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Balkans with no peace. The Gulf of Piran that divides Croatia and Slovenia

A bay not far from the city of Trieste is the object of dispute between Ljubljana and Zagreb. The problem – a cause of concern also in Brussels - is the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Not even the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration has put an end to the contention with consequences on fishermen of the two Countries

The dispute dates back to 27 years ago, and it remains a bone of contention between Slovenia and Croatia still today. It involves the Gulf of Piran, over which the borders of Ljubljana and Zagreb fail to come to an agreement. In 2017 the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a ruling that was rejected by Zagreb, thus a previously bilateral issue turned into a dispute that involves the whole of Europe, and that risks undermining EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia. The dispute on the bordering waters involves two EU member Countries: it’s the story of the Gulf of Piran, a bay in the gulf of Trieste that takes its name from the Slovenian city of Piran that extends for 20 square km., stretching across the border between Slovenia and Croatia. It all began after the breakup of Yugoslavia, when the talks on the precise border lines separating the new States, notably the maritime borders, turned out to be extremely complex, not only in Croatia. In fact, still today, the borders between many of the former states across the Western Balkans remain contentious and unresolved.

Rejected ruling. “When the talks were still ongoing Slovenia boycotted Croatia for the Piran issue and in 2009, thanks to the mediation of the European Commission, the two involved parties accepted to turn to the Permanent Court of Arbitration”, Adelina Marini, Western Balkans expert, resident in Zagreb for the past 6 years and founder of euinside.eu, told SIR. The situation changed in 2015 when a wiretapping scandal revealed conversations between a Slovenian advocate in the procedure and a representative of the Slovenian Government. Croatia thus decided to pull away from the arbitration deemed illegitimate despite the replacement of Ljubljana’s judge.However, the Court went on with the proceeding – Marini said –.In 2017 it ruled that 75% of the bay was Slovenia’s territorial waters, including a sea corridor through Croatian waters to international waters.” “Croatia rejected the ruling and announced its intention to continue the talks through a bilateral Commission with Slovenia, but the latter rejected the proposal”, the expert said.  

Croatian waters, Slovenian waters. Thus at the beginning of 2018, when the ruling was implemented, fishermen – the most seriously affected by the dispute- were hit by penalty notices. “The Slovenian police issued fines for Croatian fishermen, their colleagues in Zagreb responded in the same way against Slovenian fishermen”, Marini pointed out. In some cases, such as that of Diego Makovac and his wife, filmed by Croatia’s Nova TV, the fines amount to 7 thousand euros. “Penalties have become a national issue and Croatian fishermen go out to sea escorted by the Coastal guards”, Marini went on.

 

The role of the Commission. The issue is a cause of concern also in Brussels, where the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker called upon Slovenian and Croatian authorities to reach an agreement.

In his opinion, “the future of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is in the hands of Slovenia and Croatia”

while the Gulf of Piran “isn’t only a bilateral problem but one that afflicts the EU as a whole.” “It is no coincidence that the Commission’s Strategy for the Western Balkans states that all border disputes should be solved before” further enlargement, Marini pointed out. “The European Commission does not want to act as an arbiter, nor does it have the tools to act as one”, the expert said, recalling “Macedonia’s naming dispute, and that “despite Brussels’ best auspices Greece blocked Skopje’s adhesion for years.”

Slovenia files a lawsuit against Croatia. For now, Croatia keeps a low profile on this issue, waiting for concrete developments. However, the Slovenian government announced that it will inform the EU Commission on its decision to take Croatia to the EU Court of Justice. Brussels has three months to issue a reply, but in all likelihood the Commission will decide not to interfere and thus the decision to bring forth the legal dispute against Croatia will be in the hands of Slovenian authorities. “The disputed part of the Gulf is small, but given the situation, no solution will be found in the short term”, Adelina Marini remarked., “Controversies such as those involving the Gulf of Piran or the Macedonian naming dispute should serve as a wakeup call to Brussels to adopt efficient intervention tools.” “In fact Slovenia and Croatia are friend-Countries and the dispute, however ridiculous, will not result in irreparable damage, but if the contending party had not been Slovenia but Serbia, tension would have rapidly escalated.” For now, in the dispute dolphins are the winning party, they arrived in the Gulf attracted by abundant fish and by the lack of humankind.

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