This is Europe - Debate with the Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković

Photo /Vijesti/2022/06 lipanj/22 lipnja/1655910912831_20220622_EP-133493A_EVD_186.jpg

The Prime Minister took part in "This is Europe" debate in Bruxelles today emphasizing that there is no doubt about Croatia Eurozone membership, and announcing that the final decisions on Croatia membership in Schengen are expected in the fall.

Full speech transcript: 

Honourable President of the European Parliament – dear Roberta, honourable Vice-Presidents, leaders of political groups, honourable members,I may even say dear friends and dear colleagues, honourable Vice—Presidents of the European Commission – dear Dubravka, dear Maroš, dear citizens of Croatia, dear citizens of the European Union’s Member States,

it is my great pleasure to speak in front of you here in the European Parliament already for the third time during my six years as the Prime Minister of Croatia. But also it is my pleasure to be here with you as a friend, as a former colleague that was here between 2013 and 2016. and also, I would like to remember my friend David Sassoli, who was President of the European Parliament and who unfortunately left us too early almost half a year ago. This was a great loss for his family, but also to his home country Italy, and to the entire European Union.

Dear friends, when I was speaking last time here in this house of European democracy, I presented at the time – it was January 2020 – the programme of the first ever Croatian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The title of this programme was ‘A Strong Europe in the World of Challenges’. What unfolded literally two weeks after that speech was the breakout of a COVID—19 pandemic, an event that has entirely altered the way of our lives, the way of our work, of our business, of our transport, of our education. It has literally altered the decision-making process the way we used to know it in the European Union. Croatia’s Presidency couldn’t have guessed better that the world was really facing a challenge, and the challenge was the biggest pandemic in 100 years. The challenge that made us be creative. The challenge that has demonstrated more togetherness among the EU Member States. The challenge that has shown the unprecedented solidarity and the incredible swiftness and efficiency in our common actions to protect our citizens from this plague that has hit the world and that has hit the European Union, that has threatened the lives of our citizens.

And in that respect, I think now – looking back at what was done in such a short period of time, not only with epidemiological measures, with the provision of protective equipment, with the incredibly fast discovery of the vaccines – we can say that we saved jobs, that we have kept the existential needs of our families, that we have managed to help our companies, our businesses, especially in the private sector, to bridge the threats that they were facing.

In that respect, I as a Prime Minister was conducted by the concept of our policy, which we call the modern approach, the modern take on sovereignty, what it means to a country which became internationally recognised only 30 years ago is important to understand. We were a nation that was seeking its independence, that was seeking its state for many centuries. We finally attained this strategic national objective only 30 years ago in the context of tectonic global changes and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the entire fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

And for us, attaining our sovereignty was very important. Having our own state was very important. But we have very quickly decided that the future of our nation belongs to the European Union, and everything we have done for two decades after we became internationally recognised – and the day of our international recognition is 15 January – we strived to become a member of the European family and we managed that in 2013. And when I say today my fellow Croats’ ‘modern take on sovereignism’ means that we are achieving our national goals by pooling and sharing our sovereignty with our friends and partners in the European Union, that we are helping our citizens with the extension of the Christian principle of solidarity, something that brings us together, something that helps us to overcome all the difficulties and problems that we would have otherwise overcome in a far more complicated and difficult and most likely slower manner.

That’s why this approach that we have for our own country, we are systematically advocating for the entire future of our European Union, because this debate comes in the context of a series of debates on ‘This is Europe’.

And I will say a few words about the biggest challenge, the challenge that started on 24 February this year, the brutal Russian invasion and aggression against Ukraine has literally annihilated the main principles of international law, the main approach to global governance, to international relations that we were cultivating for decades. A United Nations member country, a sovereign country, a neighbouring country has suffered a brutal aggression. For Croatia, who was also a victim of aggression of the Greater Serbian policy pursued by Milošević’s regime at the time, at the beginning of the 90s. It was very quick, spontaneous, almost a reflex reaction of first of all understanding what was going on in Ukraine, and second in extending our support and help.

