Why Croatia’s EU accession will strengthen the EU
Gerald Knaus and Kristof Bender
First there was the headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 9 October: “Brussels reprimands Croatia: ‘Criteria for accession are not yet met’.” Then Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), Chair of the Europe Committee in the German Bundestag, declared: “At this moment the country is not ready to join.” President of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert explained: “We have… to take the most recent progress report of the European Commission seriously: Croatia apparently is not yet ready to join.” On 15 October, Martin Winter wrote in Süddeutschen Zeitung that Croatia is indeed “not mature enough”, but that it is now too late: “It is a pity: Lammert’s objection comes a bit late.”
These are disturbing warnings. Is the EU about to be weakened through the hasty accession of yet another unprepared member? Doesn’t the EU have problems enough already?
In fact, Croatia’s preparations for accession have been widely recognised as remarkable. Since its application for membership in 2003, Croatia has faced demands that were considerably more challenging than those presented to previous candidates. It not only had to pass EU-compliant legislation, but also demonstrate real progress in implementing what were often challenging reforms. These efforts were recognised by the European Parliament in December, with a vote of 564 to 38 in favour of Croatia’s accession, and by the 16 EU member states that have already ratified the accession treaty. Last week’s European Commission scorecard confirms that Croatia is now completing the process of alignment. It’s ‘top ten’ list of outstanding issues – such as the privatisation of three shipyards, a new law on access to information, a national migration strategy and a new recruitments to the border police – are by no means alarming.
So why the sudden chorus of critical voices?
The only real charge to be brought against Croatia is the problem of corruption. On that issue, however, the European Commission’s most rigorous assessments have been fairly positive. The one demand made by the Commission – that Croatia continue its fight against corruption and organised crime – is one that could be made of many EU members. Transparency International’s most recent corruption index puts Croatia ahead of Italy and indeed the whole of South East Europe, including EU members Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Over the past three years, Croatia has taken action to root out at corruption at the heart of the state, issuing indictments against a former prime minister and deputy prime minister, various cabinet ministers, the head of the customs administration, numerous managers of state-run companies and even the former ruling party itself. This suggests a country that is seriously committed to tackling the difficult legacy of the
In fact, since 1999 Croatia has been undergoing a process of radical change to its political culture that goes far beyond the adoption of thousands of pages of EU legislation. In 1999, Croatia’s President Tudjman was still supporting the separatist ambitions of Croats in neighbouring Herzegovina, violating minority rights at home, suppressing media freedoms and obstructing the work of the
All this has now changed. Croatia has ceased to disrupt state-building in Bosnia, issuing a formal apology in 2010 for the war crimes committed there in Croatia’s name. It has allowed the return of Croatian Serb refugees, and in 2003 a Serb minority party even entered into a coalition government. It has completed the extradition of all those indicted by the Hague, including the most famous, General Ante Gotovina. In Belgrade, this year’s Gay Pride parade was once again cancelled; in Croatia, government ministers were visible participants in the parade.
Compared to 1999, Croatia is now a much more open and liberal society. It will fit into the European Union with no clash of political culture. But proceeding with Croatian accession is not just about rewarding these efforts. It is also a vital political message for Croatia’s Balkan neighbours. It shows what the path to Europe really consists of: visionary leadership and the courage to take political risks inspired by European values.
None of Croatia’s eastern neighbours are close to joining the EU. Only Montenegro has begun the negotiation process, which requires at least a decade to complete. But it is in the best interests of both the EU and the peoples of South Eastern Europe – in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Tirana and Pristina – that the promise of eventual accession remains a credible one. Because, as Croatia has demonstrated so powerfully, it is the accession process itself that offers the best prospects for lasting political change in the region.
The accession of Croatia in summer 2013 will not weaken the EU. On the contrary, the transformation of Croatia demonstrates the power of the EU to bring about lasting change in a region that is gradually emerging from its troubled history.