Hans van den Broek Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

My personal memories of the turbulent Dutch Presidency of the European Community in  1991

Twenty years have already passed. Looking back on the relatively peacefully acquired independence of Slovenia is far more positive than thinking about a just solution to the Yugoslav conflict in the nineties, which claimed a horrific number of victims in some republics.

The unilateral declaration of independence of Slovenia and Croatia on 25 June 1991 and the military intervention of the federal army (YNA) the next day were a wake-up call for the European Community. In the European Community, previous growing tensions in the former Yugoslavia since the end of the eighties were overshadowed by historic events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), the unification of Germany (1990) and the Gulf War (1990-1991).

The secession of Slovenia and Croatia was a kind of harbinger of the break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Civil war was inevitable. In the course of the urgent meetings of the so-called ‘trio’ of the European Community in Belgrade at the end of June 1991, it became clear that the federal government would fight the disintegration of the Federation resolutely and by force.

Within the European Community, there were difficult talks on the issue as to what should be given priority: the right of  republics to self-determination or the inviolability and territorial integrity of the borders of federal Yugoslavia. 

After sixteen hours of negotiations within the Dutch six-month presidency of the European Community, an agreement was reached on 7 July 1991 at the Croatian Brijuni between the Slovenian, Croatia and the Yugoslav foreign delegation, which ended the hostilities (the ten-day war) on the territory of the Republic of Slovenia. Essential in this agreement was the readiness of Slovenia and Croatia to freeze the previously proclaimed independence for three months.

After the Brijuni Agreement, the European Community no longer believed in the preservation of Yugoslav unity, but demanded a joint agreement on the distribution of property of all six republics as a condition for recognising the declared independence, so that the federal government and the republics involved could reach a joint agreement mediated under the leadership of Lord Carrington, which was halted mainly by the Serbian side. In addition, due to serious differences within the European Community on the rapid recognition of independence, which was again declared by Slovenia and Croatia on 8 October, too little time was available.

A week later, the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. The negotiations with which the European Community sought to reach a joint agreement thus became even more uncertain, and fear of civil war with Serbia increased.

Nevertheless, the Federal Republic of Germany in particular remained a staunch supporter of quickly recognising Slovenian and Croatian independence. It even announced that it would do so unilaterally should an agreement not be reached by Christmas. At a meeting of EC foreign ministers on 16 December 1991, an agreement was finally reached after intensive talks, which led to official recognition a month later. The tragic and violent further disintegration of former Yugoslavia also left deep marks in the Netherlands.

On its twentieth anniversary, Slovenia deserves not only congratulations, but also recognition for participating in the shaping of the Brijuni Agreement. With an almost homogeneous population and fairly developed political, economic and even military independence, Slovenia was ready for self-determination and independence.

In the Croatian case, this was not so self-evident, as the country had declared independence and adopted a constitution without considering the six hundred thousand Serbs residing on its territory. This encouraged/inspired the Muslim leader of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Izetbegović, to declare independence unilaterally against the wishes of the Serbian (33%) and Croatian (18%) populations. The chances of a peaceful division of Yugoslavia thus became even less probable.

During the preparations for the meeting of EC foreign ministers on 16 December, the US counterpart Jim Baker, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Perez de Cuellar and Lord Carrington, expressed their concern over the recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence without a joint agreement on the future of the Federation. Despite that, the ministers of the European Community sided with the German decision that day and voted for the recognition of independence, which entered into force on 16 January 1992. Before this, there had been serious talks at which, as the President of the European Community, I explicitly warned of the danger of the further escalation of tensions.

In the meanwhile, the Yugoslav army had occupied a third of Croatian territory, which Croatians had already left. This occupation seemed increasingly to be an occupation; however, while Croatia was part of the Yugoslav Republic, tensions between Serbs and Croats were merely a matter of internal policy, and outside observers could not interfere. Germany warned that recognition of Croatian independence would allow for an intervention into the situation, as the situation would then constitute a conflict between two countries. Despite the fact that other European countries could not oppose this, nothing much ever came out of this.

The great involvement of Germany in Croatia’s destiny in this period was probably connected to the development of events within Germany - in particular, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German unification at the end of 1990, and the right to self-determination of East Germans. At the same time, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was also on the horizon.

The emotions which had arisen on that day were transferred by the Germans to the Balkans.  They had begun to think that Croats should be given the right to self-determination, because the Serbs wanted to achieve a majority position within Yugoslavia, and oppress and take advantage of the Croats. Moreover, about eight hundred thousand Croats lived in Germany at that period.

The final agreement on 16 December – in accordance with the German position - was also influenced by the need for unity on the road to concluding the Maastricht Agreement, which was very important, as the European Community. Members wanted to reach a consensus in the same month. A large part of the Agreement consisted of controversial rules for reaching greater unity on foreign and security policy and conditions for the later introduction of the euro.

Therefore, it is not surprising that long known differences in opinion between Germany on one side and France and United Kingdom on the other on the recognition of independent Slovenia and Croatia were abandoned due to the agreements on the provisions in the Treaty of Maastricht.

It is difficult to assess whether a further delay of recognition of independence by the European Community could have led to peaceful agreement on the separation of Yugoslavia.
Before the Dayton Agreement was concluded after four years, there were several unsuccessful attempts at international intermediation. According to estimates, the tragic civil war between the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats claimed one hundred thousand lives.

It became fairly clear how the unilateral declaration of the independence of Croatia, and particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991, opposed the idea of the Great Serbia of Slobodan Milošević and the Great Croatia of Franjo Tuđman, who prevented the peaceful division of Yugoslavia for so long.

This year, the Republic of Slovenia is celebrating twenty years of independence. On this occasion, it deserves sincere and heartfelt congratulations.  The fact that this developed and politically and economically successful country has been a member of the European Union since 2004, that it introduced the euro in 2007, and presided over the EU in the first half of 2008 proves its long-standing focus on and association with Europe.

I am very grateful to remember the precious cooperation with Slovenian political leaders at the beginning of the nineties: the President Milan Kučan, the PM Lojze Peterle, the Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, and the late Janez Drnovšek, who was a Slovenian representative and member of the federal presidency and later, the Slovenian Prime Minister.

Long live the Republic of Slovenia!


Hans van den Broek
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (1982-1993)
European Commissioner for External Relations and the Enlargement of the EU (1993-1999)