Croatia supports Serbia's EU membership bid, but the continuation of its accession negotiations depends on Serbia's readiness to respect the rule of law, Croatian Foreign and European Affairs Minister Miro Kovac said in an interview with the French newspaper La Croix published on Thursday.
Kovac also said it was not true that some groups in Croatia, including the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, had a negative opinion of the European Union, stressing that the Croats are "Euro-realists" and reject any extremism, both right-wing and left-wing extremism, as is written in the preamble to the Croatian constitution.
When asked why Croatia was blocking Serbia's EU accession negotiations, the Croatian minister said that was a wrong impression.
"That is a wrong impression. Croatia is one of the countries that supported the formal opening of negotiations between Serbia and the European Union in January 2014, as well as the start of negotiations on the first two policy chapters in December 2015. We clearly support Serbia's efforts to get closer to the European Union. That is in Croatia's interest," Kovac said.
"Negotiations on two key chapters, which relate to fundamental rights and the judiciary and which are at the very heart of the European identity, can still be opened in June. Progress in that area primarily depends on Serbia's willingness to respect the principles of the rule of law," he added.
Serbia is hoping to open negotiations in Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and Chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) in June, but Croatia has not yet given its consent. Croatia demands that full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal, annulment of the law that grants Serbia the authority to prosecute war crimes throughout the former Yugoslavia, and rights for the Croatian minority in Serbia be included as benchmarks for opening Chapter 23.
Negotiations with the European Commission and EU member states on this matter are still going on.
Kovac denied that some groups in Croatia, including the HDZ, had a negative opinion of the European Union, comparing directives from Brussels to new communism.
"That again is a wrong impression. Croats are more pro-European than citizens of many of the EU founding states," Kovac said, citing the recent rejection of an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU at a referendum in the Netherlands and the rejection of the first EU constitution at a referendum in France in 2005.
"A recent opinion poll has shown that 60 percent of Croats support enlargement," Kovac said, adding that in his opinion the Croats are not "Euro-enthusiasts" but "Euro-realists".
"Croatia's independence is inseparable from the European idea," he said, recalling that the European Community member states recognised Croatia as an independent state in 1992. "As early as 1990 our first democratically elected president, Franjo Tudjman, speaking in the Croatian parliament, called for Europeanisation of our country," he added.
He went on to say that Croatia was among the few countries in the world which in the preamble to its 1990 constitution rejected totalitarian systems and values, both fascist and communist. "We condemn both right-wing and left-wing extremism."
Asked if Croatia wanted to get closer to the Visegrad Group countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) because it was ideologically close to them, Kovac said that Croatia wanted to have friendly relations with all its neighbours.
"Croatia wants to have friendly relations with all its immediate neighbours: Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Italy. We want to cooperate closely with countries in central and eastern Europe and intensively with our neighbours in southeastern Europe," the Croatian minister said.
In that context Kovac said that Croatia was proud of its role in the refugee crisis because it did not close its borders but provided temporary shelter to 1,600 refugees. Croatia closely cooperated with Austria and Slovenia, as well as with Serbia and Macedonia, and thus helped considerably reduce the number of refugees and migrants coming to Europe, he added.
"We helped the European Union reach a common position on the migrant crisis. The Bavarian premier recently thanked us for that," Kovac said.
Speaking of the Schengen passport-free area, Kovac said that all should be done to preserve it and make it more effective. "Croatia hopes to join it in 2018. We are working on it," he said.
"To the average Croat or Frenchman, Europe today, what is tangible, is free movement of people and goods and the common currency. All should be done to preserve the Schengen regime and the euro," Kovac said.