Croatia is the youngest EU member state, and together with Slovenia, is a former republic of Yugoslavia to enter the European house.

Nevertheless, Croatia is a country where the Catholic Church plays a dominant role and yields influence. What is more, nationalist and far-right sentiments are buzzing and there is a permanent bras de fer between the country and its neighbours Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina. The current climate is poisonous for political and diplomatic relations in the region.

European Interest interviewed Anka Mrak-Taritaš, the president of the Civic Liberal Alliance (GLAS). We asked about the upcoming Croatian Presidency of the European Council in 2020, the future EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, as well as the critical regional issues that divide Croatia from its neighbours and former Yugoslav partners.

Anka Mrak-Taritaš served as Croatia’s construction minister between 2012 and 2016. In 2017, she left her previous party, the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), to form GLAS. This centre-left liberal party promotes EU values, defends the rights of women to abortion and the rights of the LGBT community. It also supports the separation between Church and State and considers anti-fascism as a foundation of the modern Croatian state.

The Civic Liberal Alliance is founding member of the Amsterdam Coalition, an electoral alliance of seven Croatian liberal political parties formed in 2018 which has one MEP and is member of the Renew Europe Group.

European Interest: On January 1, Croatia takes up the mantle of the rotating EU Council Presidency, for the first time. The recent reshuffle of the Croatian government is apparently aimed at building the image of a presidency-ready cabinet. Do you think Croatia is ready for the challenge, politically?   

Anka Mrak-Taritaš: I would very much hope so. But I’m afraid the answer to that question is no. To begin with, this government has no focus or clear idea on any policy, including European policy.

And, since you’re mentioning the reshuffle of the government, the fact that one of the ministers that was included was the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs [six months before taking over the Presidency] is highly indicative of how Croatia is in fact ready for the challenge.

Croatia is naturally sensitive on Western Balkan issues and the EU enlargement process in the region. Do you believe that electoral law reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina will allow the country to take a step forward towards European integration during Croatia’s EU Presidency? Considering the so-called enlargement fatigue, how would the Croatian Presidency respond to this possibility? 

Bosnia and Herzegovina certainly has a lot of internal issues hindering its development and EU accession, electoral Law being one of those issues, definitely. But, I highly doubt that any institutional change or reform would make a real difference without serious political will and commitment on both sides – the EU and political elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  And, as for what the Croatian presidency can do, it could remind the EU Council that there is a policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina that was adopted several years ago at the initiative of former Foreign and European Minister of Croatia Vesna Pusić, which presumed tailor made approach and was aimed at circumventing the domestic institutional gridlock by directing more initiative towards the EU and its institutions.

I most certainly hope that the EU enlargement to all of Western Balkan countries is something that will happen in the near future; for the sake of the Western Balkans, but also the EU

The construction of the cross-border Svilaj bridge on the Sava river represents a fundamental infrastructure investment which will enforce BiH’s connection with the EU. However, there is Serbian opposition to the project. Could you explain the nature of this opposition, as you understand it? Do you feel that the post-Yugoslav space can ever transcend the perception of entrenchment in ethnic conflict by other means?

The bridge Svilaj is indeed a very important project for trans-European transport network and, as far as I know, the construction is in final stages and it should open soon. The only way forward, as I see it, is through EU accession of all of the former Yugoslav states. It would not only eliminate a lot of, so to speak, practical issues, as was with the project you have mentioned, or some others, such as border disputes or barriers for free trade. It would also provide a much needed common ground, a new mutual identity and feeling of companionship under the idea of European citizenship. That would, I believe, make this ongoing ethnically based disputes much less prominent.

As enlargement in the Western Balkans is delayed, are you confident that Western Balkan nations can retain reform momentum. Is enlargement still an attainable objective in the near future? 

