrutiny.

14.18  In so doing, he placed a high premium on the conviction of a previous prime minister and the determination of a reform-minded Minister: but such convictions elsewhere in the EU's Neighbourhood had taken place without being seen as in any way reassuring; and the endeavours of reform-minded Ministers elsewhere had, despite an equal measure of governmental determination and backing at the time, foundered in the face of a political class who did not fully share those "European values" — the lack of which being the main reason why Bulgaria and Romania remained subject to (ineffective) post-accession monitoring.

14.19  The Minister made much of Croatia's accession process having been much more demanding: but it would have been a dereliction of duty by the Member States had it not been. Even now, that this re-vamped process was to be changed again so that future candidates "address the important rule of law chapters, Chapters 23 and 24, earlier in the process, ensuring that reforms can be enacted early and a consistent track record developed", illustrated the extent to which this point had yet to be reached in the case of Croatia. This made it all the more disturbing that the Government chose to foreclose on the possibility of further evidence-based consideration by bringing the ratification process to a head last November. Since the Action Plan that the Minister enclosed with his letter was a private document, the House could not even see what it was that the Croatian government had set itself to do between then and this Spring's final monitoring Commission report.

14.20  Though we indeed shared the Government's objective of ensuring that "Croatia is ready in full before accession, that the pre-accession monitoring process is working to deliver this, and that the credibility of the enlargement process remains intact", we continued not to share the Minister's sense of ease about either the process thus far or prospects over the remaining seven months before Croatia's accession.[45]

The Commission Monitoring Report

14.21  The Commission published its final monitoring report on Croatia's accession preparations on 26 March. It provides an assessment of Croatia's progress during the period 1 September 2012 to 28 February 2013 and its readiness for membership. It follows the October 2012 Comprehensive Monitoring Report.

14.22  The latest report focuses in particular on the chapters covering Competition Policy (Chapter 8), Judiciary and Fundamental Rights (Chapter 23), and Justice, Freedom and Security (Chapter 24) and provides an assessment of delivery against the ten priority areas that the Commission identified in the October Comprehensive Monitoring Report as requiring the most attention in order to ensure that Croatia was ready in full.

14.23  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 9 April 2013, the Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington) notes that, overall, the report concludes that Croatia is "generally meeting" its commitments and requirements in all chapters and has completed the ten priority actions listed in the October 2012 Comprehensive Monitoring Report (with one caveat: construction of border crossing points at the Neum corridor "is expected to be completed imminently"). Clear work plans that set out the actions necessary to address final outstanding areas, and the fact that actions in some areas are about to be finalised, has given the Commission confidence that Croatia will be able to fulfil all of its commitments in time for accession. The Commission notes that Croatia's accession follows ten years of rigorous accession preparations following its application for membership in 2003 (the negotiations themselves lasted six years) and that Croatia is expected to continue developing its track record in the field of the rule of law after it joins the EU. The Commission calls on Croatia to ensure that it uses the many opportunities afforded by EU membership to the fullest extent, so as to ensure that Croatia's accession is a success, for Croatia, the EU and for the Western Balkans region.

14.24  The Minister then summarises the Commission's findings in helpful detail. The main points are:

—  Chapter 8 (Competition Policy): the Commission expect Croatia to meet fully the key action of completing the restructuring and privatisation of its shipbuilding industry in time for accession. The Commission notes that Croatia has also met the other remaining commitments and requirements in the fields of anti-trust, mergers and State aid on which legislation has been aligned to the acquis and has developed a satisfactory enforcement record based on achieving a sufficient level of administrative capacity to meet its obligations and commitments.

—  Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights): Croatia is generally meeting the requirements of this chapter and has continued to demonstrate progress against the ten specific commitments under this chapter. Croatia has completed the priority actions that were assigned in the October 2012 monitoring report, although work to ensure these actions are fully embedded and effective will need to continue up to and beyond accession. Further work is still required, particularly to ensure the effective implementation of the recent reforms: this is recognised as an ongoing process that will continue beyond accession, as demonstrated, for example, by the Judicial Reform Strategy and the strategy for the development of the judiciary which will run until 2015 and 2018 respectively.

—  Court backlogs: the report notes that Croatia resolved more cases overall in 2012 than were incoming. While the backlog remains above the EU average, a number of efforts have been made to tackle the issue in a sustainable manner. However, a single comprehensive system for case handling remains essential. Overall, the Commission assesses that the measures adopted will contribute to increased efficiency if implemented properly.

—  Domestic war crimes: continued progress is noted. However, further efforts are still required to tackle impunity, as is further enhancement of the administrative capacity of the specialised courts.

