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Given the current economic and political crisis facing the European Union, and with public support for the EU in decline, it seems rather surprising that there are still countries interested in joining the EU. Nevertheless, on the 1-st of July, 2013 the EU will be welcoming its 28th member state – Croatia.

The European Union, as it is now, is very different from the way it was at the beginning of Croatia's journey to membership. Still, for Croatian decision-makers being part of the EU,  even with all its recent troubles, is a better alternative than being left outside the European club. Croatia is confronted with the same problems as many of the EU countries: high unemployment, poor economic performance and high corruption. Thus in a sense Croatia will fit in very well within the EU, and it will be interesting to see not only whether EU accession will eventually bring prosperity to Croatia, but also how Croatia will use its new status to bring growth to the Balkans, beyond its national borders.

The Road to Accession

Croatia’s membership of the EU comes at the end of a very lengthy and demanding accession process that started back in 2003 when Croatia formally applied for EU membership. Accession negotiations did not start until 2005 and concluded on 9 December 2011 when leaders from the EU and Croatia signed the Accession Treaty that then had to be ratified by the national legislatures of the EU’s current 27 members.  Croatia’s road to accession was by no means a smooth one. There were bumps and setbacks, most notably a huge corruption scandal involving former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in jail for corruption. In fact, out of the 35 negotiation chapters, judicial reform was one of the most important and urgent issues. While the EU is satisfied that Croatia now meets the Copenhagen criteria (the key conditions setting out whether a country is eligible to join the EU), political corruption in Croatia remains an issue. In fact, in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index the country was ranked below countries such as Rwanda and Cuba (but above Italy).  

The Banking dispute

Moreover, due to a long standing banking dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, there were serious concerns that Slovenia would not ratify the Accession Treaty. It was only earlier this month that Slovenia announced that it will not veto the Accession Treaty with Croatia. Nevertheless, further challenges remain for Croatia to address after it becomes an EU member state.

The accession from the point of view of the Croatians

The slow pace of the accession process has at times alienated the Croatian public from the goal of EU membership, but upon a national referendum in 2012 Croatia ratified the Accession Treaty. Approximately 66% of the votes cast in the referendum were in favour of EU membership, yet this could hardly be taken as an expression of great enthusiasm and support for the EU, as the turnout was at a low 44%. 

The benefits from the EU

As a full member of the EU, Croatia will be entitled to 7 votes in the European Council and 12 Croatian MEPs will join the European Parliament. The country will also be able to access EU funds, particularly through the Structural Funds, Cohesion Fund and European Fisheries Fund. In total, € 687.5 million has been set aside for Croatia in the second half of 2013. While Croatia will not automatically join the Schengen Area, it will gain access to the Schengen Facility that provides the financial means required for the preparation of the implementation of the Schengen aquis. 

At the same time, Croatia's payments to the European Union's budget in the second half of 2013 are estimated at € 267.7 million, which is three times less than the amount that Croatia has at its disposal in 2013.  The country will not automatically become a member of the Eurozone.

Croatia's role within the EU

With a population of about 4.4 million and a stagnant economy, it is unlikely that Croatia will become a major player on the EU scene or a highly influential decision maker. Nevertheless that is not to say that Croatia cannot play a key role within the EU. In July Croatia will become only the second country of the former Yugoslavia to join the EU (the first was Slovenia in 2004).   

Croatia, the EU and the Balkans 

This is an important aspect that could have implications for the wider Balkan region. While Croatian accession will lack much of the euphoria of previous waves of enlargement, it will definitely not lack political symbolism. The scars of the war and violence in the Balkans are still not healed and there is hope that Croatia’s EU membership will inspire other ‘young democracies’ in the Balkans and beyond to join the European movement. Croatia could be a stronger voice for the Balkans in the EU and provide the impetus for greater focus and closer co-operation in the region. As Croatia’s Foreign and European Affairs Minister Vesna Pusic put it in an interview to the Economist, Croatia’s accession comes ‘with a unique responsibility (...) the way I see it, yes, we are entering the EU but we are not moving anywhere. Look at the geography and demographics. Our stability depends on the stability of the region and that depends on our capacity to contribute and we can contribute to the stability of our region; that is our European task’.  If Croatia lives up to its ambitions, then it could carve out for itself a very interesting and important role within the EU. 

The Expectations

The fact that Croatia is joining the EU at times of economic hardship is perhaps not all that bad. The crisis has dispelled many myths regarding the EU’s ability to bring prosperity and support democracy, and it has probably led Croatians to have more realistic expectations in terms of what the EU can and cannot deliver. With no illusions about EU performing economic miracles, Croatia will not have taken for granted previous assumptions regarding the virtues of joining the Eurozone and EU’s ability to uphold high democratic standards within its member states. The crisis has cast a shadow on EU’s ‘civilising’ role and discourse so there is now room for a more equal relationship between the EU on the one hand, and the new member state on the other. What is more, Croatia will join an EU in flux, in search of a better economic and political integration model. As a member state, Croatia will have the chance to bring forward its own vision and contribute to the shaping of the future of the EU.

Undoubtedly, Croatia is joining the EU at a difficult time but this need not be a predicament for the relationship between the two. Should Croatia regret acquiring EU membership? The words of Ms Pusic are revealing: ‘if not Europe, then what?’.

Andreea Anastasiu

Detailed information about Croatia’s accession can be found at the official website of the European Commission and the official website of the Delegation of the EU to the Republic of Croatia