Feathers were flying the last time the European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding was in Zagreb in September, as she blasted the Croatian judiciary for being inefficient and slow.
“Madame Prime Minister, we will not accept half-solutions,” she said in the press conference with the Croatian head of government.
“We will not be looking just at the number of laws and regulations you’ve accepted, but how they are put into practice.”
“It’s nice your courts managed to halve the backlog of old court cases, but you still have 800,000 remaining”, Reding said then.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor tried to be funny, saying that “judiciary is chapter 23 in the negotiations with the EU, two plus three equals five, and five is a top grade in Croatian schools”. Our Prime Minister actually said that. (Yes, I’m ashamed.)
But this week, Viviane Reding was here again, and she was a completely different person. She smiled politely, repeatedly turned to Kosor in the friendliest of manners, and claimed that the European Commission was truly impressed by Croatia’s progress.
“The college of 27 commissioners had the Interim Report on the Progress of Croatia on the table yesterday, and they have all been very impressed by the progress being done. In every third, fourth sentence in the report the phrase ‘significant progress’ is used. Because it is significant,” she said.
Indeed, Croatian diplomatic sources claim that “significant” is the highest possible grade, two levels above “some” progress, which had been the phrase the Commission used to describe Croatian judiciary until now.
Reding also claimed that all negotiating chapters but one are now “done”, explaining that although they hadn’t been officially closed, there was no major problems with them, and that the one problematic chapter, the one on judiciary, had also seen a “remarkable progress”.
This was rather different from the picture painted by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle just a day earlier in Brussels, where he said the situation with Croatian judiciary was “mixed”, and the goal set by the Croatian Government and the Hungarian EU Presidency to finish the negotiations by the end of June – “highly ambitious”.
Now, I have no idea whether Reding has had a complete change of character in the meantime or whether she had been told to watch her tongue. I was almost amused when it turned out her fall out with France over the Roma deportations was settled by a single document sent to the Commission by Paris. If a flimsy paper could satisfy the Commission, did Madame Commissioner go overboard when she compared the situation to the Holocaust?
But, her sweet talk was more likely the result of her being in Zagreb not on official Commission business, but attending a meeting of European People’s Party – hosted by Croatian governing party, the Prime Minister’s HDZ. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when you’re here to support your friend, all the while being presented by your current title of the EU Commissioner.
Here’s some more sweetness (increasingly patronizing too): “Madame Prime Minister, I consider the work on strengthening the independent judiciary system as a gift from Europe to Croatia because this will help your people to have justice at home. But it will also be a gift from Croatia to Europe because it will help the Europeans who come to Croatia to feel at home. And that is Europe, to feel at home wherever you go. I hope you will return very quickly to our European home.”
(I’m sorry, I think I’m going to be sick.)
In any case, whatever Reding said, according to the report, Croatia still has to show that it can turn its words into deeds and show that it’s able to apply the laws it has enacted. For instance, it will have to show that the newly established State Judicial Council and State Prosecutorial Council are actually functioning and are indeed capable of appointing new judges and prosecutors according to transparent criteria.
Croatia will also have to finally establish war crimes departments attached to four county courts – in Osijek, Rijeka, Split and Zagreb – which currently don’t exist. The problem here is that it will not be enough only to appoint the specialized judges, but really set up whole departments which will, for instance, give every type of support to witnesses, including protection from threats and psychological help, in order to avoid situations in which a case comes to the court and witnesses suddenly start suffering from amnesia because they were being threatened.
And then, there is the fight against corruption. To close the chapter 23, Croatia will have to show that its judiciary is functioning in all phases of the process – not only investigations, but also prosecutions and court rulings will be expected. The last few months have shown us that whatever you touch in Croatia, there’s a pile of dirt underneath. People have been arrested, but the processes and rulings are still scarce.
And then there is the backlog of old court cases, which Reding talked harshly about in September. In the course of a year, Croatia managed to reduce the overall case backlog by 1,3 percent, from almost 795.722 to 785.561 cases. The backlog of old criminal cases is down by 10,6 percent. But the report states that the backlog of civil cases older more than three years has in fact increased, by 3,8%.
So, the sweet-talk from Reding may fool some people into thinking that at least in negotiations with the EU our government is doing a good job, but I think most people have bigger worries that the government is not addressing, and the full week of protests in the streets of Zagreb and other Croatian towns is now making this very visible.
But, while the Commissioner is in fact probably not helping the government’s popularity, giving such false hopes might in fact be detrimental for the popularity of the EU in Croatia. If a referendum to enter the EU was held today, it’s not sure Croats would vote “yes”. And it might be better to start preparing people that the negotiations will in fact probably not be finished by the end of June, because I’m not sure we can stand yet another disappointment. See, in 2004 we’d be terribly offended if you told us we’d get in in 2008 instead of 2007. Now we’re talking 2013. And only if things turn out as rosy as Reding claims they could be.