Croatia won approval from Brussels on Friday to join the European Union in mid-2013, a move hailed by Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (pictured) as opening "a new page in our history". Zagreb will gain official approval at an EU summit in June.
AFP - Croatia took a giant step towards European Union membership Friday, winning a green light from Brussels to join in mid-2013, a move raising hopes for other Balkan nations knocking at the EU's door.
"Today is a historic day for Croatia and the European Union," said Jose-Manuel Barroso, head of the EU executive, on announcing that Zagreb had finally made sufficient progress on meeting stringent conditions required to join the bloc.
"I would like to congratulate the people of Croatia," the European Commission president added. "Joining the EU family of nations is first and foremost your success!"
After six years of tough talks to become the EU's 28th member, Barroso recommended closing the final four of 35 legal chapters that aspiring members must negotiate to gain EU entry -- political, economic, social and judicial reforms to bring a nation to the cusp of EU standards.
"This paves the way for Croatia to join the EU as the 28th member state as of 1 July 2013," he added.
The next step will be for EU leaders to offer their official rubber stamp at a summit June 23-24.
Croatia will be only the second former Yugoslav republic to join the EU after Slovenia in 2004, but the first that suffered the full force of the brutal wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s.
Criticised for failing to tackle corruption, reform its judiciary, and bring Balkan war criminals to book, Croatia will be "closely monitored" in its continued eforts in those areas via six-monthly reports until accession, cautioned Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele.
"We are confident that Croatia has reached a critical mass," Fuele said. "But reforms need to be continued, commitments need to be monitored."
In a statement, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor pledged her government would continue with reforms.
The announcement from the EU executive came shortly before the Balkan nation celebrates 20 years of independence from Yugolsavia and 16 years after the bloody inter-ethnic war that ensued.
Hailing the news even before it happened, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic told AFP in an interview it marked "a big day for Croatia as it opens a new page in our history."
Much of the negotiations in the last months stumbled over judicial reforms and cooperation with the UN war crimes court, but Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Zagreb had leapt ahead even in that sensitive area.
"The last stumbling block was the judiciary," she said. "I didn't believe last year that Croatians could do it. But in one year's time they completely reformed their judiciary and made it irreversible.
After Serbia inched closer to its dreams of EU membership by bringing in fugitive war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic last month while entering into dialogue with Kosovo, Croatia's progress will raise hopes of EU entry across the Balkans.
"I know from talks with many European leaders that they expect Croatia to serve as a bridge to help southeastern European countries become EU members," Josipovic said.
"Europe will not be complete until all southeastern European countries are in it."
The EU's Fuele expressed hopes that Croatia's success would be "a strong impetus for enlargement in that region," noting that Macedonia might be offered a start to accession negotiations later this year.
And Barroso too hoped Croatia's upcoming integration would inspire others in the Balkans "to reinvigorate their reform efforts and to deliver to the benefit of their people."
But Europe's taste for new entrants is on the decline, soured by the global financial crisis as well as by complaints that Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to join before being properly ready.
The government in Zagreb has touted huge financial benefits from membership, calculating that Croatia will be able to draw some 3.5 billion euros ($5 billion) from EU structural funds.
Economic experts expect entry will also boost investors' optimism, pushing growth in the country of 4.4 million whose economy is still in recession.
But many ordinary Croats do not share the enthusiasm.
Polls still show 44.6 percent support EU membership, but the opponents, on 41.8 percent, are gaining ground.
The country is due to hold a binding referendum on EU accession within a month of the treaty being signed.
Date created : 2011-06-10