EU president-elect praises Croatia as bloc’s ‘role model’

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, stands next to Croatia’s prime minister Andrej Plenkovic at the government building in Zagreb, Croatia, Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Von der Leyen is on single day visit to Croatia. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

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ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday praised Croatia as European Union’s “tremendous success story,” saying the bloc’s newest member state serves as a role model for many other countries.

Von der Leyen met with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in the Croatian capital Zagreb. The former German defense minister, who takes up her post in Brussels on Nov. 1, has also visited Berlin, Paris and Warsaw, and travels next to Spain and Italy. Croatia had backed her candidacy to replace Jean-Claude Juncker.

Von der Leyen hailed Croatia’s efforts to join the eurozone and the border-free Schengen area since becoming an EU member in 2013. Croatia’s bid will need unanimous backing within the EU and von der Leyen said “I am at your side to proceed in that.”

Croatia has been locked in a border dispute with neighboring Slovenia which has suggested it could block Croatia’s Schengen bid over the issue.

Croatia’s PM Plenkovic said his country is still “catching up” with the EU in its economic recovery, investment and social reform. He said the country wants to move gradually to reach the “level that corresponds with the developed members in the European family.”

A former Yugoslav republic that went through a war in 1992-95 following its declaration of independence from the former federation, Croatia is still struggling to fully recover its economy following the conflict.

Von der Leyen said that her political goal is to “rebalance Europe” and its different parts because “the world is calling for more Europe and needs a strong European voice.”

As one of the youngest members of the EU, Croatia takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency in 2020, she noted.

“Croatia is a tremendous success story of the European Union,” said von der Leyen. “I know your country is a role model for many, many other countries.”

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