By Stephanie van den Berg
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - An international arbitration court on Thursday handed Slovenia victory in a long-standing maritime dispute with Croatia, granting it direct access to international waters in the Adriatic Sea.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration's decision is final and binding, but Croatia, which withdrew from the proceedings in 2015, said it would ignore the ruling.
The court found that Slovenia should have "uninterrupted access" to the sea it shares with Croatia, presiding Judge Gilbert Guillaume said, in the case between the European Union neighbors.
"This decision is not legally binding for us in any way and we have no intention to implement it," Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said in a reaction.
"We're open for a bilateral dialogue with Slovenia and we do not expect from Slovenia any one-sided action on this issue," Plenkovic said.
Slovenia's government welcomed the ruling, calling it "definitive and legally binding".
"Slovenia will continue its good cooperation with Croatia and will not do anything that would aggravate mutual relations,” Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar told a news conference.
The countries have been arguing over a stretch of their sea and land border since both declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 as it disintegrated into war and broke up.
The dispute, which centers on the bay of Piran, held up Croatian accession to the EU for many years. Only after both parties agreed to arbitration was Zagreb granted entry to the bloc in 2013.
The court has now ruled that Slovenia gets the vast majority of the Piran bay area recognized as its territorial waters. In addition, the tribunal established a 2.5 nautical-mile wide and some 10 nautical-mile long corridor through Croatian waters to give Slovenia much-coveted direct access to international waters.
"The zone shall give freedom of communication to all ships and aircraft, civil and military, of any state for the purpose of access to Slovenia," the court ruled.
Croatia withdrew from the arbitration procedures in 2015 after a leaked tape showed a Slovenian judge on the panel improperly exchanging confidential information with the Ljubljana government.
The judge involved resigned and the court decided to continue with the case, saying the incident had not compromised the court's ability to reach a final verdict.
It added that rule violations did not allow Croatia to withdraw from the arbitration process.
Slovenia has said Croatia should respect the verdict, while Croatian officials say the row should be resolved bilaterally.
The EU has looked to the arbitration between Croatia and Slovenia as a possible blueprint for the way to handle other border disputes that remain between several other Balkan EU-hopefuls.
Croatia's unilateral withdrawal casts doubts on the success of future arbitrations, as well as whether promises made in order to obtain EU accession will be kept once a state has been admitted to the union.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg. Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela and Igor Ilic.; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Ralph Boulton)