—  Organised crime and corruption: the Commission notes that the legal and institutional framework is adequate, law enforcement bodies remain proactive (with evidence of both high- and low-level corruption cases) and that a track record in implementation continues to be developed, with the introduction of the new Criminal Code on 1 January 2013 resulting in a higher number of penalties for offences. However, the report notes that the overall level of sentences and of confiscated assets remains low and Croatia needs to ensure effective sentencing and implementation of the legal framework to be able to develop a sustained track record in these areas and to avoid creating a climate of impunity. In addition, further improvements are needed in tackling low-level corruption, particularly in public procurement. While the legislative framework for preventing conflict of interest has been strengthened and the Conflict of Interest Commission has become operational, Croatia now needs to increase its efforts to develop a track record of substantial results in this area: specific attention is required to ensure strong mechanisms for preventing, detecting and sanctioning conflict of interest cases — in particular, to address the Constitutional Court's November 2012 annulment of several provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act which weaken its verification and sanctioning powers. In public procurement, new legislation is increasing transparency though solid management and control systems need further attention as does the need to ensure that strong mechanisms are in place to prevent corruption in state-owned companies; ensure merit-based promotion in the civil service; and protect whistle-blowers.

—  Protection of minorities: a more proactive government approach has led to attainment of the minorities target for recruiting 400 border police. A new Act on Misdemeanours against Public Order and Peace will include violations based on discriminatory grounds; training of police officers on hate crimes has been stepped up; and draft amendments to the Free Legal Aid Act have been prepared and consulted on (with adoption planned during 2013). Croatia has continued to engage on the Sarajevo Declaration Process to ensure an end to the issue of refugee returns; the remaining unsolicited investment cases are expected to be solved in 2013; but although the implementation of Housing Care programmes continues, it does so at a slow pace, as does the implementation of the new purchase options for housing care beneficiaries.

—  Human rights continue to be well-respected with an active role by the Ombudsman though continued attention is necessary to ensure the Ombudsman's recommendations are followed up and that the Ombudsman's financing is strengthened.

—  ICTY cooperation: the report notes that Croatia's cooperation with the ICTY has continued and that, following the acquittal of the Croatian Generals Marka and Gotovina, the State Attorney's Office has requested the ICTY's documentation to help efforts in prosecuting perpetrators of domestic war crimes during Operation Storm.[46]

—  Chapter 24 (Freedom, Security and Justice): Croatia's preparations in the fields of migration, asylum, visa policy, external borders, judicial cooperation and the fight against organised crime are almost complete. There is positive evidence of continued reform in each area, including increased temporary solutions for accommodating asylum seekers, specialised training for border police, cooperation with Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina on border issues, further alignment of visa requirements legislation and continued alignment with the Schengen acquis. The report also delivers some clear recommendations in the fields of asylum and EU external border management.

—  Migration: Croatia has completed a priority action arising from the last report by adopting its migration strategy in February 2013. Detections of illegal migrants have increased. A temporary solution has been found to house any overflow of migrants in the short term and funding secured for a permanent solution. There has also been an increase in asylum applications; the asylum and appeals system is in place with protection granted to 16 applicants between 1 September 2012 and 9 January 2013; 63 applications were rejected and in 300 proceedings were suspended in the same period.

—  EU external border: preparations are almost complete. Croatia has now met recruitment target for border police for 2012 and continues to recruit. The National Border Management Information System (NBMIS) at the border crossing points (BCPs) located at the future external border were operational at 76 BCPs as at January 2013; 17 more BCPs therefore require implementation of the computer system to deliver on Croatia's Integrated Border Management (IBM) programme. BCPs in the Neum corridor remain the priority and construction work has intensified to ensure crossing points are fully operational by the time of accession. In the fight against corruption in border management, 2,681 unannounced inspections were conducted in the period from 1 September 2012 to 31 January 2013.

—  Police: adoption of related by-laws has been completed to ensure the implementation of the Police Law from 1 January 2013.

—  Human trafficking: further efforts remain necessary, including the need to raise awareness and intensify outreach, as well as to ensure the level of sentencing for cases is appropriate to act as a deterrent. Criminal assets continued to be seized but not in sufficient amounts to disrupt organised crime. The legal provisions on seizure and confiscation of assets need to be implemented more consistently and forcefully to address the low number of asset seizures and money laundering prosecutions.

—  Other negotiating chapters: In a limited number of chapters, further efforts are still required to ensure full compliance by 1 July 2013; in some areas, for example, fisheries and regional policy and the coordination of structural instruments, the Commission recommends that efforts need to be stepped up. The priority action of completing the translation of the acquis is now on track to be completed before accession.

The Government's view

14.25   The Minister welcomes the Commission's report and comments as follows:

"Robust monitoring of Croatia's progress has provided Croatia with the impetus to maintain the momentum of their reform agenda, ensuring continued progress against their commitments as required of them following the closure of accession negotiations in 2011, building on the significant amount of work that has already been completed throughout the accession negotiations.

"However, there remain a number of recommendations throughout the report calling on Croatia to continue to implement and in some cases to step up efforts in areas where, despite meeting (or being expected to meet) their commitments for accession, effective implementation of reforms require further work. While we agree with the Commission that in general Croatia is likely to be ready in full before accession it remains important that Croatia uses the report's recommendations to ensure continued targeted progress in all areas.