The policy of Moscow has two elements. It has two sticks: one stick is the nuclear arsenal, the other stick are the fossil fuels. With these two sticks they were able to conduct such an aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, the two narratives, the narrative of literally not recognising the Ukrainian identity – if you say that you are not Ukrainians, but you are small Russians, then you’re going to the essence of the identity of a nation – and second, the almost incredible narrative of the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine was, in our view, quickly translated into a similar type of narratives that we had in 1990 vis-à-vis the Croats, almost the same when it comes to the identity and when it comes to the so-called denazification. And these parallels were very clear to us.

In my speech at the European Council on 24 February I said that this has happened in the moment where obviously the analysis in Moscow was that there were some weaknesses in the context of the timing of the state of play of the West, I will put it in general. The first one was the way of perception that the West left Afghanistan. Perhaps not in the most dignified manner. The second was the fact that there was a change of era in political terms in Germany. Second was that France was preoccupied with the Presidency of the Council and the presidential, and then, of course, which we witnessed recently, parliamentary elections. Third, the United Kingdom left, of its own reasoning, the European family. All this happened immediately, just as in 2008, when there were Olympic Games in Beijing – at the time there were Summer Olympic Games and there was an invasion of Georgia. Now it happened again after the Olympic Games, again in Beijing, the winter Olympic Games; it happened in Ukraine.

What were the ramifications? The ramifications for the Ukrainian nation are devastating. Tens of thousands of dead civilians and soldiers, 13 million people displaced, 6 million refugees, incredible material destruction and the occupation of territory. But what we have witnessed was the incredible mobilisation of the international community and support for Ukraine. We did the same. We paid our contribution with a lot of heart in political, in diplomatic, in economic, in financial terms, in humanitarian terms, by hosting the refugees in our country. There are over 20 000 Ukrainians who found shelter in Croatia and we are ready to receive them more. And of course we helped them, just as many other members of the European Union, by providing them means to fight for their freedom, for their independence, for their lives. And that was the procurement of military aid.

In that context, Ukraine applied for membership of the European Union. I was one of the members of the European Council who was immediately very clear and articulate about supporting this candidacy, not only because I was the Chair of the Delegation for Relations with Ukraine when I was an MEP here several years ago, but because I know how important this gesture in this context is for the Ukrainian leadership, but most of all for the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian people, and therefore I am pleased to see that the position of many Member States is now being assembled around the wording that will most likely, at the historic European Council tomorrow and on Friday, actually grant Ukraine candidate status. I think this is important, it’s courageous and it is certainly deserved by a nation that is fighting for the European principles of freedom and of democracy. And therefore our support to Ukraine will remain very clear and unwavering.

Similarly, we support the candidate status for Moldova. We support the candidate status for Georgia, with conditions. We feel that this great leap of putting all of those three countries into the context of those states in the European continent who do have a European perspective is an important political evolution on the architecture of our Europe and of our continent. So if this is a debate on Europe, this is a big change on the way that we are looking at countries who are not yet members of the European Union.

In this context I will just say that the global perception of the current state of play of international relations is going to be focused on a rather simple notion – and that is not the cooperative way of conducting international relations, but more a conflictual way of international relations – whereby we should, on one side, have democracies and on the other side the authoritarian regimes. This is the gist of the historical moment that we are going through, and this is where the European Union, as one of those who are at the peak of the democratic standards globally, should have a leading role in explaining and doing the so-called political pedagogy wherever we can of what is actually at stake.

The ramifications are hitting everyone now of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in terms of energy crisis, in terms of spike of the prices of the raw materials, construction materials, food, even risking famine, especially in the eastern part of Africa, but elsewhere globally too, and putting inflationary pressures on our own Member States. This is important to understand. No one is untouched by the magnitude of this first of all energy crisis, but even more deeper, by the rise of the prices of food. And here, just as we did in COVID, where we had a huge, unexpected problem, but we provided a very big and efficient answer, and the answer was powerful, The Next Generation EU was a bold European answer of the European Union of today to the problem that was hitting every single one of our citizens. And therefore the attempt which we are now doing with the initiative of the debates of the European Council, the Commission has come up with REPowerEU. It was an important gesture and the guidance of the Commission how we can organise ourselves by being true to the commitment which we said in Versailles we should gradually abandon the fossil fuels coming from Russia.

