Slovenian and Croatian fishermen have been caught up in a border dispute between their two countries over fishing rights in the Adriatic. Since both the Slovenes and Croats issue fines for wandering into each other’s waters, the dispute is affecting where fishermen are permitted to work.
The territorial dispute centres on 12 square kilometres of maritime territory in Piran Bay in the northern Adriatic Sea. Croatia and Slovenia have been at odds over their mutual border since the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Ljubljana argues that a 2017 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration is valid, giving Slovenia 80% of the water. Zagreb, however, says the arbitration process was compromised and therefore does not recognise the decision. Instead, Zagreb abides by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, which gives each country 50% of the bay.
“It is unacceptable that Slovenian and Croatian fishermen have become the hostages of incompetent politics, which is unable to implement a court ruling and determine the sea border and fishing regime,” said Franc Bogovič, a Slovenian member of the European Parliament, as quoted by Politico.
Two Slovenian diplomats told Politico the country plans to file an Article 259 infringement proceeding against neighbouring Croatia, thereby taking the case to adjudication in Brussels. The move is “an extreme step,” according to an EU legal expert, who also noted it could lead to a ruling from the European Commission or the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
“If Croatia does not change its position on implementation in the short term, Slovenia will be forced to use legal means at the EU level,” Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar told Politico.
If Slovenia files a complaint with the European Commission, the Commission will determine whether or not to investigate. Slovenia can then take the issue to the ECJ if Brussels does not intervene within three months.
If Croatia ignores a decision from the Commission or the ECJ, it could result in fines or restrict the country’s EU voting rights. Few EU officials expect the conflict to escalate to that point, however.
Slovenia has been mounting a parallel legal offensive that could force Croatia to pay back a portion of the millions of euros it received from an EU fisheries fund.
Ljubljana has accused Croatia of violating a regulation under the EU Common Fisheries Policy regarding illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Specifically, Slovenia claims Croatia supports illegal fishing by sending police escorts into contested waters to accompany its fishermen, then preventing Slovenian inspectors from boarding the fishing boats. Slovenia also complained that Croatia has failed to provide data on catches in the area.
If found guilty, Croatia could be penalised for IUU fishing and forced to pay back between 5% and 50% of the €252.6 million it was allocated under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.
“Thanks to Ljubljana, we are now back where we started. I see no solution other than new negotiations,” said Ruža Tomašić, a Croatian member of the European Parliament. “The arbitration ruling can be a starting point but nothing more.”
The dispute has wider implications for nearby countries seeking to join the EU. Although the EU planned to incorporate new Western Balkan members, possibly by 2025, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said that countries must resolve their border disputes before joining the bloc.
“There are many border disputes in the West Balkans and they must be resolved before we can go a step further,” Juncker told the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
Juncker said he was “frustrated” by the on-going border dispute and wanted to prevent the issue from recurring with other potential EU members.