Croatia and the European Union: retrospective and prospective


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dr Paul L. Vandoren
Dr Paul L. Vandoren

Former acting head of EU delegation to Russia and former EU ambassador to Croatia (residing in South Africa and Europe)

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

The frustrations and hopes of the Croatians before accession

When I started my mandate as the EU ambassador to Croatia in the autumn of 2019, I found a lot of frustration among the Croatian citizens. The accession process was taking much longer than expected. Slovenia had indeed blocked progress due to a bilateral conflict around the Bay of Piran until a few months prior to my arrival. The daily news was overshadowed by corruption allegations against former prime minister Ivo Sanader. Luckily, the then-prime minister Jadranka Kosor continued, with determination, the reforms needed in order to comply with the conditions required by the accession process.

Compliance with the first set of conditions, specifically the rule of law, was the most difficult in the case of Croatia

Major relief with the restart of the negotiations brought new expectations and aspirations for the soon-concluding negotiations. Unfortunately, new target dates were put forward and not met. Advancing target dates for concluding such negotiations is never a good idea because any possible new member state goes through a highly demanding process in order to meet the famous Copenhagen criteria:

  • the creation of stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, respect of human rights and protection of minorities;
  • the putting in place of a functioning market economy and installing the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; and
  • the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of the political, economic and monetary union, and adopting the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law.

The target date of 2030 recently put forward by Charles Michel at the Bled Forum for the next enlargement is in my view not a good idea. President von der Leyen also contradicted him by emphasising the overriding need for completing the necessary reforms in the candidate counties. At any rate, it is not necessarily a good idea to work towards a big bang enlargement, like in 2004, because such an approach risks creating too many artificial links amongst candidate countries and the current member states, whereas the emphasis should be on the individual progress by each candidate county.

In my view, compliance with the first set of conditions, specifically the rule of law, was the most difficult in the case of Croatia and, in fact, probably is for most candidate countries. How can a country put stable and democratic institutions in place when it has no history of democracy? The respect for the rule of law even remains challenging in existing EU member states. How does a country reform its judiciary? How can it guarantee the separation of powers? Complying with the accession conditions implies a kind of civil revolution.

All layers of the Croatian society supported accession

In the case of Croatia, there were also the extremely controversial court proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague against several Croatian generals. They had been accused of having committed war crimes during the Homeland War of the 1990s. This was perhaps, politically, the most sensitive of all issues and the most difficult to grasp for the Croatian citizens. While the process was also time-consuming, the generals were acquitted and this outcome brought a high level of relief in the country.

There were also issues related to ‘missing persons’, returning refugees, and displaced persons, as well as the rights of the Roma people. Thanks to the persistence of the government led by Kosor, these matters were brought to a satisfactory end.

Throughout this process, the Croatian administration was assisted by almost daily contact with the Commission services in Brussels and my delegation in Zagreb, at all possible levels. So, the administration received constant and detailed guidance and advice on how to move forward on all the policy chapters. Let’s also not forget the significant financial support made available to the Croatian government through all sorts of pre-accession programmes of technical assistance. This was sometimes not easy because the technical knowledge of the Croatian administration was sometimes lacking.

Of key importance was that all layers of the Croatian society supported accession. There was a strong commitment across party lines in the government, parliament, institutions and civil society to make accession happen. Opinion polls fluctuated, as expected, but largely remained supportive of accession. In the end, the will of the Croatian citizens prevailed.

The success stories of Croatia’s accession to the EU and the country’s future role

As Croatia constantly made progress by fulfilling the criteria and conditions of all the chapters, a consensus emerged at the political level of the European institutions: the accession process is not a mathematical exercise. After on-the-spot visits by the Presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament in Zagreb and the permanent positive reporting about progress made to the Council, the political leaders of all EU member states agreed that the time had come to conclude the negotiations and sign the Accession Treaty. This was a political assessment. Many observers believe that if accession had not taken place at that time, it might have not taken place for several years because the appetite for further enlargement on the side of several member states waned afterwards.

In other words, the time was ripe for a deal, and everybody was happy and is still more than happy with Croatia’s EU membership.

The EU has no choice but to integrate the Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia

Over the past ten years, Croatia has integrated into the EU well. The biggest achievements are undoubtedly the accession of Croatia to the eurozone and the Schengen area. Already back in 2013, Croatia had the ambition to complete its accession process by joining the euro and Schengen in just a few years’ time. It has taken significantly longer than Croatia initially had hoped, but this was to be expected. What matters is that Croatia managed to achieve its goals. The Croatian government under Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has, with a lot of perseverance, worked towards these goals. Well done!

Croatia plays a positive role in many EU policy areas. Its positioning generally is not controversial.

Looking ahead, Croatia’s biggest contribution could be the revitalisation of the enlargement process. Despite the difficult times, both internally and externally, Croatia must step up its efforts significantly to integrate all candidate and potential candidate countries into the European family, provided that the conditions are met. It is in their vital interests and in that of the EU 27.

Enlargement has been the success story of the EU’s external policy for many years, but it has recently lost significant strength. Luckily there appears now to be some consensus emerging amongst various political actors that, by the end of 2023, the Council needs to adopt a number of bold important political decisions on enlargement. The ball is now in the court of the Commission to make recommendations in the course of October in order to enable the Council to decide in December. The EU institutions have, in this regard, a massive task ahead of informing the EU citizens of the necessity of such decisions.

The war in Ukraine has become a wake-up call for the European Union. The EU has no choice but to integrate the Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as soon as these countries meet the conditions. However, the EU must also reform itself urgently in order to be able to absorb these countries. An initiative, recently adopted by the Swedish presidency during the first half of 2023, asking member states which internal reforms are required without treaty change is a useful but minimal effort in the right direction. The EU cannot expand unless – at least – agriculture policy, cohesion policy and the functioning of the institutions are revisited, while awaiting the readiness of member states to give up the unanimity rule on enlargement.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe. An abbreviated version of this article in Croatian was originally published in Večernji list on 15 July March 2023.

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