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Interview with H.E. the Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia, Aleksandar Sunko

 

DIPLOMATIC PROFILE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The key EU principle of solidarity must be nurtured. Croatia is looking forward to continually taking part in substantial deliberations dealing with the Future of Europe and ways in which to promote the efficiency of the EU, particularly through the strengthening of institutions…

Croatia recognises the need of providing assistance to the countries of Southeast Europe to make them more efficient in coping with migration challenges.

 

 

GDL: What are the main aspects of Croatia’s foreign policy?

AS: In a nutshell, Croatia’s foreign policy priorities consist of the further strengthening and development of the European Union and its expansion towards Southeast Europe, active participation in international institutions and a stronger cooperation with Eurasia, Africa, South America and Australia. This year Croatia has begun intense preparations to assume the Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2020. Croatia participates in the 16+1 initiative, which includes 16 Central and Eastern European countries and China. In the immediate future, our ambition for the period ahead is to meet the necessary criteria for adopting the euro, to become part of the Schengen area and to join the OECD.

GDL: What is Croatia’s strategy to turn its membership in the EU into a device to pursue both national and EU interests?

AS: Croatia, as any member country of the EU takes part in the decision making process at European level, thereby advocating its own interests and incorporating them in European policies. In this way, together with other member countries, we are jointly establishing policies which contribute to economic growth and political stability in Europe.

More specifically, distribution of funds is an example of the way a European instrument can be targeted to meet particular needs of a member country. Ever since joining the EU in 2013, Croatia has been a net recipient of EU funding. European funding has been provided, inter alia, in order to facilitate economic growth and competitiveness, environment protection, energy efficiency, as well as training and developing competences of the local labour force.

In agricultural production, the EU has registered 19 Croatian brands as protected products. Regarding infrastructure, apart from various investments in road and rail networks, as well as water management, the bridge linking the Croatian mainland with the Pelješac peninsula is being constructed with 85% of European funding. The Pelješac Bridge will effectively create territorial continuity of Croatia and the EU in the Southern Adriatic.

 

“In the immediate future, our ambition for the period ahead is to meet the necessary criteria for adopting the euro, to become part of the Schengen area and to join the OECD.”

 

GDL: The Greek President during a lecture in Zagreb University advocated for stronger EU integration and for a common European Foreign Policy that will ensure the EU’s status as a global power. What are Croatia’s aspirations toward a more unified Europe?

AS: The EU is a vast area of political stability and economic prosperity, encompassing 22% of the world economy. To its Member States, including Croatia, it serves as a precious mechanism in dealing with emerging challenges, such as climate change, environmental pollution and globalisation in general. It is also a valuable instrument in establishing meaningful relations with other world actors, such as the USA, China, Japan, India or Russia, adding strength to the voice of every single member country.

As a country profoundly experiencing the transforming and unifying energy of membership, Croatia is looking forward to the further enhancement of economic growth, even-handed development among various countries and regions, as well as external and internal security of the EU.

 

“As a country profoundly experiencing the transforming and unifying energy of membership, Croatia is looking forward to the further enhancement of economic growth, even-handed development among various countries and regions, as well as external and internal security of the EU.”

 

GDL: Both our Presidents stated that they supported the further enlargement of Europe and emphasised that all neighbouring states must join the EU, but preconditions such as the Rule of Law and accepting European acquis should be fulfilled. Can you elaborate more on this prospect?

AS: During its Presidency of the EU, Croatia wants to put the focus back on its neighbourhood. Croatia strongly supports further EU enlargement as one of the main challenges in this part of Europe. Croatia and Greece share a keen interest in seeing countries in their neighbourhoods advance towards the EU. In the past, Greece has been continuously supporting the process of Croatia’s EU accession. It is not by chance that summits of leaders of the EU and of Southeast European countries have been held in Zagreb in 2000, and again in Thessaloniki in 2003.

For Croatia and Greece, as well as for the EU as a whole, it is paramount to ensure stability in Southeast Europe. We will continue to support EU and NATO enlargement on the condition that countries aspiring to become members meet the criteria set before them. We support the European path of Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo. This is an investment in the safety of the EU. Consolidation of democracy, of the Rule of Law and of European values is in the best interest of aspirant countries and of existing EU Members. It is a win-win process. In parallel with this process, we will continue working on resolving open issues with our neighbours.

