Opinion: One year in the EU
Gordan Bakota, the Croatian Ambassador to Austria
He was born in Zagreb. He is a lawyer, but after he graduated from the university in Zagreb he became Croatian diplomat at the very beginning of the independence in 1992. He was as a young diplomat in Switzerland in charge for Consular Affairs and at the same time responsible for the huge Croatian Diaspora living in Switzerland. After that, he served in Belgrade in a very interesting and a very important period in 1998-1999. Afterwards, he was moved to the United States and was in charge of the coordination of Consular Offices of Croatia in the United States. Then he became States Secretary in the Foreign Ministry and after two years, he was appointed as ambassador to Turkey. Since 2011 he has been the Ambassador in Vienna, representing Croatia in Austria.
You have quite a career as a diplomat. How do you view your recent posting?
It is very hard to comment on my career, but certainly to be the Croatian ambassador in Austria, is one of the most prestigious postings for a Croatian diplomat, for many reasons. The relationship between our two countries and also the huge economic interest for both sides; the Austrians are number one investors in Croatia, in tourism, they are number three. And we have a large Croatian Diaspora and a significant Croatian community in Austria, about 100,000 with Croatian origins. A very important issue is the minority issue. There is a minority in Burgenland; Croats from Burgenland were the historical minority group in Austria. So this is a very important posting for my country. I do appreciate that the Croatian President proposed me to be a nominated ambassador in Vienna. I was the former Ambassador in Turkey. They recognized the huge political importance of Turkey all over the world. I was also dealing with countries with a high importance in political and economic fields, such as, Kazakhstan and of course, a very important place, Afghanistan. Austria and Turkey are very different postings, but I do appreciate that both Presidents and Prime Ministers, thus the Foreign Minister, proposed me to be the Ambassador to Austria because of the huge economic, political, cultural, historical ties between our countries, which now we try to develop within the EU. From our point of view and I think Austria shares that point of view along with the other regional countries and especially countries from Central Europe, that all Europe is one entity.
Since last year in July, Croatia joined the EU. How do you see the outcome of the accession?
First of all, Croatian people have become confident, in terms of the European Union. It is important to state that our country had a very long negotiation process, from 2005 to 2013. We do understand that from this is a basic orientation of our people, if you following surveys in Croatia is always a very big majority in favour of the European Union, in fact, 66% support the EU. Basically, we consider the European Union as the European Union of values and the freedom project is important because we should not forget it. Over the last seventy years all of the European people and nations live in harmony and peace, which is, absolutely, a precondition for establishing economic ties, economic prosperity, etc. So, the Croatian people are very much secure, in my point of view, in terms of the European Union. We understand that automatically after joining the European Union, we would not be ready to make progress in economy, without making necessary reforms at home, without making preconditions for investors, without being a country who is friendly and a business friendly state. So, we do understand that the reforms which the government is currently undertaking are important and the use of EU funds is a great opportunity, not as an aid, but as a vehicle for our domestic reforms. This is from my point of view, a Croatian attitude and the attitude of the majority of our people towards the European Union. The EU represents a great opportunity for people and for companies, who are export oriented, who could be competitive in a wider market, but at the same time a kind of majority when it comes to the perception that Croatia needs to create her own work at home in the necessary reforms that will harmonize and exercise the European standards. This is exactly what the government is doing right now. As a conclusion, I will say the EU is very important for us, we do not see any alternative for the European Union, we consider the EU as the European Union of common values, as a very important freedom project, extremely important for the regional stability and extremely important in developing cultural relationships. We also understand that EU is not here to solve our problems, we have to use EU funds in a better way, in order to make our economy more competitive and in that way strengthening the EU. This attitude is the major principle, the principle and the policy of our government.
You have mentioned economic competitiveness. Can Croatia be a competitive player of the European Union? What could be Croatia’s success?
