Everyday tales and stories from the border regions of Europe and beyond, with the aim of explaining why we border-crossers are as obsessed as we are about this subject, why it is important to all of us, and why the co-operation community needs a little bit more visibility than it normally gets.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Squabbling in the Balkans

Another year, another bout of unedifying squealing and squabbling about borders in the Western Balkans. This time it is two supposedly better-behaved children, Slovenia and Croatia, that are in dispute. While they have not come to blows (yet), there is much unpleasantness in the air, and the Slovenes are holding Croatian accession negotiations to the EU hostage as a result.

The argument is over the Gulf of Piran (of course, the name has now become controversial as well, with both sides arguing about what the real name should be) and the consequences of the break-up of Yugoslavia. This very clear map (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bay-of-Piran_maritime-boundary-dispute.jpg) illustrates things better than I can describe, but essentially, in Yugoslav days, ships could sail from Slovenia through Yugoslav waters and reach international waters directly. With the break up of Yugoslavia, Slovenian ships would have to sail through another country's waters in order to reach international waters.

Both sides' positions appear to have oscillated back and forth since 1990, but currently Slovenia is insisting on having about 3/4 of the bay and a corridor to international waters, while Croatia would have an "exclave" of national waters on the other side of the corridor to maintain a maritime boundary with Italy (which is apparently not allowed under international law). This is the scenario depicted in the map link above.

Even if this situation appears highly favourable to Slovenia, the two governments initialled an agreement along these lines in 2001. However, the Croatian government was unable to obtain parliamentary support for the agreement, and the process has foundered since. As often happens, positions have hardened, with Slovenia insisting on the agreement being adhered to, and Croatia going back to the 50:50 option combined with the offer of unfettered access through Croatian waters for Slovenian ships.

Looking at this objectively, and from normal international law principles, I would say that Croatia has the more reasonable case here. The fact that Slovenia does not want to take this to legal arbitration suggests that they know this.

However, the Croatian position is weakened by the fact that their Prime Minister initialled the agreement in 2001 to hand over most of the bay to Slovenia. More fundamentally, the realpolitik means that Slovenia holds the upper hand as they are already in the EU and NATO and can block Croatian accession. Maybe one compromise option would be to go back to a 50:50 split of the bay but to combine that with a corridor for Slovenian shipping. Unfortunately, at the moment, compromise is not a word that is in wide circulation.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Headless chickens?

A very short, minor modifying decision was quietly eased out by the European Commission on Wednesday. Nothing so unusual about that, you might think. Happens all the time. However, this decision was unusual, by anyone's standards.

The decision increased the amount of closure flexibility for 2000-2006 Structural Funds programmes from 2% to 10%. To explain a little: Structural Fund programmes are divided into priorities and the amount of money available in each priority is fixed. It could be modified up to 2006 but not after. The closure flexibility allows programmes which have slightly overspent in one priority to be able to claim that overspend from the Commission, provided it is balanced with an underspend in another priority.

Of course, the word "slightly" was only appropriate when the flexibility was 2%. With the new decision allowing five times that amount, the correct adverb is now " massively". The 2% flexibility was fair - projects inside priorities often underspend, and well managed programmes will budget for this by slightly (that word again) overcommitting funds per priority. A 10% flexibility basically allows extremely poorly managed programmes to cover huge spending gaps in their finances and drives a coach and horses through any kind of attempt to ensure sound financial management.

More worryingly, the whole saga seems to suggest that the Commission has lost a degree of its independence vis-a-vis the Member States. The Commission is supposed to be the guardian of the treaties - not the bender of rules to assist incompetent Member States to recover funds. It fits into a wider pattern, with the current comprehensive revision exercise on the Structural Funds regulations being carried out in the name of the world financial crisis when it has nothing to do with that at all - as can be seen by some of the proposed changes being pushed by the Member States. Someone, somewhere needs to lift their head up from the short-term and look at the medium- and long-term damage being done to cohesion policy through incessant tinkering with rules and kow-towing to Member State demands.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Progress in the Black Sea

Last week, the International Court of Justice fixed the Romania-Ukraine maritime border in the Black Sea. The dispute had festered for almost 20 years over a rocky outcrop called "Serpent Island" which, depending on whether it was designated an island or a "cliff" would impact upon where the maritime boundary would lie. It appears that the Court has leaned towards the Romanian position, although not all the way. The issue of the actual sovereignty of the island was not presented to the Court, although there are still some in Romania who want the island back from Ukraine, on the basis that it was appropriated by the Soviet Union in 1948. However, both governments seem willing to accept the ICJ decision and to consider the situation finalised.

This is good news for on-going Romania-Ukraine cross-border co-operation, but there are still issues to be addressed. The most serious would appear to be the spat about the Danube Delta and which of the channels through the delta can be used for shipping. This is often presented as an environmental argument, but there are evidently economic undertones - i.e. who gets paid for allowing ships to go through the delta. In any event, progress is required here if future co-operation on Danube issues is not to be impeded.