GDL: The EU is exploring the Eurozone’s continued enlargement and Croatia is the latest country in line to join it. Is the economy of Croatia ready to be introduced to the Euro as its official currency?

AS: In the European Semester Winter Package report released in February, the European Commission confirmed Croatia’s progress in the implementation of structural reforms. The budget balance has been in surplus since 2017 and public debt has declined notably. In March, Standard & Poor’s raised its sovereign credit ratings on Croatia to ‘BBB-/A-3’ from ‘BB+/B’, putting the country’s rating after six years back into the investment category.

As for the accession to the Euro area, this is one of the Government’s political goals which will benefit the citizens of Croatia. At the same time, it is an obligation the country assumed by signing the Accession Treaty with the EU. With this in mind, the Government will follow the process of conversion closely and will possibly define measures to prevent abuse such as price rounding up or any unjustified price growth.

The introduction of the Euro means that in a few years’ time, households and companies in Croatia will be able to take advantage of using the world’s second most important currency. This will additionally strengthen the economy and the financial system and enhance citizens’ financial security, as well as investor confidence in Croatia.

 

“During its Presidency of the EU, Croatia wants to put the focus back on its neighbourhood…

For Croatia and Greece, as well as for the EU as a whole, it is paramount to ensure stability in Southeast Europe. We will continue to support EU and NATO enlargement on the condition that countries aspiring to become members meet the criteria set before them… This is an investment in the safety of the EU.

Consolidation of democracy, of the Rule of Law and of European values is in the best interest of aspirant countries and of existing EU Members. It is a win-win process.”

 

GDL: It is proved that the prolonged Greek crisis within the Eurozone was not only the result of Greece’s debt deficit, but an imbalanced strict monetary convergence policy in a Union where States do not have economic convergence. Is your Government sceptical of this paradox and what is Croatia’s standpoint on the EU establishing forms of cooperation for a stronger economy based on stronger institutions?

AS: The key EU principle of solidarity must be nurtured. Croatia is looking forward to continually taking part in substantial deliberations dealing with the Future of Europe and ways in which to promote the efficiency of the EU, particularly through the strengthening of institutions. The multiannual financial framework, CFSP, energy security, connectivity, cooperation in transport, issues relating to safety and migration, as well as enlargement are just some of the key areas in need of further attention.

GDL: How do Croatians feel at present, when the unity of the Union is being sorely tested and Eurosceptic parties are experiencing popularity across the continent that could jeopardise the European Union project itself?

AS: Membership in the EU has been a dream for many generations of Croats. It became a reality in 2013, with the entry into force of the Treaty of Accession of Croatia in the EU.

On the path towards membership, Croatia went through a long and often very demanding adjustment process. Large sections of our society felt the challenges of this process: politicians, managers, business people, civil servants, farmers and workers, as well as experts in various walks of life. The people of Croatia recognise that, thanks to all of them, today we are enjoying the major benefits of membership: free movement of goods and people, legal protection, safety and freedom to choose the place of work, education and entrepreneurship. This freedom inevitably led to the migration of a number of skilled young people out of Croatia to other Member States. Developing trade, advancing cohesion and the proper distribution of funds will strengthen our economy and ultimately put the process of migration within the EU in balance.

Many challenges that the EU is facing also lead to negative sentiments that are occasionally harvested by populist politicians. They will not succeed in jeopardising the European idea. The majority of our citizens are far too wise to give in to them.

 

“The introduction of the Euro means that in a few years’ time, households and companies in Croatia will be able to take advantage of using the world’s second most important currency. This will additionally strengthen the economy and the financial system and enhance citizens’ financial security, as well as investor confidence in Croatia.”

 

GDL: Mr. Ambassador, many EU States appreciate Greece’s role in managing the migrant crisis as the first guard of the European borders. At the same time, the same countries are vigilant about any new arrivals in their countries, including Croatia through the Western Balkan route. If we are all together in this crisis, why don’t we focus and put all our resources on the east and south entry main entry points?

