Croatia Inches Closer to EU Membership
EU Commissioner Chirs Patten squarely backs Croatia's application for EU membership
The European Commission has pledged to back Croatia's application to join the union. Although a start date for accession talks won't be confirmed until June, the former Yugoslav republic is already en-route to home base.
In an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, European External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen announced the commission's support for Zagreb's application, adding they would suggest to the Council of Ministers that they start membership talks "quickly."
Patten described it as an "historic day for Croatia," which is the second Balkan country after Slovenia to have come so far in a bid to become a part of the growing European Union. He said Croatia had made a lot of progress but stressed that there was still work to be done.
Directly addressing Croatian Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul, who was present at the debate in Strasbourg, Patten said Zagreb needed to reform its judicial system, do more to protect its minorities and make it possible for Serb refugees to return to their homes.
Verheugen praised Croatia's growing economy, which is a key factor for potential accession to the EU. "Croatia is better placed today than most of the countries that will be joining on May 1st," Verheugen said in reference to the impending expansion of the union from 15 to 25 members. "The economy is strong, very strong, and in close cooperation with the economy of the EU," he added.
The expansion commissioner said he believed EU support for Croatia's increasing efforts to meet membership entry requirements would send an "important and powerful signal" to the entire region. He cited the former Yugoslav republic as an example to it neighbors that effort pays off.
Clean bill of health
Croatia first applied to join the EU roundtable in February 2003, but the application stuck on the issue of how much Zagreb was doing to cooperate with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Banging the drum of concern were principally the Netherlands and Britain, who wanted to see Zagreb do more to track down war crimes suspects before endorsing its application. Britain, in particular, wanted Croatia to hand over General Ante Gotovina, who has been wanted in The Hague since 2001 for alleged war crimes against Serbs in 1995.
Although the fugitive Gotovina has still not been captured, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has overseen the handover of eight suspects to the tribunal since his election in November. They include two indicted generals and six former Bosnian Croat officials. And this seems to have been enough to pacify Britain, which has now dropped its blocking tactic.
"The British government hopes to see Croatia as a member of the EU before the decade is out," Denis MacShane, Britain's Minister for Europe told the Guardian newspaper. He added that "Gotovina no longer remains an obstacle to saying Croatia can start accession talks."
Speaking in Strasbourg yesterday, Chris Patten said UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte had given Croatia a clean bill of health for its cooperation with the tribunal. "She concluded that Croatia is fully complying with the tribunal, and sees no likelihood of that situation changing. As far as the Gotovina case is concerned, she indicated that the Croatian government is doing all it can to help locate and turn him over to The Hague," Patten told Reuters.
New chapter in Balkan history
It's a breakthrough for the Croatian prime minister, who is hoping to lead his country into the EU in 2007 along with Romania and Bulgaria. "We're opening today a new page in our history, and I'm sure the whole nation is sharing in the happiness of taking this first concrete step towards EU membership," Sander said in the Croatian capital.
In accession he sees a chance not only for his people, but also for the entire region. "Croatia has the chance to become a success story, to pave the way for our neighbors in southeast Europe to follow," Sanader said. "A unified Europe wouldn't stand a chance if new dividing lines were introduced, and some countries were excluded from unification."