IT should be a time of celebration: the European Union (EU) is expanding once again by welcoming Croatia, a once war-torn Balkan nation whose entry into the EU club will help to further stabilise a region once ravaged by ethnic conflict and tension.
Turkey and Croatia started negotiations to join the EU at the same time: Oct 3, 2005. But even then — before the Eurozone crisis and the wide-ranging European economic slowdown — we knew: the tiny former Yugoslav republic (population: 4.3 million) would join the EU much faster and less painfully than the political and economic giant on the southern banks of the Mediterranean. And true to predictions, Croatia will join the EU fold on July 1, becoming the bloc’s 28th member state.
Membership negotiations with Turkey, meanwhile, have been further delayed by Germany which has voiced strong disapproval of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clampdown on protesters in Taksim Square.
Croatia’s membership of the EU marks the end of a long journey and a remarkable turnaround for a country that was ravaged by war during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But while the EU’s last “big bang” enlargement in 2004 to bring in former communist nations of central and eastern Europe were marked by much celebration, there is little jubilation this time around — with reason. The EU is a different, more morose place. And the new member states are not behaving as well as they were expected to.
Hungary has certainly taken a turn for the worse, serving as a warning that EU membership does not make progress towards democracy irreversible.
Germany’s Bild newspaper last month described Croatia as a country of “debt, corruption and unemployment” and warned that it was going to be the EU’s “next billion-euro grave”. There is also deep anger at the fact that Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the EU in 2007, were admitted too soon, without doing enough to tackle organised crime and corruption.
Not surprisingly, Croatia’s entry talks have been long and difficult, with the country also under pressure to hand over to prosecutors at The Hague alleged war criminals who are often seen as heroes at home. Ironically, Croatia’s membership of the EU comes only days after Iceland’s new government said it was freezing EU membership talks and Britain talks ceaselessly about leaving the bloc.
Meanwhile, with the economic slowdown showing no signs of easing, relations between Germany and most of the EU’s other members remain fraught. Financial Times reported recently that the perception that Germany is increasingly dominating the EU is gaining ground across the bloc and provoking a backlash in the crisis-hit countries of southern Europe.
The poll results reveal staunch objections in Spain and Italy, in particular, to German-inspired calls for austere fiscal policies to counter the euro crisis. In one of the poll’s most striking findings, 88pc of Spaniards and 82pc of Italians said Germany’s influence on the EU had become too strong. That was up from 67 and 53pc, respectively, in late 2011. More than half of French respondents — some 56pc — also agreed.
True, opening the doors to Croatia poses few problems for the EU. The country may have a troubled past and although the economy is faltering and the population ageing, the country is small and its problems appear manageable.
President Ivo Josipovic says that his country is joining the EU because it views the bloc as a peace project. Having endured a brutal war in the 1990s, he said in a recent interview that EU membership means binding Croatia and its neighbours — Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania — into that peace project.
Slovenia, a fellow ex-Yugoslav republic, already joined the bloc in 2004. “It is peace, stability, a big market and the European cultural space,” said Josipovic. While the EU’s latest enlargement has gone largely unnoticed in most of Europe, Croatia is believed to be preparing for a grand celebration with fireworks and music for its historic entry into the EU.
Analysts say Croatia’s economy is either in recession or has stagnated in the past five years. But the country hopes to get direct investment from other EU countries as well as financial aid of $15 billion from the EU and export more to the EU market of 500 million people. The EU has already set aside $855million to subsidise Croatia this year.
With an unemployment rate of over 20pc, young people in the country are hoping to find jobs in other EU states. But not all EU members will welcome them immediately. Croatians still need to apply for a working permit after July 1 in some EU states, such as Germany, France and Britain. After joining the bloc, Croatia will have to adhere to a series of rules regulating almost all aspects of everyday business.
Once Croatia is in, six other Balkan countries are hoping to join the club. Membership talks are continuing with Montenegro and will open next year with Serbia which has been an official candidate since 2012. Waiting in line are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro. Most EU policymakers predict that the small, albeit ethnically divided Balkan nations are likely to join the bloc before Turkey.
But EU purists are not convinced. Many argue that the EU is becoming too large, too diverse and much too unwieldy to continue on the path to further integration. The problem is that while Turkish entry into the EU can be put on hold for a variety of reasons, the momentum to bring the smaller Balkan countries into the club appears impossible to stop.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.