Croatia has consented to beginning the definition of a joint position for Chapter 23 in the accession negotiations with Serbia, which means that the three key objections because of which Croatia denied its consent will be dealt with in the position, the Council of the European Union said on Thursday. 

EU ambassadors on Wednesday adopted a report on Serbia's compliance with the benchmarks for Chapter 23, paving the way for beginning the definition of the EU's joint negotiating position on that chapter.

After the ambassadors' meeting, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, whose country chairs the Council of the EU, welcomed the adoption of the report, saying he was confident that Croatia's objections would be dealt with.

I am confident that we will find a way to solve those issues in a way that will enable Croatia to agree to the opening of Chapter 23 by the end of the Dutch presidency. Chapters 23 and 24 should be opened first and will be closed only at the end of the negotiations, when all outstanding issues have been solved, Koenders said.

The adoption of a report on compliance with benchmarks does not constitute a decision that a chapter can be opened. Only when member states have formulated the text of a joint negotiating position and unanimously endorsed the position can the chapter be opened.

According to Council of the EU sources, at Wednesday's meeting, the Croatian ambassador read out a statement in which he stated Croatia's position on Chapter 23, which deals with the judiciary and fundamental rights.

Croatia has set three conditions for opening the chapter: Serbia's full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; full compliance with all national and international obligations in the protection of minority rights; and the issue of Serbia's jurisdiction for war crimes prosecution.

In the statement, Croatia says its three objections constitute the essence of Chapter 23 and that the way in which a candidate country approaches political criteria in the accession process should be dealt with at the very beginning of the process so that progress can be made during the process.

Regarding Serbia's full cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Croatia says it has reason for concern, as shown by reports from the tribunal's officials, and that it expects Serbia to fully accept and implement all of the tribunal's decisions and rulings.

Croatia is especially critical of Serbia's law on the organisation and jurisdiction of state bodies in war crimes proceedings, whereby Serbia proclaimed itself competent for war crimes trials on the territory of the former Yugoslavia committed since 1 January 1991, regardless of a perpetrator's or a victim's citizenship.

Croatia reiterates in the statement that said law is contrary not only to the principles of the rule of law, international law and international criminal law, but that it also poses a serious obstacle to regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations because it is discriminatory towards some EU member states.

Croatia also says that, with that law, Serbia created an unacceptable and illegal situation and that it must align its legislation and practice in war crimes trials with European and international law standards, including avoidance of judicial conflicts in war crimes prosecution.

Croatia also says that its consent to the adoption of the report on Serbia's compliance with Chapter 23 benchmarks can in no way be interpreted as support for Serbia's strategic documents on the prosecution of war crimes adopted on the basis of a Chapter 23 action plan, because they are based on political and legal qualifications which constitute an obstacle to reconciliation and regional cooperation.

According to Croatia, those unacceptable qualifications bring into question Serbia's commitment to the implementation of its Chapter 23 action plan.

Croatia says in the statement that the implementation of the legal framework on minority rights in Serbia remains an important element, including democratic participation, as envisaged in legally binding agreements.

Croatia also says that it remains committed to the enlargement process based on compliance with all the necessary requirements, and that it will monitor the implementation of all the necessary benchmarks in Chapter 23 and other relevant negotiation chapters.

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