Slovenia votes on sea border deal with Croatia

 

SLOVENIANS narrowly voted to approve a border arbitration deal with neighbouring Croatia in a referendum yesterday, clearing an obstacle to Zagreb’s European Union membership bid, according to preliminary results.

The former Yugoslav republics have been at loggerheads for almost 20 years over who should own which stretch of the Adriatic Sea, with Slovenia demanding open access to international waters and Croatia claiming that Ljubljana’s territory stops far short of the high seas. Slovenia has less than 50km of coastline, while Croatia’s stretches for some 1,700km.

Slovenia blocked Croatia’s EU accession talks for most of 2009 because of the row, before the countries’ leaders finally succumbed to pressure from Brussels and agreed to allow an international arbitration team to rule on the disagreement, and for its decision to be legally binding.

Croatia’s parliament has ratified the deal, but Slovenia’s main opposition party decried it as “capitulation” that could see the country’s access to international waters controlled by Zagreb.

Opponents of the deal included several experts and Slovenia’s influential Catholic Church, while the government of prime minister Borut Pahor insisted arbitration was a fair solution that would save his country from being branded an international troublemaker.

Mr Pahor reluctantly agreed to hold the referendum, which was widely seen as a test of his government’s popularity. His leftist administration has lost many supporters because of its handling of the economic crisis, and some analysts predicted that a No vote could prompt him to resign.

“Solving the border dispute with Croatia is the basis for a lasting peace, security and friendship of both nations,” Mr Pahor had said. “This is the first agreement after 18 years. If it is rejected, it is questionable how long I or my successor will need to reach another agreement which, I believe, could not be better.”

A No vote would have forced Mr Pahor to reject the compromise and plunge Croatia’s EU membership into uncertainty. Zagreb hopes to complete accession talks this year and join the bloc in 2012.

Kristof Bender and Gerald Knaus at the European Stability Initiative think tank said a No vote would be “a godsend to opponents of EU enlargement, playing to every Balkan stereotype”.

“If even Slovenia and Croatia, two traditional allies with no history of conflict, cannot resolve their disagreements, what hope is there for the rest of the region?” they said.