Croatian Parliament Speaker Josip Leko describes the process involved in achieving the country’s imminent accession to the EU as “exemplary” and how Croatia is keen to play a part in strengthening trade links within the union. He also discusses the government’s mission that entails “a change of direction, a change of policy and a change in mentality”, as well as the opportunity for Croatians to rediscover their own potential and skills.
Last year Croatia and its Parliament, the Sabor, experienced some political events that can be regarded as among the most relevant in its history. Among them, the 20th anniversary of Croatia’s recognition by the international community, and the ratification of Croatia’s Treaty of Accession to the European Union. Bearing in mind that your country has undergone an impressive evolution over the past two decades, what do you believe could make this country an example to follow in the region?
First, I would like to express satisfaction with the fact that Croatia’s Accession Treaty has been ratified by the UK Parliament, as well as our appreciation for the support of UK parliamentarians to Croatia’s membership of the European Union. Croatia’s membership of the European Union is also an incentive for other countries in the region not to give up on democratic reforms, to continue pursuing them, just like us, despite the current unfavourable economic circumstances.
I would like to remind you that the current Croatian government took the responsibility of leading the country a year ago. I think it goes without saying that the economic situation, both in the country and in the region, as well as worldwide, unfortunately marked the past year of our term in office. Based on our policy regarding the change in direction of Croatia’s economic, industrial and social development, we had to make some decisions that were not popular and do not yield positive results as quickly, and in such a situation we now have to organise local elections, and local elections are always a test for the sitting government’s policy. Thus, the government’s policy of structural change might affect the success or the results of the local elections.
When the Croatian people voted during the accession referendum last year, what would have happened if they had voted no?
Croatian strategic engagement has gained the general support of the political parties. In 2000, when we changed the direction of Croatian politics by opening up to the world and to Europe, there was a general consensus in parliament and that consensus is still present.
In Croatia, there is no serious political party or even any kind of political party that has a different view from that of the general policy of the Croatian state – and that is to integrate Croatia into the Western democratic world. That policy has been continuously supported by the citizens of this country, by approximately between 55% and 65% of them. Regardless of the fact that the economic crisis has had a significant impact on the economy and the standard of Croatian citizens’ lives, and that the economic crisis is also shaking the European Union, we have not lost the support of our citizens in pursuing this policy. Specifically, Croatia’s orientation towards the European Union and the Euro-Atlantic integrations is a strategic decision. It is not a decision of one political option or of one generation. We believe that is the anticipation of the future Croatian interests, and we hope to achieve them within Europe.
How will Croatia be different on July 2, after the day of accession?
Well, certainly, July 1 is the day when Croatia becomes a full member of the European Union, which brings many opportunities to Croatia. As of that date, we become a participant at the table where decisions are made, but also a member of the same, common market. I am confident that we can become competitive in that market. I believe that we can use our advantages, such as our geographic location, and the preserved nature and land, to grow within the European Union. We have to be equal, if not better, in offering our services and goods in that market. That’s why we are tailoring our internal organisation, and our relationships within the country, to build the values on which the European Union is founded into our system.
From the domestic point of view, the big test for the government, as you well said, will be the local elections scheduled in May. Once Croatia enters the EU, in what way will its relationships change with neighbouring countries, especially concerning the Schengen regime?
The relations with our neighbours have multiple levels. Croatia is vitally interested in peace and development, and with the awareness of that position we foster the policy of good neighbourly relations, understanding and co-operation, which means that Croatia is willing to share the experience gained in the process of accession to the European Union with its neighbours. Croatia wants the entire Southeast Europe to enter into a process that will ensure the whole area becomes a part of the European Union.
In this way, we believe that we will secure our future, co-operation and growth, and at the same time help spread that security across Europe. So, our vital state and national interest is co-operation; co-operation based on the principles and standards relevant to the European countries.
Our doors are open. We demonstrate that constantly. We continue to co-operate with Serbia and Slovenia, despite some problems that are being addressed. Our Prime Minister accepted an invitation from the Serbian government and visited Belgrade in January. Our collaborations with other countries – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania – are intense, of good quality and, I would say, with continuously increasing confidence. We want to contribute to solving problems in Europe, take responsibility, and not be a problem in Europe.
EU membership should have a very positive effect on greater inflows of foreign capital, especially in greenfield investment projects that will eventually increase the economic growth and global competitiveness of the Croatian economy. Could you give an outline of the country’s new strategy for this era?
First of all, I’d like to say that the fact of gaining formal membership of the European Union has removed some barriers to co-operation with member states of the EU. Secondly, our government has adopted measures and proposed law amendments that will ensure the safety of investments in the Republic of Croatia, reduce administrative barriers, and facilitate greenfield investments within a short period of time. We expect to attract investment players who want to invest in more durable goods in Croatia. The government is also preparing changes regarding the facilitation of the investment process in the fields of energy, agriculture, ecology, nature conservation and production programs.
How will this investment be encouraged? What type of measures are in place?
There are several levels of these measures. For me the most important measure regarding the interest of Croatian society and the interest of the economy to make a profit from the markets, as well as building a system of investment security for which the government has already adopted a number of laws. Therefore it is very important that the system in Croatia is safe and stable, both the banking and the political systems. This is certainly a good invitation to investors. I might say that the lifting of some duties, i.e. taxes for investments in certain sectors, could also be interesting to foreign investors.
