The EU has delayed the start of entry talks with Croatia due to lack of progress in finding a key war crimes suspect, but insisted the door remains open as soon as Zagreb cooperates fully with the UN war crimes tribunal.
Croatian Prime Minister Sanader was disappointed on Wednesday
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader immediately voiced disappointment over the move. "I cannot but express my dissatisfaction with this conclusion," Sanader told the European Parliament in Brussels.
He also maintained that his government had fully cooperated with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is seeking the arrest of fugitive Croatian general Ante Gotovina.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, however stressed Wednesday that he was "fully convinced" that EU entry talks with Croatia could begin "in the course of the next weeks."
"I'm fully convinced that in the course of the next weeks, Croatia will be able to prove that she is cooperating closely and entirely with the international tribunal (UN war crimes court) and that then immediately the decision for the starting of negotiations can be taken," he said.
As expected, EU foreign ministers agreed that the bloc cannot start talks as planned on Thursday because the ex-Yugoslav country has not provided enough help in the hunt for Gotovina, according to diplomats.
Wanted for murder
Gotovina, a 49-year-old retired general, is considered a war hero by many Croatians but is wanted by the UN war crimes court for the alleged murder of at least 150 ethnic Serbs during the final stages of Croatia's 1991-95 war.
Passers-by walk in front of a poster with a portrait of a top war crimes suspect Gen. Ante Gotovina, in Croatian town of Knin.
He is also accused of plundering Serbs' property during the war, when Serb rebels opposed Croatia's breakaway from the former Yugoslavia.
Most of the EU's 25 member states remained opposed to giving a go-ahead until Gotovina is physically handed over to the ICTY in The Hague.
Croatia, hoping to be the second former Yugoslav republic to join the EU as early as 2007 -- Slovenia became the first last May -- was told in December that it could in theory start talks with Brussels on March 17.
But that green light was conditional on providing "full cooperation" with ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte -- who reiterated Tuesday that this was not the case.
Sanader however insisted Wednesday that "Croatia has in the past fully cooperated."
"I can't be happy (with the delay) but it's a good sign that a negotiating framework was adopted," he added.
Not a snub
Despite the snub the EU's Luxembourg presidency insisted that its "door remains open" to Croatia, and sought to play down the significance of the thumbs-down.
"In any case the door to the EU will be open," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn as he arrived for the talks. Only a small group of countries -- including Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia -- has been in favor of giving Zagreb a green light even without Gotovina being behind bars.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, speaking before Wednesday's talks started, reiterated that she would vote in favor of negotiations with Croatia.
"The question is fairness for Croatia. We should take into account the remarkable reform process made and also the remarkable progress in cooperation with ICTY," she said.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw lamented that Croatia has not cooperated fully with the ITCY -- but suggested that the EU could set a new target date of July for the talks to start.
He noted that Del Ponte is due to present a report to the UN Security Council in June which could shed light on the situation. "The key evidence on which we are relying is the judgement of Carla Del Ponte," he said.