The global scene has never looked more uncertain than during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. That is why we took the opportunity to talk with the head of the Croatian diplomacy, Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman, about the government’s strategic foreign priorities as well as the challenges ahead of the regional and European political scene.
Your ministry has called for civil servants to apply for the US visa so that by September 30th preconditions could be met for the cancellation of visa requirements in 2021. The deadline is in less than 20 days. Will we succeed and what would that mean for Croatia?
- Visa waver is our government’s top foreign priority as Croatia is one of the few EU member states that still have a visa regime with the US. Removing that obstacle would strengthen the US-Croatia economic and business cooperation, while the citizens would enjoy a greater freedom of movement. That is why the government is prepared to cover the cost, given that we had saved a lot of money during our Council of the EU presidency. We believe that that would make the Croatian passport an important political and cultural emissary, and that Croatia would get more popular on the international scene, which would ultimately increase its rating. We have made significant progress in meeting the legal and technical preconditions for the realization of that goal and I believe we can expect good news. In addition, we are working intensively on concluding the double taxation avoidance agreement with the US, which will also mark a great success for the current government.
Taking the helm of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced the formation of a geopolitical EU. Is that project heading in the right direction?
- The EU is trying to position itself as an important economic and political actor in a world rocked by powerful changes. However, primarily it is trying to prove itself as a community of true values, human rights, market competition, rule of law and all of those positive values that Croatia chose to adhere to when becoming a member state. I believe that during the coronavirus crisis the EU has shown that it cares about its citizens, not only by repatriating them but also through a number of measures it has taken, directing every euro towards protecting lives. Crucial was the political agreement on the recovery package and the multiannual financial package, which will enable the EU to weather the crisis and implement additional priorities. These include climate transition, the Green Deal and digitalization. It is certainly a major investment in strengthening the EU’s geostrategic position as well as its role in international relations.
Are you satisfied with Croatia’s EU presidency?
- As a representative of a relatively small country that has only recently joined the EU, I was honoured and proud that we got the opportunity to chair the Council of the EU so soon, even though times were challenging. The Homeland War experience taught Croatia to be agile and adapt to sudden changes, which meant a lot when the pandemic put a stop to in-person meetings. We reacted quickly and ensured that decisions continued being made via video conferences. The European family has recognized that we have done a great job and we can be truly proud of it.
Germany took over the presidency after Croatia. It seems that Minister Maas and you have a particularly close relationship. What does he think of our presidency?
- Given that during my ambassadorial term in Germany I was one of the initiators of the Action Plan, which among other things coordinated our EU presidencies, my counterpart Maas and I agreed to hand over the presidency symbolically in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It is not a common practice, but it is a nice gesture. Maas then genuinely thanked Croatia for adapting and harmonizing the policies of the 27 member states.
It seems that relations with Slovenia have finally stabilized. Does the new Slovenian government has something to do with it and can we expect the outstanding issues to be resolved at last?
- It is the responsibility of the politicians to care about the problems of their citizens and improve neighbourly relations. Just as you have to water a plant every day for it to grow, neighbourly relations have to be nurtured too. Our relations with Slovenia have had their ups and downs, but I do believe they have improved in the past few months. For the last 30 or so years, we have been unable to find solutions to certain issues. I believe that through mutual political will, a positive approach and active diplomacy, we can reach a solution to mutual satisfaction. I am certain that frequent meetings on the level of prime ministers and ministers will raise the level of understanding and trust, and that we will begin working on the remaining outstanding issued before the end of the current government’s term.
You highlighted Bosnia and Herzegovina at the start of your ministerial term and the main priority. Will you be focusing on changing the electoral law?
- That’s right, that is the government’s priority – as well as my own personally, as I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will primarily continue to support legitimate Croatian political representatives in their efforts to exercise freely their political rights on all levels of government, which is guaranteed by their status as a constituent nation. Unfortunately, that is currently not the case, and the main precondition for the realization of said rights is to change the electoral law. There is no doubt that Croatia is an honest and active advocate for the Euro-Atlantic integration of BiH. The success of the Zagreb Summit in May has underlined that fact. Only a functional and pro-European BiH, in which all three constituent peoples are equal and satisfied with their status, can have a future.
Montenegro’s election results were celebrated more in Belgrade than in Podgorica. Should one fear that Montenegro would stray from its Euro-Atlantic path?
- We have followed the elections in Montenegro closely as it is our neighbouring country, whose European journey and Euro-Atlantic prospects we strongly support. For us, the status of Croats in Montenegro is extremely important. We expect that with the next government we will continue working constructively on resolving our outstanding issues, and that we will continue the pro-European cooperation with Montenegro to the benefit of the Croatian community in Montenegro.
Just a few days ago in Washington, an agreement was signed on the normalization of economic relations between Kosovo and Serbia. What are the preconditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Pristina and Belgrade in the first place?
- We support the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as the efforts of our envoy Miroslav Lajčak. The result of the dialogue should be an agreement on complete normalization of relations that is comprehensible, sustainable and mindful of regional and international implications. Continuing the dialogue in order to reach a legally binding agreement is a precondition for Serbia and Kosovo’s progress along the European path.
As per agreement, Serbia was among the first European countries to pledge to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What is your comment on that?
- Serbia is an EU candidate and is holding membership talks. As such, it is obliged to align its foreign policy with that of the EU. In that regard, the EU, which means Croatia too, remains adamant in respecting the international consensus in line with the relevant UN resolutions. Therefore, our embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
This week you got back from an official visit to Israel. What was the purpose of your visit?
- This was my first official visit as the new foreign minister. The primary purpose was to arrange the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding and Strategic Partnership, which will include sectors of mutual importance and interest. I expect my counterpart Gabriel Ashkenazi to pay a return visit so we can finalize the document. Given that there is a lot of room for the strengthening of cultural, economic and scientific cooperation between our countries, I went to Israel to kick-start the advancement of our economic ties. We also discussed tourist cooperation, given that Israelis love visiting Croatia. As the Israeli government has green-listed us ahead of the holidays in Israel, we can expect a large number of their tourists.
Israel has recently signed the so-called Abraham Accord with the UAE, which Croatia supports. How would you describe this engagement? Will it have a long-term stabilising effect on the Middle East or will it destabilize it further?
- Each Israel’s step towards the normalization of relations with the Arab countries is a contribution to the stabilization and peace in the wider regions, which has been suffering instability for decades. I hope that it is the first step towards additional normalization. I also hope that it will create the atmosphere necessary for the Middle East Peace Process and the reconstruction of Israel-Palestine talks.
According to the latest Pentagon information, China is stepping up its armament. Are the relations between Beijing and the EU irreparably damaged after the coronavirus pandemic?
- In foreign policy, relations are never irreparably damaged. The relations between the EU and China are complex. We have different approaches to international relations and the economy, and we have different political systems. Croatia advocates respecting the international law, by both small and big countries. The EU has the same approach and wants China to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy, as well as human rights in general. I would like to add that Croatia has excellent bilateral relations with China. On the international scene, we are pushing for a dialogue between the US, EU and China, as we are all faced with global challenges that can hardly be resolved without the political will and active engagement of the biggest international actors.
(Reporter: Tea Trubić Macan/Jutarnji list)