We are lagging far behind certain necessary EU standards, many will come to the energy sector, but we mainly have an enormous potential and opportunity in terms of energy. We are now trying to develop an energy terminal on the island Krk, which has importance for the energy supply, not only for Croatia, but also for the countries in the neighbourhood, the countries in South Eastern Europe, as well as the countries in Central Europe, as a central distribution point. So, the energy field is a very important issue for us, we have our own sources being part of Trans Adriatic Pipeline and the Adriatic & Ionian Initiative. From our point of view and the point of view of the European Commission we will be of major importance for the supply of energy in South-Eastern Europe. Secondly, transportation is very important for Croatia. We are a country with the very interesting geographical position, a country, which combines and connects Central Europe and Southern Eastern Europe for the Western Balkans, Danube region with at Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean. If you travel from Central Europe in the direction Turkey or Eastern Europe you need to go through Croatia. So, this is a big opportunity for us to modernize our railway system, to modernize general transportation. This would be also something that I want to emphasize in this interview. And next we come to tourism, tourism is of course, a big source of income for Croatia, a very important one. We have in gradually developed our tourism, which is now one the most important European tourist markets. We are trying to develop certain resorts and certain touristic plans with efforts not only in Istria and Dalmatia, but also in the northern Croatia. Certain projects, such as, “Brijuni Rivijera” and Kupari nearby Dubrovnik, are from my point of view, the pearls, and the diamonds of the Mediterranean Coast. These are the three main topics, when it comes to the potential for the Croatian economy. However, I should say there is strength in other business areas such as, our agriculture, our pharmaceutical industry and our retail industry. Certain companies from Croatia, for example, Agrico and Atlantic or Podravka are very famous in the region and outside of the region. So, this is potential of the Croatian economy, after joining the European Union. In addition, we feel the European Union, itself, has a big chance from our country for making business South Eastern Europe. The chance for Croatia is the use of the EU funds to build these areas thrugh good reforms at state-wide and local levels. After these reforms are implementd we would be, from my point of view, short term and middle term ready to be competitive in various competitive fields Europe-wide. These items I have mentioned are the major guiding principles of the Croatian economy, bearing in mind regional cooperations are very important with the neighbourhood countries of Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Italy and certainly Austria.
As a new member of the EU, how does Croatia see the further expansion of the EU, especially in the Balkan region?
Well, we are one of the expansion supporters for the enlargement process of the EU, for many reasons. First of all, we do believe that the European Union has proclaimed the enlargement including the Western Balkans, as a necessary step forward; so Western Balkan states are next to become future EU member countries. The perspective for those countries to advance, to make progress in the negotiation process with the EU, in the status related to the EU from candidate status to negotiating status, is from our point of view, a very important tool for the future stability of the Western Balkans, which is also the stability of the European Union and for Europe itself. So, my country, in Brussels, is very active, in the support the countries Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania to enjoy the perspective of the European Union, to make a necessary reforms forward, because of the people in Europe but because also for our own purposes. The major principle of Croatia, the regional policy, is to see the countries in the neighbourhood, with the European perspective and also the countries, which are ready to economically and politically work in Croatia within the bigger European family. This is important for our country, because the major principle and very important message from the European Union is economic progress and is very recognizable. Without having the European Union I am not sure that our countries would achieve any kind of stability and real economic progress. This is simply because we are now in the European Union, sharing the same values, implementing the same standards, yet keeping our habits, cultures and making compromising solutions within the 28 countries; which are sometimes not easy, but absolutely necessary to avoid being in the politically and economically fragile situation. Twenty-eight countries are in discussion and have a united purpose, or at least trying to coordinate themselves throughout the European Commission by presenting or by promulgating the EU policy. This is exactly, from my point of view, what is needed in the Western Balkans. Standards are important, negotiations are important with the EU and what is very important is to share the European values in the Western Balkans. This is our major policy in Croatia and we are ready to support the countries in South Eastern Europe to follow us, for our own sake and for the sake of the European Union.
After more than 20 years of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the first gun shot in the Balkan… How do you see? Can one day all these countries become member of the EU?
Absolutely. This is exactly my message! This is the alternative; this is how I see the positive outcome in the Western Balkans. So, I will be very happy if my generation sees the countries from the Western Balkans as the member of the European Union… very soon.