Croatia takes over EU presidency with ambitious programme but faces tough challenges
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    Croatia takes over EU presidency with ambitious programme but faces tough challenges

    For the first time since it joined the European Union, Croatia took over the presidency of the Council of the Union on 1 January 2020. During a six-month period, Croatia will lead the work of the Council, building co-operation and agreement between member states.

    Croatia became the 28th and latest member state in 2013 after 10 years of accession negotiations.

    The presidency rotates among the EU member states every six months. During this 6-month period, the presidency chairs meetings at all levels in the Council. Member states holding the presidency work together in groups of three, called “trios”. The current trio is made up of Romania, Finland and Croatia.

    The trio sets long-term goals and prepares a common agenda determining the topics and major issues that will be addressed by the Council over an 18-month period. On the basis of this program, each of the three countries prepares its own, more detailed six-month programme.

    At a press briefing yesterday in Brussels, ambassador Irena Andrassy from the Croatian representation to the EU presented her country’s programme for the presidency. It was clear that Croatia has done its homework and takes the presidency seriously but it seemed also overwhelmed by the tasks ahead.

    In fact, hardly any other country has taken over the presidency facing so many crucial and difficult challenges as Croatia. Its presidency comes at a time of change for the EU, following the elections of a new European Parliament, a new European Commission, and Brexit, with a member state leaving the EU for the first-time in a cloud of uncertainty about its future relations.

    Add to this the sudden increase in international tension, which puts EU’s diplomacy to the test, populism in EU member states, uneven economic development, existential climate change, and migration. These are only are some of the challenges listed in Croatia’s programme and facing the EU and its citizens.

    In an attempt to prioritize, Croatia has divided its programme into four pillars: A Europe that develops; A Europe that connects; A Europe that protects; and An influential Europe. These four pillars are united in the motto “A strong Europe in a world of challenges”, which summarizes the vision of the EU acting for the benefit of its Member States and its citizens.

    Many of the economic issues, including the new European Green Deal, fall under the first pillar. An agreement on EU’s long-term budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021 – 2027, is crucial for achieving EU’s goals and Croatia aims at arriving as swiftly as possible to a comprehensive and balanced solution.

    “We are in close contact with the Parliament, the Council and the member states,” said ambassador Andrassy and was optimistic about adopting the MFF during the presidency. Although there is no agreement yet on the total budget and its allocation by policy areas, Croatia will carry out technical work on all the legislative documents which will need to be prepared in time.

    Discussions on the Green Deal and the different actions foreseen to combat climate change will take up much of the time in the coming months. Agriculture is an important policy area in the Green Deal. The Commission plans to present a “Farm to Fork” strategy for a more sustainable food policy. It will also propose that at least 40 % of the agriculture budget will contribute to climate action.

    Currently, the areas most heavily subsidized by EU’s agricultural budget are also the most polluted (The New York Times, 3 January, “Farming at nature’s expense”). It will be difficult to overcome the agricultural lobby in the member states and the European Parliament which until now has resisted “greening” the budget.

    Asked by The Brussels Times what the Croatian presidency could do to change EU’s agricultural policy, which seems counterproductive to preserving biodiversity and tackling climate change, Andrassy replied that Croatia felt very much concerned and intended to raise the issue in the meetings of the Agriculture and Fisheries council.

    Under the pillar of “A Europe that connects”, Croatia aims at encouraging polices that will strengthen infrastructural connectivity and bring people together through education, culture and sports. Andrassy also highlighted the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, which is expected to be launched soon. “Citizens will have to play a critical role in the conference,” she promised.

    As regards what we can expect under “A Europe that protects”, besides fighting terrorism, cyber threats and fake news, the Croatian presidency aims at achieving consensus where it hitherto has been missing, such as a “comprehensive” approach to migration, reforming the common asylum system and a return to the full functioning of Schengen area.

    Croatia is also eager to solve the outstanding rule of law issues with Hungary and Poland. Andrassy questioned whether the article 7 process in the EU treaty, which allows the Council to suspend the voting rights of a member state, is effective. She referred to other instruments and wants to initiate a discussion on how to find a way forward.

    The pillar “An influential Europe” refers to the, for the time being, dormant enlargement process, relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, and not the least the engagement with third countries, some of them in crisis or pursuing aggressive policies.

    A major event will be an EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May. Before that, the scenario is to take a positive decision by March on starting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The negotiations were blocked last year by France despite the Commission’s favourable opinion. However, such a decision does not imply that negotiations will start immediately.

    Keenly aware of the mounting tension in the Middle East and the complexities in the relations with Iran, Andrassy said the issues required more meetings than planned. The Croatian presidency is in close contact with Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, on finding a way to prevent an escalation of the situation.

    Pressed by the member states, Borrell twitted yesterday evening that he has called an extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council on Friday afternoon this week (10 January) to discuss the recent developments in Iraq and Iran. “EU will play its full role to seek de-escalation of tensions in the region”. According to his spokesperson, he will mainly seek guidelines from the member states.

    M. Apelblat
    The Brussels Times