A tiny spat over a sliver of sea that has been a major irritant between Slovenia and Croatia since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 now looks set to be arbitrated by international jurists, unblocking Croatia’s stalled bid to join the European Union.
Slovenes, who already belong to the EU, voted Sunday to allow mediators to determine the status of four disputed villages and a 25-mile maritime border and that has fueled a poisonous cloud over the upper Balkans.
The border dispute caused Slovenia to block Croatia’s EU bid in 2008, angering Zagreb, whose economy and political future seemed permanently on hold. The block also irritated other EU members over what some said was Slovene intransigence.
EU leaders applauded Sunday’s outcome in Slovenia as furthering European values of comity and cooperation. It is “an important step forward” for Slovenia and Croatia and “an important signal for the region,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement Sunday.
The Slovene decision "concludes the procedure... in a European spirit, in a spirit of law and dialogue," French Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bernard Valero told the Monitor. "Croatia is on the threshold" of EU membership, said Mr. Valero. He added that other Balkan states, including Kosovo, remain candidates for accession.
Slovene approval of an independent mediation plan, worked out last fall by their president Borut Pahor and Croat leaders, was a slim 51.5 percent. The leftist Slovene government, already facing a sluggish economy, could face a backlash from opposition populists who warn that bisecting the tiny Bay of Piran will further restrict Slovenia’s access to open water and give an advantage to their large southern neighbour, whose coast dominates the Adriatic Sea.
Seeking to put Slovenia at ease, Croatia says its neighbor will retain unrestricted shipping access through its waters.
Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on the same day in June 1991. Both wanted out of a state they calculated would become dominated by a “Greater Serbian” territorial push.
While Slovenia's separation from Yugoslavia was relatively painless, Croatia bled profusely for more than a year, with towns and regions destroyed and claimed by Belgrade. Slovenia, half Balkan and half Alpine, cruised to EU membership in 2004 while Croatia continued to be trapped in Balkan history. The different paths between two states with otherwise close ties and open borders caused significant tensions over what Croats often said was Slovene indifference to their plight.
Sunday’s resolution now enables Zagreb to finish talks with Brussels on EU membership, readying Croatia to be the 28th EU member by 2012. EU members hope Slovenia’s example may lead to more cooperation and push Serbia and Kosovo to make progress on their troubled relations, a main source of friction in the Balkans.