Much like travelling westwards on the rundown railway network in much of the former Yugoslavia (FYU), the political journey of the region towards the EU is proving to be a long, frustrating and exhausting one. But at least the Croatian passengers have finally made it all the way to Bruxelles-Central/Brussel-Centraal.
Some 3,212 days after the then prime minister Ivica Racan formally submitted Croatia's application for EU membership in October 2003, the former Yugoslav state on December 9 finally signed the EU accession treaty that means that it will become the 28th member state of Europe's self-proclaimed politico-economic elite club on July 1, 2013. However, the powers-that-be in Brussels in the same week also decided that further enlargement of the EU into the Western Balkans is likely to be as equally a lengthy process as that experienced by Croatia.
Among the disappointed parties is Serbia whose acceptance as an EU candidate was postponed until March 2012 at the earliest, amid continued ethnic unrest in Kosovo, its former province that declared independence in 2008. While the pro-EU Serbian President Boris Tadic had hoped Serbia had done enough in recent months to secure candidate status this year - most notably handing over alleged war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic to the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) this summer - Serbia's EU future remains uncertain. That is likely to play a major role in the parliamentary elections in Serbia scheduled for May next year.
Another EU wannabe Montenegro, which received candidate status last year, is also faced with a delay after EU leaders decided that they would only open accession negotiations next June provided it crackdowns further on organised crime and corruption.
Macedonia, meanwhile, has not received a starting date for EU accession negotiations, regardless of it recently winning the latest in a series of legal bouts with Greece over the use of Macedonia as its official name.
The other EU wannabes in the region - Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo - remain firmly stuck in the sidings, with little prospects of further progress towards the EU in the near future due to a toxic combination of political and economic failings.
Croatia's path towards long-cherished EU membership - the country signed a Stabilisation and Association agreement with the EU way back October 2001 –
has certainly proved to be a long and winding one, with the result that the country will finally become part of the EU almost a decade after its western neighbour Slovenia became part of the bloc back in May 2004.
What's more, with the EU currently beset by glaring political and economic problems, it's highly questionable just what benefits Croatia will ultimately reap from becoming the latest addition to the troubled bloc.
The EU accession process has ultimately proved to be a highly challenging one of Croatia, with a series of political casualties along the way. Ivica Racan, who set the country on the path towards the EU died back in April 2007. His successor as prime minister, Ivo Sanader, who was in power in June 2004 when Croatia finally became an official candidate for EU membership, is currently facing a series of trials, charged with corruption and abuse of office. Sanader's successor after his unexpected and unexplained resignation in July 2009, Jadranka Kosor, while widely credited with accelerating Croatia's journey towards the EU during her near two-and-a-half year term in office, was ousted from power following the country's latest parliamentary elections at the start of December.
Barring a political earthquake - something which can never be discounted in Croatia - prime minister-elect Zoran Milanovic, whose centre-left coalition administration is set to formally assume power before Christmas, will lead the country when it joins the EU in 2013.
Quite how Croatia and the EU will look then is currently a matter of fierce debate at both home and abroad. The EU, beset by a seemingly never-ending sovereign debt crisis that has plunged it into a severe economic downturn, certainly looks a far less attractive destination for Croatia when it first embarked on its path towards EU membership. Equally, Croatia is itself hardly in great economic shape. After two years of recession, gross domestic product is set to expand by a paltry 0.5% this year, unemployment is running at around 17% and the budget deficit is set to hit 6.2% of GDP by the end of the year. So far, so bad.
Although the new government has promised to rein in public spending to improve the government's finances, the cuts are unlikely to prevent Croatia economic fortunes from deteriorating further next year. However, with a population of just 4.3m – representing barely 1% of the EU's inhabitants – and economic output equivalent to 0.2% of EU GDP, Croatia is unlikely to pose much of a socio-economic threat to the fragile bloc.
While the two previous waves of EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007 to include former Communist states from Central and Eastern Europe were executed amid economic booms, Croatia's accession is set to occur at a time of an extended downturn. Whether the country regrets boarding the train to the EU remains to be seen.
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