Between 2010 and 2011, UK goods and services exports rose by 110%, while imports from Croatia rose by 210%. From your perspective what is the importance of the UK for Croatia’s future economic progress, and which is the best way for UK businesses to find partners or invest in Croatia?
I’d like to start by saying that regrettably the business co-operation between Croatia and the UK is sadly on a downward path. Of course, this is not just a matter of will; we are talking about objectified relations both in the Croatian market and in the UK market. The UK is a big economy, and has a large society, and the offer of low-cost goods and services from competitive economies in the UK is significant in relation to Croatia. But interest from British investors does exist, in sectors such as real estate, finance and tourism, above all in golf courses or games of chance. I think that Croatia’s accession to the European Union will help interested British investors to come to Croatia.
Croatia probably has many common grounds with the UK that have not yet been explored. For example, Croatia is rich with experience in the shipbuilding industry, building small and large vessels, and Britain is a great maritime country. That should also be included in the offer of the Croatian economy.
I might point out that the British interest in the tourism sector has increased significantly; not only has the number of British tourists grown, but also the number of British investors. Here before me I have data showing that the number of British tourist arrivals in the past two years has risen by nearly 20%. I might add that the British are rediscovering Croatia, which is good for both Croatia and the UK.
When you were appointed as the Speaker of the Parliament you said that you saw your role as the captain of the ship and your task was that all passengers achieve their interests in order for the ship to reach a destination of a better life for all citizens. Is your ship sailing in the right direction?
I said that we took the responsibility for leading Croatia in, to put it mildly, complex economic circumstances, both in the country and in Europe, and also worldwide. Our mission, and that’s what we said to the citizens, is a change of direction, a change of policy and a change in mentality. So, we have to rely more on our own skills in a bigger market, the European market, and in that sense I’m very pleased with the changes we have made over the last year.
It is a known fact that the first year of a term in office is when strategically significant moves are made that are expected to change in the right direction the foundations of an economic problem. So, the Croatian parliament has been following very closely the initiatives of the Croatian government, events happening in Europe, whether in Brussels or other economic centres in Europe, and in line with its representative role it has been correcting or enhancing projects that were considered valuable. So, in my opinion, the role of parliament has been fulfilled according to expectations, efficiently and responsibly. I think that the atmosphere within the parliament is democratic, with mutual respect in discussions and conclusions, and in accordance with the standards that apply in countries with longer experience of parliamentary democracy. The government and its majority, as well as the whole state system, is stable. I think the ship is sailing in the right direction.
Congratulations! You’re also one of the politicians who have been present in Croatian politics throughout its evolution having been a founding member of the Social Democratic Party and respected by both left and right-wing politicians. Nowadays you’re travelling a lot visiting the parliaments of the countries involved in the ratification and accession process, and we’d like to know how your role and parliament will change after July’s accession date?
Joining the European Union means that Croatian citizens take responsibility for the overall development of the European Union. We want to be active members of EU institutions. At the same time, we want to provide support to our representatives in the bodies of the European Union, and also to control their behaviour in the European Union. This might seem schizophrenic at first sight, but that’s the only way, because trust is extremely important in politics, as it is in life too; but in politics, trust is constitutional.
Thus, we get a new task in parliament: to ensure that our representatives have the democratic legitimacy of the representative body of parliament in the European Union, and have standpoints, and that the Croatian parliament is able to quickly respond to their input. That’s why we are planning to establish a special working body, the Committee on European Affairs. Its role is yet to be shaped. Right now this is being debated among experts in the Republic of Croatia, the legal solution is being worked on. I think we will rise to this challenge and be constructive in the European Union.
In the context of this current moment that Croatia is going through, which are very exciting times with the immediate EU entry process and the privatisation of public companies, what importance do you give to campaigns that seek to promote the country’s brand and attract foreign investment?
We know that the persuasiveness and credibility of a particular country should be built systematically by gaining and consolidating the trust of our partners and friends, and I hope that with regard to that Croatia is doing a good job; they are also due to these types of campaigns. Otherwise we would not have achieved the results that we have achieved during the 20 years of the independence of the Croatian state – results that can compete with some longer-lasting processes in some other countries. Over these 20 years, we have become a recognisable country, internationally recognised, not only in the UN but in NATO as well. Now we are about to become a full member of the European Union. We share the same values as many global organisations, and contribute to resolving various issues within international organisations that are covered by the United Nations. The process of building society and the state will not end when we become a member of the European Union; I just think that it will make it easier for us to demonstrate our values, abilities and our responsibility within the international community for the part that belongs to us.
As a country, Croatia has a long tradition, a well-established system of values, and institutions, both social and state ones. Without false modesty, we have great economic and cultural potential, we have to enhance our opportunities economy-wise, we are open for co-operation in the fields of science and higher education, where we must focus on making the working methods more systematic and the results will come. I can say that our influence in culture and science may be greater than the number of people forming part of this society.
These are all challenges that give a new drive to Croatian citizens to, regardless of the present difficulties, rediscover their potential and skills, and bring them to light so that Croatia may become a country that will quite certainly be a positive example in the European Union in the near future.