ZAGREB, July 31 – During a visit to Zagreb, newly-appointed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday that she wants to rebalance the European Union that can be strong only if it is united.
“My goal is to rebalance the European Union. East, west, north and south. Larger and smaller, younger and older member states,” von der Leyen told a joint press conference held with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic ahead of their talks.
“We all know that we can deal with problems only if we are united, successful and strong. The world is calling for more Europe and needs a strong European voice, and that can only be achieved if we are together,” said the new EC president, who officially steps into office in October as the first woman in that position.
She called on member states to submit their candidates for European commissioners by August 26. To date, 16 of the 28 member states have done so. Croatia is not among them and was not mentioned during the press conference. Von der Leyen wants each member state to nominate two candidates, one woman and one man, but this has not been complied with so far.
Von der Leyen arrived in Zagreb after visiting Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. She underscored that it was important for her to visit Zagreb after those three cities and that Croatia was the youngest EU member but that it was outstanding.
Croatia’s chairmanship of the EU in 2020
The fact that at the start of next year you will be the presidency shows that Croatia is a tremendous success story of the European Union and that it is a role model for other countries, von der Leyen said. Croatia will take the helm of the EU as of 1 January 2020, followed by Germany in the second half of the year.
Von der Leyen underscored that her talks with Croatian officials would be about topics the EU will deal with during Croatia’s chairmanship such as the new multi-annual financial framework from 2021 to 2027, Brexit, security and economic issues.
Prime Minister Plenkovic said that during today’s meeting he would state Croatia’s readiness to attempt to find, at a conference scheduled for 2020, solutions to the democratic deficit in the EU, i.e. the strengthening of its democratic legitimacy, which is an idea that von der Leyen has presented to the European Parliament.
We cannot ignore the elephant in the room. And that elephant is the system of specifying, strengthening and comprehending the concept of the lead candidate so that we can organise the next European Parliament elections in such a way that all political groups and all those who vote know exactly what that candidate means before and after the election, Plenkovic said.
The lead candidate of the European People’s Party, which is the group Plenkovic and von der Leyen are part of, was German Manfred Weber. However, after the European elections in May, that system, which is not defined by the Lisbon Treaty, was not respected.
Demographic challenge for Europe
During the meeting in Government House there was talk of Croatia entering the Schengen Area and the eurozone. Von der Leyen underscored that she values the huge efforts Croatia has made in that regard and emphasised that she is on Croatia’s side on that journey. However, she recalled that membership to the Schengen Area also requires the consent of all EU member states.
Although Romania and Bulgaria have met all the conditions to enter the Schengen Area several years ago, they are still waiting for the political decision by the member states so that they can join.
Von der Leyen was recently Germany’s minister of defence and in the past she was at the helm of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs as well as of the Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, which is why Plenkovic underscored that she has clear and firm stances on demographic challenges, which too were discussed during the meeting.
That isn’t just a Croatian issue but a horizontal issue of numerous countries. About half the member states have a negative population growth, Plenkovic underscored. Von der Leyen said that this was mainly a national responsibility, but that EU could provide strong support.
If we look at the map of the world, we can see that many countries in the northern hemisphere will face demographic changes. We are the forerunner for resolving that issue, she said.
EU enlargement to Southeast Europe
Aside from demography, an important issue for Croatia in terms of which it ranks among the worst in the EU, Plenkovic and von der Leyen also talked about balancing standards in member states.
Croatia is a country that is still catching up in terms of development not only with older member states but those ones who entered in 2004 and 2007. We are one of those countries that is seeking convergence so that we can come to that level that is appropriate to those that are developed within our European Union. That is the guiding thought of Croatian policy and what we, as an exceptionally pro-European government, are doing, he said.
Plenkovic presented von der Leyen with the idea of an EU-Southeast Europe during Croatia’s chairmanship to discuss enlargement, twenty years after the summit in Zagreb in 2000 on that same topic.