Croatia on the Verge of Joining the European Union: Outlook after the release of the latest EU monitoring reportMarch 28, 2013 Print
On March 26th, the European Commission released its last monitoring report on Croatia, which concludes that the country is ready to join the EU in July 2013. This will, in all likelihood, convince the remaining EU member states to ratify Croatia’s EU accession treaty. What are the outstanding issues in Croatia’s EU accession and what are the implications of Croatia’s EU membership for the country itself and its neighboring states?
Ratification of the accession treaty on hold in some member states
Croatia’s ten year long accession process has been a rocky road. The accession negotiations were opened in October 2005 and completed in June 2011. Following the close of negotiations, Croatia’s accession treaty, which was signed in December 2011, had to be ratified by all EU member states. While this was done by most national parliaments, Germany, Slovenia and Denmark have still not made a decision on this issue. Of these three states, the German parliament’s postponement of the ratification truly came as a surprise, for the German government has often been considered one of the strongest supporters of Croatia’s EU membership. However, a change in the German perspective on the issue became apparent following the release of the European Commission’s progress report on Croatia in October 2013.
The report assessed that Croatia needed to further increase its efforts to strengthen the rule of law, to improve its public administration and the justice system, and to more effectively fight corruption and organized crime. Concerning the economic criteria, the Commission requested the “vigorous implementation of urgently needed structural reforms”  that would enable Croatia to cope with competitive pressures and market forces within the Union. Accordingly, the Commission called upon the government in Zagreb to consider actions in the areas of competition policy, judiciary and fundamental rights, and set ten obligations that should be met before EU entry. Among others, the obligations include the further privatization and the restructuring of the Croatian shipbuilding industry, the adoption of regulations in order to increase the efficiency of the judiciary, and the completion of border crossing facilities. Croatia was also requested to further increase the capacities of the agencies that are in charge of allocating EU funds.
In response to the progress report, the speaker of the German Bundestag and member of the governing Christian Democratic Union, Norbert Lammert, declared that Croatia was obviously not yet ready for EU membership. Lammert therefore warned that the European Commission’s assessment of the outstanding problems would be taken serious and demanded concrete results in Croatia in meeting the EU requirements. This view was shared by other German politicians, including the chairman of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee, Gunther Krichbaum. The German Bundestag responded by delaying the ratification of the accession treaty and implicitly made it dependent on the results of the last monitoring report which was released on March 26th.
Additionally, Slovenia has shown some reluctance to give its neighboring state the “green light” for EU membership. In 2008, it blocked the accession negotiations between Croatia and the EU for almost a year due to a border dispute on the Gulf of Piran. Another outstanding issue between Croatia and Slovenia has been the financial compensation for Croatian depositors who lost their savings in the defunct Ljubljanska Banka during the 1990’s. However, on 7 March 2013—just in time for the release of the Commission’s report—both governments announced that they have reached an agreement on the Yugoslav succession issue, which will be resolved through internationally-brokered talks by the Bank for International Settlements. The agreement led the Slovenian government to start with the parliamentary procedure to ratify Croatia’s accession treaty. Thus, one of the European Commission’s requests to Croatia—to address remaining open bilateral issues with its neighbors—can be regarded as completed.
Growing enlargement fatigue in the EU member states
The strictness of some member states with regard to Croatia’s EU accession is related to a growing “enlargement fatigue” in the EU. Norbert Lammert expressed this sentiment when he explicitly referred to the experience of the EU with Bulgaria and Romania, whose membership in the Union has been considered by many observers as premature. When both countries joined the Union, the EU invoked the so-called “Cooperation and Verification Mechanism” to address shortcomings in the fields of judicial reform, as well as the fight against corruption and organized crime. Since 2007, the European Commission regularly issues reports on progress in these fields. However, the EU will probably not invoke such a mechanism for Croatia since many EU officials consider Croatia—at least compared to Romania and Bulgaria—as relatively well prepared for EU membership. In fact, Croatia might, in this respect, benefit from the fact that its EU accession process was based on a much stricter procedure and monitoring by the EU than was the case for the previous newcomers.