Croatia has assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council -- for the first time. The youngest EU member state is having a chance to prove itself on the world stage amid serious allegations of migrant abuse at its borders.
In an indirect manner, Croatia has proven to be a rather reliable guardian of the European Union's external borders, which run along its very own border. Neighboring the main countries along the so-called "Balkan route" (in particular Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia), Croatia has gained a reputation for using an iron fist-approach in dealing with irregular migration into the EU.
For the past two years, the country has reportedly applied a policy of pushing back migrants who are caught inside Croatia without reason to be there, using violence if necessary. After a long string of denials from authorities regarding pushbacks, Croatia's president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic confirmed in a TV interview that pushbacks did in fact take place, and that "of course a little force" was required in carrying out these forms of deportation without due process.
People working for the Croatian border authorities have also come forward anonymously in the meantime, confirming that between 20 and 50 people are pushed back from Croatia into Bosnia every day, and that these pushbacks included "beating migrants and stealing their belongings, and doing basically whatever they want without any limits and with the approval of their superiors and the police headquarters."
More than 10,000 migrants are assumed to have been held back from entering the EU this way -- the same number as those who are now suffering in badly managed migrant facilities in Bosnia. And even though Croatia would only be regarded a transit country among the vast majority of migrants hoping to enter it, its reputation as the gatekeeper of the EU's external borders could be on the line. And this is a risk the young nation is more than reluctant to take.
Different rules apply
While none of these practices may cast the European Union's youngest member state in a particularly positive light, the bloc has quietly tolerated the proactive approach taken by Croatian authorities. The EU wants to curb irregular migration as best it can and keep the inconvenient problem at arm's length -- be that by signing a controversial migration deal with Turkey in 2016, boosting its support for Libya's coast guard or by watching on quietly as Croatia's security forces resort to using a more brutal brand of border control on migrants and refugees hoping to reach other EU countries.
In November 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even said in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, that a different rulebook applied to the Balkan nation than to certain other EU member states: "From the perspective of a country that's supposed to protect the external [EU] border, it, of course, looks different compared to the perspective of a country [such as Germany] in the middle of the Schengen Area."
While NGOs have repeatedly criticized Croatia's approach there’s little they can do as border checks remain in the hands of each sovereign EU nation. And in fact, Croatia's rather efficacious migration controls have made it a reliable partner within the bloc, with the government rather misleadingly presenting its ascent to the EU's rotating presidency as an inherent success of the young democracy's zero-tolerance policy on irregular migration -- rather than a matter of course within EU governance.
While being granted EU membership in 2013 already was a huge milestone for Croatia, there are still further steps of integration into the single market that it has its eyes set on. While joining the single-currency eurozone might still be a future scenario, Croatia's prospect of entering the border-free Schengen Area could be in the books in the coming years, as the European Union has concluded that Croatia was in fact ready to join on paper.
However, until such day comes, the Balkan state has to continue proving that it is indeed a trustworthy partner for the EU by keeping its borders fortified and shut.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized Croatia's heavy-handed approach towards migrants, saying it should not be allowed to join the Schengen zone due to human rights abuses taking place as part of the policy of pushbacks, as Croatian authorities continue to dismiss such reports.
As its six-month stint of EU presidency begins, Croatia is also facing one of the most bitterly contested presidential run-off elections in living memory, with incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic from the governing conservative party facing off against leftist former prime minister Zoran Milanovic in January 2020.
Whoever gets to hold the highest office in the nation may likely have an impact on what kind of treatment irregular migrants might get to experience at the EU's longest external border. While the country's executive branch lies firmly in the hands of the prime minister, the president is more than just a ceremonial figurehead in Croatia. With the president also being the country's commander-in-chief, there is a direct link to the migrant issue as well, as Croatia has enlisted various members of the military to help along its borders with Bosnia and Serbia in dealing with irregular migration.
Whoever leads the country into the future, however, is ultimately not going to want to jeopardize its stated number one foreign policy objective of entering the Schengen zone in the foreseeable future.