I know it should be. As a matter of fact, a lot of efforts have already been wasted because the EU has been indecisive when it comes to the dynamics of the Western Balkan countries euro- integration. Take the example of North Macedonia. I don’t know what will and might happen there should the EU decide to postpone the opening of the negotiations, especially now after they have finally managed to agree on the name issue and gain support for the solution within the country.  So, I most certainly hope that the EU enlargement to all of Western Balkan countries is something that will happen in the near future; for the sake of the Western Balkans, but also the EU.

There is definitely a strong voters’ base in Croatia for liberal parties that put high value on respect of human rights and personal freedom

The Gulf of Piran border dispute was supposed to be resolved with Croatia’s accession. Do you still have faith in the EU dispute settlement process?

The matter of see border disputes between Croatia and Slovenia is a very good example of how unwise and short-sighted politics can make matters super complicated and tangled. I am not confident that a solution that would satisfy both sides will emerge soon, since both stick to their arguments and there is no indication of possible compromise. At this point, the wisest thing would be to continue talks bilaterally based on the Arbitration decision. But, it doesn’t seem that Slovenia is prepared to go that way.

Croatia is experiencing a resurgence of political nationalism comparable to other post-Yugoslav polities. Do you feel that minority rights are adequately guaranteed in Croatia at this point in time?

Constitutionally and institutionally minority rights in Croatia are highly guaranteed and protected. However, the current government, as well as the president of the Republic, are sadly acting as sponsors to certain extremist voices in Croatia, which are, among other things, trying to rehabilitate the fascist Independent State of Croatia. This, off course, has negative impact on minorities, because it taints the atmosphere within the society with contempt for everybody who is different from majority.

In the immediate aftermath of the EU crisis, central eastern European countries with their own currency recovered sooner. Considering Slovenia’s experience, on what grounds would you argue in favour of EMU membership?

First of all, Croatia is obliged to enter the Eurozone after all necessary reforms will have been completed. But, even if not so, I would still argue that this is good for Croatia and its economy and citizens. For one, most bank loans and savings deposits in Croatia have been in Euro currency for a long time now, therefore, Croatian citizens would definitely benefit from currency transfer. Also, integration into common market would thus be completed, which could positively affect the competitiveness of Croatian businesses.

Croatia is obliged to enter the Eurozone after all necessary reforms will have been completed. But, even if not so, I would still argue that this is good for Croatia and its economy and citizens

Your party is running on an individual rights protection agenda, seeking to articulate the interest of both the LGBT community and women’s rights. Given the deep relationship between Catholic values and Croatian national identity, how great an appeal do you feel your party can have? 

There is definitely a strong voters’ base in Croatia for liberal parties that put high value on respect of human rights and personal freedom. There is always the pool of, at least, 10-15 % of voters. However, it has become extremely difficult to reach and engage those voters because they were disappointed and disenchanted by some liberal parties in the past. Nevertheless, that is our party’s mission and it is up to us to convince those voters that we are worthy of their trust.

Your party was one of the founding members of the Amsterdam Coalition in December 2018. Given that Croatia has merely 12 seats in the European Parliament, securing one seat appears to be a success in a political system that is essentially bipolar. Is there a ceiling for your political ambition? How is one MEP going to make a difference in Croatian politics?

Winning one seat in European Parliament in present political circumstances in Croatia is indeed a success for our coalition and our party. Furthermore, that was, in fact, the goal we had set for ourselves before the European Election.  The Amsterdam Coalition has become a strong political brand and is recognised as an alternative to bipolar political landscape in Croatia. Our goal for the next Parliamentary Election in 2020 is to offer voters a different, progressive political agenda and enter parliament with number of seats which would give us enough political leverage to push through our agenda. As for what one MEP can do for Croatian politics, well, his job is, first and foremost to represent his voters in European Parliament, not his country. He can, and we are certain he will, make a lot of differences by proposing and advocating smart and progressive liberal policies in European Parliament. That would in turn positively affect Croatian politics and life of Croatian citizens, as well as life of all the European citizens.