AS: Croatia and Greece collaborate efficiently in safeguarding the Greek and EU maritime border. In the FRONTEX framework, a Croatian police vessel is patrolling the Aegean, together with Greek patrols. On a broader scale, it is absolutely necessary to address the root cause of irregular migration. This means addressing instability and poverty in the countries of the migrants’ origin.  Economic development and the eradication of poverty may not only prevent illegal migration, but can also help eliminate radicalisation and terrorism.

To this end, Croatia advocates a coordinated EU approach dealing simultaneously with various aspects of the migration crisis: strengthening cooperation with third countries, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East and Asia, as well as in Southeast Europe; more efficient curbing of irregular migration by fighting the networks of human traffickers, alongside the necessary improvement of surveillance of the EU external borders; and reaching agreement to overhaul the European Common Asylum Policy. Croatia recognises the need of providing assistance to the countries of Southeast Europe to make them more efficient in coping with migration challenges.

GDL: The level of trade and investment between Croatia and Greece is rather modest. What opportunities do you foresee for strengthening cooperation?

AS: Croatia and Greece trade in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, petrol products, food and beverages. There are numerous opportunities to increase this exchange further. Existing initiatives aiming at energy and traffic links should help this process.

Expanding the road network and natural gas pipelines along the Adriatic and Ionian coasts is among the initiatives that our authorities are looking at. Traffic and tourism are also beneficial for our economies, although this is not visible through pure trade statistics. In the last couple of years, direct flights between our countries throughout the year have been introduced by Aegean and Croatia Airlines. It is a development that impacts highly on commercial and cultural exchange.

 

“Membership in the EU has been a dream for many generations of Croats…

On the path towards membership, Croatia went through a long and often very demanding adjustment process. Large sections of our society felt the challenges of this process… The people of Croatia recognise that, thanks to all of them, today we are enjoying the major benefits of membership.

Developing trade, advancing cohesion and the proper distribution of funds will strengthen our economy and ultimately put the process of migration within the EU in balance.“

 

GDL: There exists great historical bonds between the two countries, the Aegean and Adriatic Seas have connected both peoples for millennia.

How can both sides highlight these bonds and apply them today?

AS: Historically, Hellenic presence in the territory of Croatia can be traced back to the age of Ancient Greek colonisation of the Adriatic coast. The names of several Croatian islands, such as Vis, Hvar and Korčula, which were known as Issa, Pharos and Korkyra in Ancient Greek, clearly witness the origin of some of their early colonisers.

Here in Greece, in 2020, the outset of the Croatian Presidency of the EU will be marked, inter alia, by exhibiting an ancient monument from the island of Hvar in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. This monument bears an inscription in Ancient Greek and it is one of the oldest written records unearthed on Croatian territory.

In modern times, there is significant activity and cooperation between Croatia and Greece within the framework of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) and, more recently, within the EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region (EUSAIR). In a way, the two countries are reinvigorating an axis of commercial, cultural and political contacts that has been in existence for over two millennia.

 

“Historically, Hellenic presence in the territory of Croatia can be traced back to the age of Ancient Greek colonisation of the Adriatic coast…

In modern times, there is significant activity and cooperation between Croatia and Greece… the two countries are reinvigorating an axis of commercial, cultural and political contacts that has been in existence for over two millennia.”

 

GDL: Your Excellency, you have a superb knowledge of several European languages, including Greek. Even publishing your work ‘Οι Ελληνικές επιδράσεις στην Κροατική γλώσσα’ (The Greek influences in the Croatian language) in ‘Η διαχρονική συμβολή της Ελληνικής σε άλλες γλώσσες’ (the enduring contribution of Greek in other languages).

Having been posted here three times in your career, how has your knowledge of the language assisted you in your duties and what attributes do you feel make for the ability to learn languages?

AS: From a very early age, I was attracted to learning foreign languages. I have always felt that this is a very rewarding way to get acquainted with other cultures and to widen one’s intellectual horizons. I am particularly proud of my familiarity with the Greek language, both Ancient and Modern. It is a privilege to be able to communicate directly with the heritage of a civilization we are all so indebted to.

That said, I am certain that my colleagues in the Diplomatic Corps in Athens, regardless of the languages they speak, find themselves equally welcome here in Greece. Philoxenia is an enduring feature of the Greek national spirit and the country’s culture.

 

 

Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life

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