Auteur: | By Honor Mahony
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Member states were on Wednesday (16 March) unable to agree unanimously that EU talks with Croatia be opened, meaning that the start of negotiations has been postponed for at least a month.
The postponement - the first in the EU's history - came after the majority of member states remained unconvinced that Zagreb had co-operated fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
"After deliberation by the council and in the absence of a common agreement, the opening of accession negotiations has been postponed", said a statement by the ministers.
Softening the blow
But ministers sought to soften the blow, which came one day before the planned formal opening of talks, by adopting the framework for negotiations - the outline for the path negotiations will take once they are opened.
Similarly, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said, "Croatia is a candidate country, nothing has changed in that regard".
Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn said that although ministers had decided not to set a new date for opening the negotiations, "the EU's door is open for Croatia".
He also suggested that the EU "could give the go ahead in one month's time" when EU foreign ministers are due to meet again.
The member states were split into groups with Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia continuing to be convinced by Zagreb's efforts to locate the UN indictee General Ante Gotovina - the issue over which negotiations failed.
General Gotovina was indicted by the UN tribunal for war crimes against ethnic Serbs at the end of Croatia's 1991-95 war.
Ireland, Lithuania, Malta and Cyprus were also in favour of starting negotiations.
The UK, the Netherlands and Sweden continued their hard line against opening negotiations - and were backed by Belgium, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Germany.
Although ministers agreed that negotiations would open "as soon as" Croatia co-operated fully with ICTY - it is still unclear what full co-operation means.
Mr Asselborn, pointing to what EU leaders said in December, simply said that "full co-operation had to be demonstrated" but added that this did not necessarily mean a physical handing over of General Gotovina to ICTY.
Member states did not attempt to define what the phrase meant, said a diplomat.
Speaking before MEPs on Wednesday, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said "I am stating with full responsibility we are fully co-operating with the Hague and we have no information at all that General Gotovina is in Croatia".
There has been speculation as to whether the EU would keep its position beyond June - particularly as the UK takes over the EU Presidency in July.
London is determined to keep to the proposed opening of EU talks with Turkey on 3 October.
German media have reported that Austria - which is against opening talks with Ankara and strongly in favour of Croatia- may use its veto against Turkey if the delay with Zagreb is drawn out.
But speaking after the meeting, UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw said "there is no linkage whatever" between the two issues.
He added that the UK would keep them separate by "applying a consistent approach in respect of each applicant country".