Croatian PM addresses EP, calls for equality of states, citizens, opportunities

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The equality of states, citizens and opportunities is important for further building Europe's future and for the credibility of the European project, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said in the European Parliament on Tuesday, underlining joint achievements as an instrument in building the EU's future.

A strong Europe primarily means strong member-countries while the consolidation of sovereignty at the EU level strengthens the member-states to their benefit and the benefit of their citizens, he said.

"We also want strong European institutions which, in line with their powers, work to the benefit of all EU citizens," said the PM.

He warned in his address about a number of challenges that require the harmonisation of key strategic decisions to make the EU successful.

Those challenges range from security challenges, such as terrorism, cyber attacks, conflicts in the neighbourhood, to challenges related to demographic changes and increased migrations and challenges related to nature such as climate change or those resulting from globalisation processes, such as social inequality or the digital divide, said Plenkovic, underlining the need for a common response to those challenges.

Commenting on ways to make the EU stronger, safer and more prosperous, the Croatian prime minister underlined the importance of further EU enlargement following the exit of Great Britain.

Croatia is proof of the transformative potential of the prospect of EU membership and that the EU is a peace project that strongly contributes to reconciliation and trust-building. We should use that potential to make our neighbourhood better and more resilient, thus making ourselves stronger, safer and more prosperous, said Plenkovic.

He stressed that the EU continued to be a community which many aspired to join, from Western Balkan countries to Turkey, and noted that aside from Croatia's six neighbouring countries, the EU would one day want to see Ukraine in its ranks as well.

He recalled that today the European Commission would present its new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans, and called for paying special attention in the strategy to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country which, he said, had a difficult past like Croatia.

Plenkovic explained that the country had a specific internal organisation, based on three constituent peoples - the Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs - in which the full equality of those peoples should form the foundation of the country's future.

Only if it is firmly anchored in EU values can Bosnia and Herzegovina guarantee a safe and stable future to its citizens, said Plenkovic.

The EU faces major security and political challenges in its eastern and southern neighbourhood, which is why it is in the interest of all member-states to help their neighbours consolidate and build prosperous, peaceful, stable and primarily democratic systems, said Plenkovic.

Promises to candidates and potential candidates should be met, just as those countries should meet the set criteria and implement the necessary reforms, he said.

As for the numerous challenges and threats, he said that they required a stronger, more active and more assertive role of the EU in global relations.

Achieving the EU's global ambitions requires stronger and more efficient common foreign, security and defence policies, he said.

He noted that terrorist attacks in Europe and other threats revealed Europe's vulnerability, underlining the need to care about one's own security within and outside one's own country's borders, and he welcomed the strengthening of defence capabilities and cooperation in the defence sector.

"Protecting the EU's external borders is one of our most important tasks... The full implementation of systematic checks on the border between two member-states when only one of them is part of the Schengen area (of passport-free movement) has shown that that can pose a problem for the freedom of movement of people in the EU," Plenkovic warned, adding that those problems were solved in an open and sincere communication.

Croatia is already contributing to the protection of the EU's external borders and our next priority is accession to the Schengen area. In that context, we also support the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, he said.

Speaking of the EU's future, Plenkovic underlined one of its main principles - the principle of solidarity.

Croatia, where 25 years ago every sixth person was a displaced person or a refugee, shares the responsibility for the agreed relocation and resettlement of migrants, he said in a comment on the migrant crisis that has shaken Europe.

He warned that in 2004 the EU accounted for one third of the global GDP and that today it accounts for less than a quarter, as well as that the EU should continue signing trade agreements with third countries in order to invest in its further economic development and its citizens' prosperity.

As for the further development of the European project, he said that it was important to ensure democratic legitimacy.

The European Parliament constitutes the strongest link between decisions at the EU level and EU citizens and that link should be additionally strengthened, he said, supporting the continuation of the Spitzenkandidat concept in that context to enable citizens to more easily recognise future candidates for EC President and their ideas.

As for trans-national slates, he wondered whether "we are sufficiently prepared at national level in terms of organisation, legislation and finance for the introduction of trans-national slates."

He welcomed a proposal for the new set-up of the European Parliament under which Croatia would get an additional seat.

As for Croatia's presidency of the Council in 2020, he said that it would provide an opportunity to further develop and promote the European project.

Our priorities are growth, development, connectivity and enlargement, said the PM.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said at a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday that even though it was still not a member of the euro area, Croatia wanted to contribute to the further development of the Economic and Monetary Union and introduce the euro as soon as possible.

"Croatia exited the Excessive Deficit Procedure in June 2017... Joining the euro area is its strategic goal," said Plenkovic, noting that Croatia had met almost all the criteria for the introduction of the euro and that its goal was to "join the Exchange Rate Mechanism II as soon as possible."

Plenkovic said that all European goals, policies and ambitions required adequate funding and stressed that in planning the Multiannual Financial Framework one should start from the question of what member-countries wanted the EU to be like, underlining several priority issues, from economic growth and security to research and finance.

"For me, the European Union should ensure economic growth and development of its members, be globally competitive, with growing employment, notably of young people," he said.

He also underlined the EU's cohesive policy encouraging a balanced development of countries and regions, as well as security, investments in education, culture and creativity, and the ability to adapt to modern challenges and the digital economy.

Speaking of finances, he said that he wished for a financially stable EU, an EU capable of protecting its citizens against possible financial crises, based on the principle of solidarity.

The Union must also be a political stakeholder in global governance, with defence capabilities, it must be a promoter of free trade, a leader in development aid and environmental protection and in the fight against climate change, Plenkovic told members of the European Parliament.

He recalled the difficult past of the Croatian people "which experienced a war and therefore today appreciates peace all the more."

"Not so long ago democracy was only a distant aspiration while today we live European values and freedoms. We remember clearly what it means not to have equal opportunities for economic and social development, freedom of movement, student exchange or technological innovation," he said while speaking of the benefits of EU membership.

Speaking of Croatia's path to the EU, he recalled that at the end of the 20th century a country in the heart of Europe was forced to defend its freedom from a military aggression.

"The siege and destruction of Vukovar, the first city in Europe destroyed after World War II, the shelling of the medieval Dubrovnik, the thousands of people killed and wounded and the hundreds of thousands of displaced are a permanent reminder of that painful period. In the war that ended in 1995 Croatia suffered damage estimated at 150% of its prewar GDP, which for our economy was 20 times the damage caused to Japan in 2011 by the terrible tsunami and earthquake," said Plenkovic, noting that those were reasons why Croatia did not join the EU in 2004 but in 2013.

It took almost a quarter of a century for Croatia to recover, undergo deep changes and develop, he said, noting that the government was continuing to work on "a pro-European programme, thinking actively about the EU's future."

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Plenkovic said his main message to MEPs was that his government was pro-European and that it was convinced that strengthening mainstream policies and fighting populism and Euroscepticism were a common task.

European values and the European project were tied to "the ambitions and aspirations of the Croatian nation... to transform and reform our society, make political, economic and social steps forwards," he said, reiterating that entering the Schengen and euro areas were the main priorities.

He also underlined that Croatia had benefited from EU membership so far.

Text: Hina