We view the upcoming role of the President of the Council in 2020 as a great honour and an immense responsibility. At the same time, this is a valuable opportunity to jointly work with other Member States on strengthening our Union in a time of a rapidly changing landscape.
In the first half of 2020, Croatia will have one of the biggest opportunities since acceding to the EU, but also one of the biggest challenges. We spoke with Andreja Metelko Zgombić, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the pace of preparations and major topics the Croatian presidency will highlight.
Modern and smart Croatia
The Croatian Presidency should present the country as a constructive Member State committed to European standards and values - a Member State that respects solidarity, advocates cooperation and the strengthening of EU institutions and actively contributes to European policies and reforms.
At the same time, the Presidency is an opportunity to present Croatia’s rich culture and art, history and science, natural resources and gastronomy, as well as different brands, ranging from the neckties to Rimac cars.
By placing an emphasis on innovation, new technologies and contemporary design, we would like to showcase a perhaps less known, but nonetheless a modern and smart Croatia.
1. How ready is Croatia to assume the presidency?
Croatia understands the fortitude, perseverance and the hard work needed in the process of preparing for the Council Presidency and our preparations are consequently well underway. As one of the core institutions of the Union, the Council – and therefore its Presidency – bears an enormous responsibility for the smooth functioning of the European project and for generating the jointly agreed legislation and decisions as the means of improving the lives of all of our citizens.
Croatia is also fully aware of the scope and complexity of such an undertaking, especially as a country that will be holding this position for the first time. Thus, we are eager to actively participate in shaping EU policies and in the effective governing of EU’s institutions.
We are aware that the timing of the Presidencies during 2019 and 2020 is additionally challenging given the complex period for the Union as a whole, namely European parliament elections, the end of the mandate of the current Commission, the need to negotiate a new Multiannual Financial Framework, Brexit and a number of other important topics, as well as the all-encompassing project of pondering the future of Europe.
2. What were the major lessons learned from Bulgaria which even established a ministry dedicated solely to the country’s presidency? Which approach will you choose?
Croatia has already benefited greatly from the experience and lessons learned shared by other Member States and appreciates all the assistance and advice concerning the preparations for our own Presidency. We are grateful to be able to utilise this vast body of knowledge and to be able to continue cooperation with several previous Presidencies in this respect.
Our design of the organisational pyramid for the Presidency was based on the understanding of what would work best with respect to the existing institutional set-up and institutional culture in Croatian administration.
The structure is nested within a model of planning, implementing and coordinating activities for the Presidency which awards the central role with respect to strategic and operationally political decisions to two bodies – the Governing Council for Preparations for the Presidency of the Republic of Croatia of the Council of the EU, chaired by the Prime Minister and the Interministerial Coordinating Committee for the Presidency of the Republic of Croatia of the Council of the EU, chaired by the State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.
On a more operational level, we have opted for the model in which the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs has the central role and has been appointed by the Government as the coordinating body for preparations and implementation of the Presidency (in co-operation with other relevant state administration bodies). The Ministry has always been the focal point in Croatian administration with respect to EU affairs and possesses extensive experience in both the pre- and post-membership eras. We felt that the tasks placed before Croatia by the Presidency could be accomplished within the existing framework, with simple adjustments to the internal structure of the Ministry and with key posts being held by our experienced staff.
To this end, the Secretariat of the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU 2020 has been created as an independent Directorate, responsible directly to the minister. The content-related aspects of the Presidency are being coordinated by the Directorate for Europe of the MFEA, in close cooperation with the line ministries and the Permanent Representation in Brussels.
3. One of lessons that Bulgaria learned, when presiding over the Council, was the need for flexibility and adjusting to the new priorities. How do you see your priorities today and do you expect that they could change during 2019?
Flexibility is nothing new in dealing with the EU matters. We have to be ready, almost on a daily basis, to adjust and re-write our thinking and position in search for the solutions that are for the benefit of all Member States and our citizens. Last couple of years have thought us to expect unexpected and that is especially true now, in the period when this institutional cycle is almost over and ahead of us we have new European elections, the appointment of the new Commission and the new Strategic Agenda that our leaders will adopt at the June European Council. The Presidency can be considered a success if the priorities are addressed appropriately, if there is progress achieved with processing of the legislative files currently in the pipeline, but also if we can show the ability to deal with the unexpected situations, where flexibility and determination are main virtues. Our national Presidency Programme has not been defined yet, but deliberations on our national contribution to the Trio Programme, which has been endorsed by the General Affairs Council in December 2018, gave us an opportunity to reflect on the possible priorities. We would like to put special focus on economic growth and employment; connectivity (in particular transport and energy), security in all aspects – external and internal, and enlargement. Our aim is to focus on the prosperity of Europe and its citizens based on principles of equality, inclusivity and cohesion, while boosting European visibility globally. Final stages of the preparations will be done in the second half of the year and the adoption of the Programme is expected in December.
4. One of your goals was to bring the issue of the EU enlargement to the forefront during the presidency of the European Union in 2020. Do you think that this will be a viable goal bearing in mind that, after the elections for the EU parliament, the momentum might weaken?
Yes, enlargement will be one of the priorities of our Presidency. You may say that for us – a country that is bordering the region but also latest to join the EU while strongly advocating for the continuation of the enlargement process – this priority is self-evident. It will also be the continuation of several presidencies before us that also put enlargement and SEE high on their agenda. As you know, the EU-WB summit, organized by the Bulgarian Presidency, took place in Sofia for the first time after 15 years, ever since the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. Croatia undertook to organize another summit during our presidency. By proposing to organize the 2020 EU-WB Zagreb summit, we wanted to underline our conviction that such a high-level conference should be periodic, to keep enlargement and enlargement countries on the agenda of European leaders. This would also be an opportunity to mark another landmark event that is the summit that took place in Zagreb back in 2000 which opened up the European perspective for all SEE countries and further reinforced the stabilization and association process.
It is true that keeping the momentum will probably be quite challenging, given the institutional changes and the EU’s internal priorities. However, we believe that with the Commission’s Strategy from February last year, as well as enlargement-friendly presidencies, the SEE countries now have a window of opportunity.
However, supportive presidencies are not enough to sustain the enlargement momentum. What is even more important is how will the countries that want to join the EU perform.
5. How much has the experience in presiding to the Council of Europe proved to be useful for the preparation for the much bigger task in 2020?
The EU and CoE have many things in common. They share the same values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Both of them work on preserving these values and raising the standards of their implementation in respective member states, in a complementary manner. In this respect, the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe was a good opportunity to hear and understand better the Council of Europe’s member states that are not members of the European Union on the most pressing issues facing our continent. Also, the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe gave us better insight in concrete cooperation between these two organizations, which can be useful for our joint future work on advancing democratic governance, human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe and beyond. What was most interesting about the CoE Chairmanship was the fact that the implementation of the defined priorities depended on the cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs with other ministries or state administrative bodies, as well as local governments. In this sense, it gave us an idea on the process of coordination of the different levels of authorities and competences in order to fulfill national goals. This is a truly valuable experience.
6. How well do you cooperate with other two countries from the Trio – Romania and Finland?
I am really glad to say that the cooperation between the Trio countries is very good. From the very beginning of our talks about the Trio Programme we’ve had a kind of mutual understanding what is really important to our three countries and the EU as a whole. Our experts in Brussels also have a very good cooperation and exchange views and best practices in their respective fields.