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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Croatia on the Way to EU Membership: Challenges and Expectations
EPP Group Bureau
Zagreb, 3 March 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to be here in Zagreb today with so many distinguished experts, and to share my views on the challenges and expectations for Croatia's EU accession. I am very pleased to see that the accession negotiations have reached the final phase with 28 out of 35 negotiating chapters provisionally closed. Croatia has made impressive progress towards meeting the criteria for membership, as the European Parliament acknowledged in its recent resolution, the Swoboda Report, and as the European Commission also underlined in yesterday's report on the state of play. The General Affairs Council confirmed in December 2010 that the conclusion of the negotiations is now within reach.
The European Commission considers that the negotiations should be concluded once Croatia has met the closing benchmarks. The main challenges are the benchmarks for chapter 23 Judiciary and fundamental rights, and chapter 8 Competition policy. As with all negotiations, the most difficult issues remain to be tackled in the final phase.
Justice and fundamental rights are key elements for a successful accession and membership in the EU. This is even more important because, following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, our Charter of Fundamental Rights is now legally binding.
In the European Union, we need to render the rights enshrined in the Charter more tangible in the field of application of EU law, to make the Charter a practical reality for all people living in the EU.
The Commission recently adopted a strategy for the effective implementation of the Charter but we will only achieve this ambitious objective by embedding a fundamental rights culture in our daily activities, both at the EU level and in the Member States when they are implementing EU law.
The Charter is particularly important for Member States joining the Union. As the Charter is primary EU law, since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, it is part of the acquis communautaire which a new Member State has to take over before accession. The Charter thus plays a crucial role in assessing Croatia's readiness for EU membership. It is also an important legal instrument reinforcing the European area of Freedom, Security and Justice which is built on mutual recognition and mutual trust. In the context of further enlargement of the EU, I can only emphasise the importance of trust when building a real European judicial area.
Mutual trust means that judges and prosecutors can trust each other's standards of fairness and justice. It also means that citizens can have confidence in the fairness of proceedings and in the sound protection of their rights when they are in court in another country.
Without minimum common standards to ensure fair proceedings, EU measures to fight crime – such as the European Arrest Warrant – will not be fully applied.
Mutual recognition is also crucial in civil judicial cooperation. It is a policy area which has a direct impact on citizens’ daily life. The increasing mobility of citizens within the EU has led to an ever higher number of “international” situations where civil judicial cooperation is necessary. The mutual recognition of judgments in civil matters without intermediate procedure, that we are trying to achieve through the modification of the "Brussels I" regulation, is just one example where we have taken important steps to make citizens' daily lives easier.
Let me stress that the area of Freedom, Security and Justice can only work if ALL Member States have full trust in each other's judicial systems. I am saying this because the time has come to assess the readiness of Croatia. Since my visit to Zagreb in September last year, Croatia has made very good progress. You have updated your Judicial Reform Strategy and Action Plan and strengthened institutional capacity for the management of judicial reforms.
Important steps have been taken to strengthen the independence, impartiality, professionalism and accountability of the judiciary. New transparent and objective procedures for the appointment of judges and prosecutors have been introduced, and now will have to be fully applied. In the reformed and strengthened State Judicial Council and State Prosecutorial Council all members are now elected by peers.
I am pleased to see that the efficiency of the judiciary as a whole has been enhanced. The case backlog before the courts has been further reduced. However, efforts need to continue. In particular the number of old civil cases should be reduced. This is in Croatia's own interest. A functioning court system in civil matters will strengthen the confidence of citizens and investors in the rule of law in Croatia.
Croatia has continued to improve the handling of domestic war crime cases. It is important to ensure that there is no ethnic bias in the conduct of trials and in the final sentences. I note that Croatia has adopted a new strategy aimed at tackling impunity for war crimes and I encourage you to focus on its rigorous implementation, so as to ensure the proper investigation and prosecution of such crimes, and to address regional discrepancies within Croatia.
Further efforts are also needed to fight corruption. While repressive measures have been taken, Croatia needs to demonstrate effective handling of a sufficient number of cases through the relevant stages of the procedure covering high level corruption cases, local level corruption and including cases related to public procurement and judiciary.
I note that important steps have been taken to improve the position of minorities. Provisions in the Constitution on the rights of national minorities to representation in parliament were strengthened. The remaining challenge is the employment of national minorities. A plan is necessary to tackle the underrepresentation of minorities in the wider public sector.
Progress has also been achieved in settling refugee issues. Refugees continued to return to Croatia. It is very important to provide accommodation by fully implementing the Housing Care Programme.
The accession negotiations have reached their final stage and preparations for the drafting of the Accession Treaty have progressed steadily. On the day of accession, no weaknesses should remain in the areas of fundamental rights, judicial reform, the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime.
The principles of full respect for the conditionality that applies to the candidate countries, and full respect for the commitments that the European Union has made, remain the cornerstones of the enlargement process. This is the essence of its credibility.
The ball is now in Croatia's court and I encourage you to redouble your efforts to allow us to close the accession talks in the foreseeable future. A credible accession process is in the interest of the European Union. And I count on Croatia to help us set a good example with this accession in terms of credibility.
I thank you for your attention.