In order to be able to do that and still be able to organise a secure supply of energy to our economies and to our households, we need to organise ourselves in terms of energy grids in the European Union, and that means investments in gas pipelines, in oil pipelines, in liquefied natural gas terminals. Croatia did its part of the homework already before: we have one LNG terminal on the island of Krk with a capacity of 2.9 billion cubic metres now. We decided to invest in it to upgrade it to 6.1 billion cubic metres, which would be enough not only for our needs in terms of our economy and our citizens and our industry, of course, but also for the needs of our neighbouring states such as Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungary. Similarly, we use in the same way the Croatian Adriatic pipeline, which can provide enough oil for Hungary, for Slovakia, for Serbia; a pipeline that can easily provide enough for all the refineries in our neighbourhood.

That means that our geostrategic position is that we are one of the energy hubs – and the energy map of Europe is something we shall try to foster and strengthen in the years which are ahead of us.

Talking about the debate on This is Europe and our debate in the European Council tomorrow and on Friday, and especially the summit that is organised tomorrow morning with the Western Balkans, I will mention here to again the countries that are close to us, which we know well, where we are supporting their path towards the European Union, their European perspective, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, with whom we share more than 1 000 kilometres of border, where Croats – people who are the same as Croats in Croatia – are one of the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina with which we have tremendous economic exchange. We are the second investor in Bosnia and Herzegovina and there are so many linkages – historic cultural, economic, transport – that bind us together. And we of course have been in favour of granting candidate status also to Bosnia and Herzegovina, very clearly because we feel that this country should not be the last wagon in the train of the Western Balkans towards the European Union. It would be a historical injustice, and therefore we are one of those Member States who are advocating granting a candidate status also to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which context we would like also the urgent solution for the changes to the electoral law, which would enable that we have fair and just elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina where all the three constituent peoples, and especially Croats, are after the elections are represented as duly as they should be, as it was the letter and the spirit of the Dayton Peace Agreement, whose Annex IV is the constitution of the country.

And this position is very clear. It’s a friendly position. It’s a good neighbourly position. It’s a position that will help the European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia will be the one who will be the first one to support it wholeheartedly and continuously.

When it comes to the future of Europe and the debate after the Conference on the Future of Europe, I would here like to thank Dubravka Šuica, who is a Croatian member of the European Commission and the Vice—President for demography and democracy, and I think that she has done a great job, that the European Parliament has done a great job, that national parliaments have participated in this all-encompassing and inclusive process in bringing the European citizens closer to the European institutions, but more essentially to the gist of the debate of what we can do better together and how we can fill, perhaps, those voids in our cooperation, or how we can rectify some elements that should be done better.

From that respect, I think that the Conference on the Future of Europe, especially its conclusions with the suggestions and the recommendations, are a very clear signal of the European peoples, of European citizens from all of our Member States – in Croatia we had more than 250 events – on what the European institutions should do, what would be our direction. I was in particular pleased that there was a very, very clear signal that we should do more in terms of mixed shared competences when it comes to health cooperation. If there was one lesson learned from the pandemic, and we were in the driving seat, we had the presidency, our ambassador here, our permanent representative, triggered the mechanisms at the beginning, already at the end of January in 2020, and then we realised that actually this was an area where the European Union Member States should have more structured cooperation, more shared competences, more competences for the Commission to lead the processes which were done in the crisis management in such an efficient way as if everything was planned, and it wasn’t. So I think that this message that came from the recommendations should certainly be taken into account.

When it comes to this critical debate on the decision-making process, when it comes to the issues of foreign and security policy, I understand and fully can have a good comprehension of what the position of the European Parliament is, and I’ve read the resolution. Here, when you sit in the position of a Member of the European Parliament – and I’m lucky to have this experience – and when you sit in your position as a head of government, the optic is a little bit different. There are perhaps 97, 98, 99% of the situations where we find a compromise and agreement almost on everything. Occasionally there are situations where we differ, and we have sometimes difficulties in finding the understanding of other partners for the particular position we have. I’m always saying that conditioning or blackmailing is a very bad policy. We were a victim of blackmailing for several years before we became member and we don’t like it and we don’t support it. Then we always advocate how to use the right argument with the right approach to our friends, to our partners – we are all part of the same family – on how we can reach a compromise. And I have noted that many of the Member States, let’s say small and medium-sized Member States, are a little bit reticent because they know what the mathematics and calculation of the voting in the Council means.

