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Croatia: Pathfinder for EU enlargement

EU enlargement / COMMENTARY
Corina Stratulat , Graham Avery

Date: 30/06/2011
Croatia’s successful conclusion on 30 June of the accession negotiations that began in October 2005 marks a historic moment for the country, and new momentum for the EU’s enlargement policy. Although further stages need to be completed – approval of the European Parliament before signature of an accession treaty later this year, then a referendum in Croatia and ratification by all the national parliaments of EU members – Croatia is expected to become the 28th Member State on 1 July 2013.
Lessons from Croatia’s experience
Compared with preceding enlargements, which brought 10 new members in 2004 and two more in 2007, this expansion will have a limited impact on the EU. Adding Croatia with its population of four and a half million – less than one percent of the size of the EU – will pose no threat in economic or budgetary terms and will not disturb the functioning of its institutions. More significant for the EU, this move demonstrates that its door is not closed to future members, provided they fulfil the criteria laid down.
This is a signal, therefore, to the Balkan countries – Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – that the prospect of accession is real. In recent years, despite the promise of membership made to them by the EU’s leaders at Thessaloniki in 2003, the spectre of ‘enlargement fatigue’ has haunted the process.
Realisation that Romania and Bulgaria’s entry in 2007 was preceded by inadequate preparation prompted the EU to become more exacting in applying the accession criteria, with the definition of ‘benchmarks’ for progress in the negotiations. Questions of ‘good governance’ – maintenance of the rule of law, independent judiciary, efficient public administration, and the fight against corruption – have increasingly been highlighted by the EU in the accession process with the Western Balkans. Croatia is the first country to complete this rigorous course: its journey has not been easy, and questions still remain about its ability to assume the obligations of membership.
The slow progress of Zagreb in fulfilling the requirement of full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) stalled the ratification of Croatia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement for three years, and delayed the start of its accession talks until 2005, when the fugitive general Ante Gotovina – indicted by the ICTY for war crimes – was finally arrested and extradited to The Hague.
The country continued to encounter stumbling blocks. Differences with Italy over property and ethnic minority rights were ironed out only in mid-2006. Then a border dispute with Slovenia regarding the Gulf of Piran blocked Zagreb’s accession negotiations until agreement on international mediation was reached in 2009, and ratified in 2010 by referendum in Slovenia. Fisheries policy proved another bone of contention with Italy and Slovenia that was at last resolved in June this year.
Croatia’s experience is thus a powerful reminder to aspirant states that failure to address as a matter of priority the EU’s political criteria, in particular its requirement of ‘good governance’, and solve any problems of relations with neighbours, will make for a bumpy ride to the EU.
Although Zagreb has made remarkable efforts in the last year to finalise its membership bid, the job is not yet done. The EU has been clear that the country must keep up the reform momentum, especially in two key areas: Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Competition Policy. In the period between the closing of accession negotiations and Croatia’s planned entry, the Commission will monitor and report every six months on Zagreb’s compliance with its commitments on the implementation of the rule of law and restructuring of the shipbuilding industry and steel sector. Member States and their national parliaments will continue to be vigilant, and if deficiencies persist they may decide to postpone ratification of the accession treaty and delay accession.
By ruling out a post-accession monitoring mechanism of the kind imposed on Romania and Bulgaria, the EU seems to indicate to Croatia (and to the rest of the membership queue) that shortcuts or dispensations on conditionality are definitely not on the cards anymore. Critics, however, view the monitoring plans until 2013 as a mere formality, unlikely to encourage whistleblowers or stop Croatia’s admission to the EU.
Sceptical that external supervision offers sufficient guarantees, Croatian non-governmental organisations have pressed for the creation of a parallel domestic monitoring mechanism to reinforce the EU’s strategy. Their concern with a premature decision on accession is echoed also by Croatia’s low rankings on corruption and the rule of law recently published by Transparency International and the Heritage Foundation.
Domestic politics have naturally played a role in the Croatian government’s wish to conclude negotiations swiftly. Parliamentary elections must be held before 11 March 2012 and the incumbent government hopes to capitalise on its EU success. Polls suggest that the party in office has fallen from grace with the electorate as a result of economic hardship and high-level corruption scandals, such as that concerning former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.
Another equally important internal consideration is the referendum that Croatia must organise 30 days after the signing of the accession treaty. Euroscepticism – traditionally strong in Croatia – was manifested vividly in April when the EU flag was burned at a protest in Zagreb against the sentencing of Gotovina. The late start of the “Yes” campaign without a timely mobilisation of civil society means that the government will have its work cut out to secure public support in the vote on EU accession.
Prospects for EU enlargement policy
For the rest of the Balkans, the conclusion of Croatia’s accession negotiations is proof of the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy: genuine reform efforts and concrete results can unlock the gates to accession. The other countries can hope for progress, already in the second half of 2011. A positive Opinion from the Commission, after last month’s arrest of Ratko Mladić, could lead to Serbia obtaining “candidate status”. And a long-overdue solution of FYROM’s name dispute with Greece could finally allow it to open negotiations, and thus reverse its current spiral into crisis. Turkey and Iceland may also draw encouragement from Croatia’s progress, though their situations and problems are different.
To EU policy-makers and public, Croatia’s progress on the road to membership shows that enlargement policy continues to exercise ‘soft power’ and promote political and economic reform in applicant countries. European integration was conceived in the 20th century as a means of reconciling countries that had warred with each other for generations. It marked a profound break with history. We can hope that in the 21st century the same process of reconciliation will allow the countries of the Western Balkans to break with their unhappy history and return to peace and prosperity.
Graham Avery is Senior Adviser at the European Policy Centre and Honorary Director-General of the European Commission. Corina Stratulat is Junior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre.

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