President begins official visit to Croatia

Trip will focus on cultural, economic and trade links

President Michael D. Higgins with his wife Sabina pictured at Bloom in the Phoenix Park at the weekend before his official visit to Croatia. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

President Michael D. Higgins with his wife Sabina pictured at Bloom in the Phoenix Park at the weekend before his official visit to Croatia. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Wed, Jun 5, 2013, 10:42

President Michael D Higgins is beginning an official visit to Croatia today which will focus on cultural, economic and trade links.

Mr Higgins will meet President Ivo Josipovic for bilateral talks this afternoon and later this evening at a state dinner. Tomorrow he will meet prime minister Zoran Milanovic and deliver a lecture at the University of Zagreb with questions from students afterwards.

The visit comes at a pivotal time for the Balkan country as it is just weeks away from becoming the 28th member state of the EU. President Higgins’ university speech will focus on Ireland’s 40 years in the EU and what membership might mean for Croatia.

Trade and tourism represent an opportunity for growth between the countries since trading is relatively low at € 50 million in both directions. The trip ends on Friday with a business lunch which will be attended by Enterprise Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia. There will also be representatives from Aer Lingus and technology companies. Local business will be represented by the Croatian Chamber of Economy and the Croatian Employers Association.

Developing links between Irish and Croatian universities is also a focus of the trip. An Irish studies course is run at the University of Zagreb while Trinity College Dublin currently offers a Croatian language and literature course.

Ireland has been supportive of Croatian membership of the EU with the country given candidate status during the Irish EU presidency in 2004. There is an interest in Irish culture in Croatia with an Irish dance school, Irish Maiden, offering classes in Zagreb and Pula.

Croatian membership of the EU has been a long time coming – 10 years after it first applied and nine years after its nearest EU neighbour, Slovenia, joined. The process has been held up by a border dispute with Slovenia and delays in handing over war crimes suspects to the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

But on the eve of its membership Croatia appears set for budgetary disciplinary procedures as soon it joins, according to a paper from the European Commission. High debt and budget deficit levels following four years of no growth means its economy may be placed under EU scrutiny.