And therefore I think that this issue merits a very careful and diligent follow—up. And we shall enter into this debate. We shall take duly into account the messages that were clearly sent to us by the European Conference and by the resolution of the European Parliament.

May I say a few words about the Croatia’s ambitions in this almost exactly ninth year of our membership – the end of the ninth year of our membership – because I think it’s important to mention it as well. I conduct as a prime minister a very pro-European policy, taking into account the national interest of my country, just as everybody else is doing and should do. And we decided in our programme six years ago that we want to be part of two deeper integrations: first the eurozone, and second the Schengen Area. And I was very pleased that Roberta has mentioned that Croatia’s membership of the eurozone seems to be set. I would like to thank your colleague Siegfried Mureşan, who is the rapporteur for Croatian membership of the eurozone. After a visit to Croatia he made a very sober, correct, but also positively toned report that the relevant European Parliament committee has overwhelmingly supported, and I’m sure the same happens in the plenary. And that gesture of the European Parliament is highly appreciated in Croatia, by my government, by our citizens. And that means that after the endorsement tomorrow and the European Council, we are facing the final decision at the Ecofin Council on 12 July.

That means that Croatia will join the eurozone on 1 January 2023, just as we planned, and just as we have carefully and diligently implemented our strategy for joining the euro, the programme for the conversion of the Croatian kuna to euro, the action plan that followed after our joining of the exchange rate mechanism and the banking union on 10 July 2020, five days after the second victory at the parliamentary elections that we had, and that we shall fulfil this key political, first of all, but also economic and financial objective on time and as we planned. And I thank you for your support and your understanding that Croatia becomes the 20th member of the eurozone.

At the same time, I think already next week, the Council will send the formal proposal for the decision to be taken on the Croatia’s membership of the Schengen Area also to the European Parliament, where I expect we will quickly have a rapporteur for Schengen who will also take a very diligent view on our readiness, and we have also worked very, very hard to fulfil these criteria where both Juncker’s Commission at the end of their mandate in October 2019 and again the Commission of Ursula von der Leyen – and I would like to thank in particular her and Commissioner Ylva Johansson – have estimated that Croatia has fulfilled the necessary criteria, and the relevant decision of the Council, after the opinion of the European Parliament, will be taken in autumn, and that we should also join this deeper integration on 1 January 2023.

That would mean that Croatia will be with both feet firmly in the centre of the European Union, firmly in the deeper integration, thus fulfilling the decision of the Croatian Parliament and of the Croatian people, and the referendum where we joined the European Union.

In that respect, we shall strengthen our economy. We shall strengthen the free movement. We shall facilitate the free movement of people. And it will be a back-up to a situation which we have today. We have the lowest number of unemployed people in Croatia in the last 30 years, only 103 000. We have the biggest employment in Croatia in the last 20 years, and we shall try to continue intervening, as I said many times, whether it was COVID or now the energy crisis, to keep the economic and social standard of our citizens, because this is clearly a key priority, which we will make sure happens because of synergy of using the European and Croatian sources.

The membership of the European Union has proven itself in times of crisis as one of those essential tools how we can fulfil the key national objectives and provide shelter and security for our citizens. In that respect, I will mention one important project also co-financed by the European Union budget means, and that is the Pelješac Bridge, the bridge that will be opened on 26 July this year that will physically connect the southern part of Croatia with the rest of the country. For us, it is a strategic objective that could not have had more symbolic connotations than it has, and that we should be continuing to invest in the new security threats, into our defence capabilities and into the contribution of Croatia to the strategic autonomy of the European Union. Croatia will procure 12 French Rafale multi-combat planes that will arrive in a little bit more than a year’s time, and that will strengthen our role as a partner in the European Union’s defence, but also as a reliable ally in NATO.

All of this brings me to a conclusion that the times are full of challenges, just as much as we thought when we were preparing our Presidency programme two and a half years ago. But even more when I look at the health crises, security crises, political crises, but also energy and existential crises for many of our citizens who without the role of the state, and without the concerted action, joint action through the principle of solidarity of the European Union, would not look for a better future as we can look at it today. Thank you very much.