In 2013, Gordan Grlić-Radman, as the Croatian ambassador to Hungary, told Diplomacy&Trade in an interview that “Croatia has always been a member of the European community culturally and has always considered itself a member of the European community.” That was on the occasion of Croatia joining the European Union in July 2013. Now, he tells Diplomacy&Trade that European affairs have changed a lot since Croatia joined the EU. “Then, one of the main topics was the Euro crisis, now – among others – Brexit and migration are the major issues. In other words, political challenges for Europe come and go, but shared European culture and values stay. Thus, the notion that Croatia was and is a member of the European community is in times of challenges stronger than ever. For example, six years ago, Croatia was just a new member of the EU and now we take the lead of the Council of the European Union. In this regard, our European enthusiasm has strengthened. Nevertheless, this does not mean that challenges are less, to the contrary, but I believe that as Europeans who share so much, we can overcome them.”
Long lasting ties
Grlić-Radman, who was appointed Minister of Foreign and European Affairs in July 2019, points out that “as neighboring countries, Croatia and Hungary have long lasting ties and we have always had very intense relations. Thus, our cooperation has always been very diverse, encompassing many areas of mutual interest. In a speech I recently gave at the National University of Public Administration in Budapest on Croatia's EU Presidency, I expressed my gratitude to Hungary for support in the first half of 2011 when Croatia's accession negotiations with the European Union were successfully completed.
Croatia's accession to the EU opened up additional opportunities for many joint projects, in particular in cross-border cooperation. We have common interests in transport and energy routes, Hungary is our 5th biggest trade partner, more than 650,000 Hungarians visit Croatia every year, our cooperation in defense is excellent. Last, but not less important, is our cultural cooperation, which is exemplary and we have planned many joint projects for the upcoming period, such as an exhibition on eight centuries of Croatian-Hungarian Fine Arts Heritage. Overall, our relations, in the past and today as part of the European Union, are based on mutual respect.”
A dispute regarding the relations of the Hungarian oil and gas company MOL’s ownership and control of the Croatian oil concern INA is a burden on bilateral relations. The Minister stresses that both sides agreed that open issues like this, should not burden our bilateral relations. “Our position is clear on this, the judiciary should take its course.”
He adds that frequent discussions between the two countries are focused on concrete projects in both the economy and culture, on the care for minorities as well as on improving the quality of life of people in border areas. “In December 2019 alone, we had some very important meetings and agreements. Minister Szijjártó and I met recently in Budapest and signed an agreement of cooperation on diplomatic training. At the same time, our two countries are discussing cooperation on the liquid natural gas (LNG) project in Krk, and less than a month ago, we opened an energy facility in Virovitica as a result of a successful Hungarian-Croatian investment.”
Ministers of the two countries signed the Program for Cultural Cooperation for the period 2019-2021 while the two ministers of defense attended the official opening of the Multinational Special Aviation Program in Croatia. “These are just a few concrete examples of the dynamism of our relationships and a vivid demonstration of our successful cooperation in many fields,” he stresses.
Many similar interests
Gordan Grlić-Radman represents Croatia in the Danube Commission where Hungary is also a member. It is just one example of Hungary and Croatia cooperating on the international scene on a multilateral basis. “Croatia and Hungary belong to the same integrations and organizations, the same regional initiatives, the Danube Commission being one of them. Regarding the Danube Commission, which I preside over since 2017, it is important to emphasize the organization’s role in the development of Danube navigation and participation
in the EU’s programs and projects. Each multilateral organization has a particular mandate and Croatia is continuously promoting the strengthening of multilateralism in todays’ complex and challenging world.” As for the EU, he highlights that Croatia and Hungary have many similar interests, such as the enlargement of the European Union. The two countries are in the immediate neighborhood of the Western Balkans and will work together in advocating for a revitalization and strengthening of the EU prospects for Southeast Europe, as well as on making Europe more secure and stable. Croatia holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time in the first half of 2020 and counts on
Hungary as well as all member states to support its Presidency. “Under the motto ‘A strong Europe in a world of challenges’ we will work on four agenda priorities: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects and a Europe that exerts influence,” he adds.
Croatia and the V4+
In addition to bilateral relations with Hungary, Croatia has regular consultations with the countries of the Visegrád Group. According to the Minister, Croatia nurtures its relations with the V4 within the format of cooperation of the Visegrád Group and other countries, known as V4+. This cooperation reflects the efforts to work together in a number of fields of wide common interest, such as energy, infrastructure, economy, migration, security, agriculture, cohesion policy and regional development. “Specifically, we are cooperating under the V4+ Western Balkans framework, to which we attach great value. In particular, the current objective of our regular consultations with the V4 is on the topics of mutual and overlapping interest: long lasting stability of South East Europe as well as support for the Western Balkans region on its EU accession path. Nevertheless, enlargement is not only in the best interest of Croatia and the V4, but also in the best interest of the EU in general and of vital importance for each and every country in the Western Balkans.” For that reason, Croatia welcomed the fact that maintaining a political dialogue with the Western Balkans region was in the focus of the Slovak presidency and is in that of the current Czech V4 presidency. In line with that policy of these V4 presidencies, Croatia intends to keep the EU’s enlargement process high on the agenda of the EU institutions. “We will devote particular attention to this topic during our forthcoming Presidency of the EU Council as we plan to hold an EU summit with the leaders of the six Western Balkans countries in May 2020. We look forward to the support from the Visegrád Group and we are optimistic of our further cooperation in order to fulfil our common interests, considering that in such important matters, coordinated action and exchange of views on topics of common interest are of utmost importance,” he points out.
The role of minorities
“Our minorities connect us maybe more than anything else. They are gems, which we treat accordingly. Five years after our independence, in 1995, we established an intergovernmental joint committee for protection of rights of Croats in Hungary and Hungarians in Croatia. The committee meets every year to evaluate what has been done in the past year and to plan new projects,” Gordan Grlić-Radman explains. At a joint session held in Zagreb in December 2019, the Committee assessed that great strides have been made in the last three years, with both countries giving sufficient support and allocating significant financial resources, which are visible in concrete completed projects. The Minister mentions two recent big projects as examples: the student dormitory in Osijek for the needs of the Hungarian community, which was opened by prime ministers Orbán and Plenković at the end of November and the Croatian Education Center in Sambotel opened at the end of the summer. “Protection of minorities in Croatia and Hungary can be a role model for the rest of Europe. Hungarians in Croatia and Croats in Hungary have two homelands, and we all share a common homeland, which is the European Union,” he stresses.
Treasuring bonds with Hungary
Gordan Grlić-Radman was the Croatian ambassador to Hungary from 2012 to 2017. Later, he represented Croatia in Berlin before becoming a minister and he still recalls his years in Hungary with kind words. “Some would say that five years is a long period to achieve many contacts and make new friends and partnerships but I have to say that in Hungary’s case, it is not enough. Hungary is full of amazing people with great talent and friends who are fond of Croatia. You have to live even longer here to fully see a country, people and history as rich as Hungary’s are. Nevertheless, I made strong bonds with many Hungarians from different parts of life and I treasure that. I am always happy when I hear Hungarian language, as it reminds me of these productive and pleasant five years.”