A glimmer of hope is appearing for the resumption of accession negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Croatia, as the European Commission is stepping up its mediation efforts toward the resolution of a border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia.
Slovenia, an EU member state since 2004, is under pressure from other EU countries for a solution of the stalemate that has held up the EU-Croatia talks for more than four months.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn last week presented a compromise deal to the two countries in an attempt to resolve the dispute and unblock the accession talks.
Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, who chaired a debate by EU foreign ministers on the issue on Monday, said EU member states have a sense of urgency in finding a solution to the dispute.
"We recall the urgency attached to the issue since the whole timeline of the process is at stake and there are implications not only for Croatia but also for the wider region," he told reporters after the debate. "This stalemate can't last forever."
Rehn said he was expecting positive responses from Slovenia and Croatia by early May to his compromise deal.
"I am expecting positive responses from both countries shortly. And I would expect that this will happen in the early part of May," Rehn told the same press conference.
Vondra, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said a solution based on the compromise deal should be within reach.
"We should move forward. We should not wait long because very much is at stake here," he said, adding that the EU's general strategy of ultimately granting membership to all Western Balkan states should not change.
It is hoped that accession negotiations could be concluded by the end of 2009. But Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004, has effectively blocked the EU's accession talks with Croatia as it fears that documents submitted by Croatia in the talks might prejudge the border dispute between the two countries.
Slovenia partially blocked the intergovernmental conference (IGC) on accession in December 2008. Last week, the EU presidency had to postpone the next IGC originally scheduled for last Friday. A new date is yet to be set subject to positive developments in the border dispute, said the EU presidency.
Accession talks between Croatia and the EU were launched in October 2005.
Rehn said on Monday that it is still possible to reach the final stages of the accession negotiations by the end of 2009 and it is also possible to resume the negotiations during the Czech EU presidency, which ends on June 30.
He urged the two countries to keep up the momentum by responding to his initiative quickly.
Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic struck a positive note on the dispute Monday after talks with EU officials.
He said Rehn's compromise proposal is "a constructive contribution" and "a good basis" for resolving the border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia.
Jandrokovic said Croatia will respond to Rehn's proposal quickly and will work for a "division" of the two tracks of negotiations, namely its EU accession negotiations and its talks to resolve its border dispute with Slovenia.
Rehn has reportedly proposed that borders on the sea and land between the two former Yugoslav republics be determined by an international court made up of five judges chosen by the two sides.
Croatia and Slovenia have not been able to completely draw their land and sea borders since their independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The border dispute centers on a stretch of border at the Slovenian coastal town of Piran and access rights to the Adriatic Sea.