LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Slovenia narrowly approved a border arbitration deal with Croatia in a referendum on Sunday, clearing a major obstacle to Zagreb’s European Union membership bid.
With 99.9 percent of votes counted, preliminary results showed 51.5 percent of Slovenes supported the deal, the state electoral commission said.
The vote should boost Croatia’s chances of joining the 27-nation EU in 2012 if it succeeds in completing entry talks in the next year.
Under the border arbitration deal, an international team will settle a dispute over the land and sea border that dates from the 1991 break-up of Yugoslavia. The ruling would be binding for both countries.
“This is a historic decision... This is a big success for Slovenia,” Prime Minister Borut Pahor told national TV Slovenia.
Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, the only former Yugoslav state so far to have done so. Like any other EU member, it can veto Croatia’s progress towards membership.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who spoke to Pahor by telephone after the polls closed, told Croatia’s state television she foresaw no further Slovenian action to bar Zagreb’s path towards joining the EU.
“There will be no more roadblocks. Dialogue certainly continues. With this agreement ... we separated Croatia’s (EU) talks from solving the border issue.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso welcomed the referendum result.
“This is an important step forward ... We now look forward to a final settlement of the dispute. Resolving this bilateral issue is an important signal for the region and the relations between Slovenia and Croatia,” he said in a statement.
Pahor’s centre-left government has made ending the dispute with Croatia its main foreign policy goal. Slovenia blocked Croatia’s EU application process for most of 2009 until the two governments reached a deal last September.
Janez Jansa, opposition leader and former prime minister who had denounced the deal as bad for Slovenia, said approval of the deal would result in Slovenia losing access to international sea waters.
“This result shows that Slovenia is divided over a question where we should not be divided at all,” Jansa said.
The dispute involves a sliver of land on the Istrian peninsula in the northern Adriatic. Slovenia — squeezed between Italy and Croatia — has demanded to have direct access to international waters, which could force Croatia to cede some of the sea it views as its own.
Analysts say the approval will end the 19-year old border dispute and ease relations between the two countries.
None of the other former Yugoslav republics has opened EU accession talks yet and most of them remain locked in historic rivalries and legacy issues from the wars of the 1990s.
A small number of postal votes remain to be counted in Slovenia’s referendum and final results are due on June 29.
Additional reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Charles Dick