Croatia’s Progress to EU Should Encourage Other Balkan States (6/16)     Print Email

Croatia passed a crucial hurdle in its pursuit of EU membership when the European Commission gave formal approval June 10 to its accession application. Endorsement by EU heads of state is now considered only a formality, and Croatia’s tentative entry date is July 1, 2013.

In ratifying Croatia’s bid, the Commission was clearly also sending a broader message of encouragement to other Balkan countries of ex-Yugoslavia about their prospects for gaining EU membership. Getting these states to qualify for the EU and join the union is widely seen as a key way of installing better governance in the region and stabilizing this fractious corner of Europe. As explained by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, “a credible enlargement policy remains our most important tool for strengthening mutual stability and prosperity in South Eastern Europe.”

The path to EU membership for countries that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia has been strewn with obstacles. Serbia, the largest of these new countries, has been held back by its refusal to surrender suspected war criminals to the Hague tribunal (a problem now largely resolved by recent arrest and delivery of Ratko Mladic) and a Serbian justice system that has changed little since the era of Slobodan Milosevic, the leader who was finally deposed in October 2000 and then died while on trial in The Hague.

So far, the only country from former Yugoslavia to be admitted is Slovenia, which qualified easily when it got help modernizing its institutions thanks to close ties with neighboring Austria. Along with Serbia, the other south-eastern European countries that are hoping to follow Croatia are Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania (which was not part of Yugoslavia), Macedonia – and possibly Kosovo. Kosovo’s status is particularly problematic: its independence from Serbia is recognized by many countries (including the U.S. and key EU members) but not all, and especially not by Serbia. Macedonia’s bid similarly has been stalled by Greece, in a dispute over its name. All of these countries have problems about their anti-corruption performance that have to be settled as part of progress toward EU membership.

Despite these issues (or perhaps because of them), there is no question about the eagerness in Brussels to see enlargement in the Balkans. That was evidenced in the Commission’s readiness to compromise on some entry conditions for Croatia: its admission was approved even though negotiations still have to be completed on four chapters (out of 35) of the accession agreement – most notably on judiciary reforms.

Despite these shortcomings, it is clear that Zagreb has come a long way on reforms in governance. Croatia’s resurgence – from rampant corruption, autocratic rule and the abuses of the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia – has surprised many, but the turnaround and its speed was publicly acknowledged by Stefan Fule, European Commissioner for Enlargement: the six years of accession negotiations with Croatia, he said, “have transformed the country into a mature democracy based on the rule of law and into a functioning market economy.”

Croatian officials have produced a high-profile crackdown on corruption, prosecuting past and current government officials – including even former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who held office as recently as 2009. He is scheduled to be extradited from Austria to face trial on charges of abuse of power. Other reforms have been put into effect on education, health care and in privatization of public sector enterprises (recently, for example, shipyards).

A European Institute meeting on May 24 heard a positive message from Marija Buric, Chairwoman of the Joint Croatia-EU Parliamentary Committee. She emphasized that “the change is very physical in Croatia,” adding, “we really are a different country now.” In response to questions about the unclosed chapters of the negotiations, she noted that “reform takes time. We will prove that our judicial system is getting better, but we still have some pending cases." Reforms are also in the works in all four outstanding chapters of the accession negotiations: anti-trust, the judiciary, financial regulations and “other issues.” The Commission has said that it “has confidence” in Zagreb’s determination to complete these reforms in good faith.

The Commission’s willingness to extend Croatia this leeway is demonstrative of its hopes of improving stability to the region via enlargement as a soft-power mechanism. Nevertheless, signs of leniency on accession criteria have surprised some critics – especially since the EU has had to think again and impose retroactive conditions on two countries that secured membership despite evidence that they were not completely ready. Romania and Bulgaria were admitted in 2007, but were subsequently rebuked over shortcomings in tackling rampant corruption and organized crime.

As these conditions persisted and worsened, the EU set up a Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, designed to ensure that they maintained the reforms as promised. Citing this precedent, two EU countries, the Netherlands and France, have proposed similar further monitoring on Croatia to ensure compliance with the agreed-upon guidelines. Officials in Zagreb remain publicly unruffled. Vesna Pusic, head Croatia’s accession committee, said recently: “These obligations cover the minimum, not the maximum of our efforts. Our ambitions should really be greater.”

Music to the ears of Commission officials. But in fact the next two years – from approval to admission – will not be easy. The decision to admit a new member state must be unanimous; Croatia will have to lobby every government that is skeptical of their entry. Now that the territorial dispute with Slovenia – once seen as the main risk of derailment for EU entry – has been resolved, most Croatians believe that Britain is the main obstacle to their entry. David Blunt, the British ambassador to Croatia, has sought to dispel any such fears, expressing his certainty that Prime Minister David Cameron “will endorse the U.K.’s strong support for Croatia’s EU accession.”

The Croatian government may also have some problems on the domestic front. Support for joining the EU has fluctuated wildly since the start of the campaign, varying between 30 and 80 percent over the past six years. The most recent polls have found a near-even split on EU membership. The upswing of doubts about membership stems from wariness among Croatians about the toughness of membership criteria – a concern that has heightened as negotiations have been drawn out. There is residual unhappiness about Zagreb’s action in delivering two former generals to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The government is now playing up the benefits of membership, starting with Croatia’s estimated annual allocation of 1.5 billion euros in the EU budget. Perhaps most fundamentally, Croatians and their neighbors stand to benefit from the regional stability underpinned by EU expansion into the Balkans.

Nic Carter is an editorial assistant for European Affairs.