"While many actions form part of existing action plans and therefore can be expected to be completed on time if Croatia sustains its current level of progress, there remains an imperative for Croatia further to step up its proactive and vigorous approach to issues such as corruption and tackling organised crime, in particular to address the Commission's concerns on human trafficking. Big challenges remain: ensuring judicial efficiency across the board, reducing the backlog of cases, and tackling impunity and the backlog of cases in handling domestic war crimes. All will require a sustained effort post-accession, where implementation and enforcement are key, not just meeting the requirements for legislative alignment. It is therefore welcome that Croatia already has in place plans in key areas for taking forward these reforms, for example the Judicial Reform Strategy (2011-15) and the forthcoming National Strategy for Roma Inclusion for 2013-20.

"There remain some limited areas within these action plans that need strengthening, as set out in the Commission's report. As Croatian Ministers frequently state, these reforms are in Croatia's interests: if Croatia does not continue the reform progress the already tough job of making a success of EU membership will become even harder. Without the required improvement in economic competiveness inward investment will not be forthcoming, it will be harder for Croatia to compete in the Single Market, and there will be significant impact on Croatia's ability to use post-Accession EU funds effectively. Similarly, tackling war crimes will enable Croatia to put the legacy of the past behind them and to focus on their future as an EU member state where they are keen to play an increasing role on the international stage, using their experience of EU accession in the region to help their neighbours, and further afield their experience of conflict resolution in conflict zones.

"The UK as a strong supporter of Croatia will continue through our bilateral relationship, including both high-level dialogue and bilateral programme assistance work, to encourage Croatia to complete the necessary reforms before accession, and to continue its efforts beyond accession. We remain actively engaged: in 2012-13 Financial Year our bilateral programme allocated a total of £365,000, with the majority of that support targeted towards rule of law assistance projects. This is reflected in our continued support for EU Twinning (expert-to-expert) projects, where the Ministry of Justice has just commenced its latest project in Croatia with assistance targeted at helping to strengthen the efficiency of the judiciary. We look forward to welcoming Croatia to the EU and to working together to encourage all the countries of the Western Balkans to meet the strict but fair conditions for EU membership."

14.26  The Minister expects the report to be discussed at the 22 April 2013 Foreign Affairs Council and for brief Conclusions to be adopted.

Conclusion

14.27   For both the Committee and its predecessors, the focus has always been on maintaining the integrity of the enlargement process and avoiding the ongoing negative consequences of allowing the accession of Bulgaria and Romania before they were able to demonstrate full and comprehensive, practical commitment to the EU's core values — particularly those embraced by "good governance".

14.28  We therefore find it less reassuring than either the Commission or the Government that, as the Minister puts it, it remains "an imperative for Croatia further to step up its proactive and vigorous approach to issues such as corruption and tackling organised crime, in particular to address the Commission's concerns on human trafficking." Or that, at this very late stage, ensuring judicial efficiency across the board, reducing the backlog of cases, and tackling impunity and the backlog of cases in handling domestic war crimes are still described as "big challenges". We have long argued that implementation and enforcement are key, not just meeting the requirements for legislative alignment; and that the five unsuccessful years of post-accession monitoring and support in Bulgaria and Romania have demonstrated that this must be carried out prior to accession. Instead, though likewise stressing the importance of implementation and enforcement over legislative alignment, the Minister notes that a sustained post-accession effort is still required, stretching as far ahead as 2020. No doubt Croatian Ministers frequently state that these reforms are in Croatia's interests: so, no doubt, have several of their counterparts in Bulgaria and Romania over the years. We can but hope that the Commission's and the Government's faith in Croatia's ability to hold to the right course after accession bears fruit. Time alone will tell.

14.29  However, in the first instance we would like the Minister to explain in greater detail — in an evidence session prior to Croatia's accession — why the Government believes it right for accession to have proceeded despite there being so many continuing challenges and why it believes post-accession monitoring is likely to be effective when it has failed hitherto .

14.30  In the meantime, we now clear the document.



43   See headnote: HC 86-xvii (2012-13), chapter 1 (24 October 2012). Back

44   See the Annex to our most recent Report for the text of a separate joint letter of 15 November 2012 from the Secretary of State for Justice and the Minister for Europe on these matters. Back

45   See headnote: see (34320)14854/12: HC 86-xxi (2012-13), chapter 12 (28 November 2012). Back

46   According to a Human Rights Watch publication of 1 August 1996:

"On August 4, 1995, the Croatian Army launched "Operation Storm", an offensive to retake the Krajina region, which had been controlled by separatist ethnic Serbs since early 1991. The offensive, which lasted a mere 36 hours, resulted in the death of an estimated 526 Serbs, 116 of whom were reportedly civilians, and in the displacement of an estimated 200,000 who fled in the immediate aftermath. However, while the Croatian military committed violations of humanitarian law during the course of the offensive such as the bombardment of a column of retreating Serbian civilians and soldiers which caused deaths among the civilians, the vast majority of the abuses committed by Croatian forces occurred after the area had been captured. These abuses by Croatian government forces, which continued on a large scale even months after the area had been secured by Croatian authorities, included summary executions of elderly and infirm Serbs who remained behind and the wholesale burning and destruction of Serbian villages and property. In the months following the August offensive, at least 150 Serb civilians were summarily executed and another 110 persons forcibly disappeared."

See http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,HRW,COUNTRYREP,HRV,,3ae6a7d70,0.html. Back


 
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