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Bay of discord (2)


In my first post on this topic I described the complicated historical, geographical and political background to the still unresolved border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, which centres on the Bay of Piran (named after the small Slovenian town where I now spend more than a quarter of each year); there are other disputes over the long land border between the two countries, but they are far less contentious.

I say ‘still unresolved’, for today’s supposedly final decision on the matter by a court of arbitration in The Hague seems frankly calculated to inflame things still further. The main issues are (1) where the sea border should run in the Bay of Piran, whose southern-western shore is in Croatia and whose north-eastern shore is in Slovenia (no-one apart from a few hotheads on either side have laid any claim to the shores themselves, for these are quite clearly inhabited by Croatian- and Slovenian-speakers respectively – but the waters in between them are another matter); and (2) whether, and if so how, Slovenia can obtain unrestricted access to international waters, since it has a coastline with a deep-water port through which a great deal of economically important traffic passes (currently the country is cut off from the high seas by the territorial waters of Croatia and Italy, which meet at the entrance to the bay – the nearest international waters are some 50 km further south, and neither of Slovenia’s neighbours has so far been willing to grant it even a narrow corridor that would allow its shipping to pass unhindered).

The second issue (the corridor to the high seas) should not in fact be a serious problem, since under international maritime law ‘geographically disadvantaged’ countries – which clearly include Slovenia – are entitled to at least minimum access; so it is perverse of Croatia and Italy to persist in refusing it, especially as the small area of sea involved is of little importance to either of them, but of vital importance to Slovenia. It is not as if there are oil or gas reserves to be found there – the Croats and Italians are simply being obstructive, in the hope of wringing other concessions out of their smaller neighbour.

As if to prove this, the Croatian government has – according to today’s BBC online news site – described Slovenia’s efforts to gain access to international waters as an ‘entirely spurious resource grab under the guise of a maritime access corridor’. This is such a blatant distortion of the historical and geographical facts – there are no resources to speak of, apart from some fish and a lot of salt water, whereas Slovenia quite manifestly lacks the access to international waters that its neighbours enjoy, besides which we’re talking about a very small section of water (the proposed corridor is no more than a few kilometres wide) – that it’s hard to take Croatia’s position on any of this at all seriously. Croatia already has a very long section of Adriatic coast, and should surely be happy enough with that.

On paper, the first issue (the Bay of Piran border) should not be a serious problem either. Since the two shores quite clearly belong to Croatia and Slovenia respectively, it should be possible to draw a straight line up the middle of the bay, equidistant from them and eventually intersecting with the new Slovenian corridor out at sea. The Croatian shore has the advantage of being almost completely straight; the Slovenian one is far less so, but geographers could surely work out a median line for it and divide the bay into two accordingly (perhaps with an angle halfway along to preserve equidistance). There are no islands or other anomalies to complicate matters (there may of course be shallows or shoals that would make navigation difficult in places, but I’ve never heard anyone mention them in the course of the debate; and account could surely also have been taken of these). This would have been a common-sense solution that neither side could reasonably object to. At the widest and outermost point of the bay (from Piran in Slovenia to Savudrija in Croatia) each country would have a 2.5-km strip of territorial water – not much, but fair shares for all.

Instead, the court of arbitration has decided in its wisdom that the border should be a straight line that extends more or less directly from the almost equally straight land border. Unfortunately, even at the widest point of the bay this line runs barely 500 metres from the Croatian coast, and at most points far less than that. Strong swimmers or windsurfers could all too easily find themselves in foreign waters. Not that this should be a problem, since both countries are now members of the European Union; but when it comes to national borders the EU is anything but the unified state it might like to be.

Slovenia has thus effectively been awarded over 80% of the waters in the Bay of Piran, and Croatia can no longer make full use of its own coast – a manifestly unfair decision, and one which the Croatian government has already announced it has no intention of implementing. Although I have a soft spot for Slovenia, have generally considered Croatia’s approach to the dispute petty-mindedly nationalistic and would have expected Croatia to protest against any decision, however fair, here I can only say I agree with the Croats.

It would be magnanimous of the Slovenes to offer the Croats something in exchange – for instance, by proposing a new sea border that is far more favourable to their neighbours (with whom they must continue to live on good terms – for one thing, a good deal of their trade is with Croatia). But I fear Slovenia may instead take a triumphalist attitude and say ‘the international court has decided, and we must all respect its decision’. Indeed, the Slovenian government has already called on the EU to intervene by compelling its member state Croatia to back down.

Only too aware of how touchy the whole issue is, Brussels has steered well clear of it, leaving the court in The Hague (which is not an EU institution) to sort things out; the EU’s stated official policy is that it prefers member states to settle such matters ‘amicably’ (i.e. don’t drag us into your hornet’s nest). But the history of the dispute, which has been going on for a quarter of a century, clearly shows that an amicable settlement would be hard to reach – which is why the two countries agreed to international arbitration in the first place, saying they would abide by the results. A referendum in Slovenia on whether to accept arbitration at all produced only a paper-thin majority in favour; but it was a majority.

Then, just as progress was finally starting to be made, the Slovenes did something very stupid. The court of arbitration initially included a Croatian and a Slovenian member. Perhaps appointing interested parties as co-arbitrators was a mistake, since arbitrators are supposed to be neutral; but that’s the way things were arranged. In 2015 it was alleged, and eventually admitted, that the Slovenian member had tried to influence the other members in Slovenia’s favour – an obvious breach of the arbitration agreement. This gave Croatia an unhoped-for opportunity to pose as the aggrieved party and withdraw from the arbitration process, claiming it could no longer be considered impartial.

In 2016 the court declared that, even though Slovenia had broken the rules, arbitration would continue – a decision that further undermined the court’s authority and credibility. It appointed members from other countries in place of the Croatian and Slovenian representatives; but the Croats now had a powerful advantage that had little to do with the facts of the case, suggesting they were simply taking advantage of a political windfall (for they feared they would in any case have to give up territory, if only out at sea).

When asked some weeks ago how Croatia would respond to the court’s decision, which was to be handed down today, the country’s president replied that it would neither accept nor reject it – since as far as Croatia was concerned the court did not exist. Much though this may sound like a Trump-like denial of reality, Slovenia – or at least its diplomatic representative – surely created the conditions that allowed Croatia to make such a claim seem well-founded.

Today, although the Croatian government has not said in so many words that it rejects the court’s decision, it has effectively done so by saying it will not implement it. A whole lot of inflammatory things are now being said on both sides of the border for domestic consumption; and the two parties seem further apart than ever.

It must be all the more galling to Croatia that Slovenia has done so well out of the arbitration process even after violating the terms of the agreement.

Hardly the world’s most successful example of international mediation. It remains to be seen where things go from here, but the road seems likely to be bumpy. A further embarrassment for the EU, now that Slovenia has publicly urged it to intervene – precisely what Brussels was hoping to avoid. And it would have done the Slovenian government credit to express surprise at the decision and acknowledge its unfairness to Croatia, rather than simply crow victory.

Perhaps the EU will have to set up its own court of arbitration – and insist beforehand that both sides keep strictly to the rules, on pain of having all their territorial claims instantly rejected, and (as an added punishment) European regional development funding withheld for the next five years. But let’s hope an EU court would reach a more sensible decision than the one handed down today in The Hague.


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