Nicholas Watson in Bratislava -
Depending on whom you speak to, the latest interim report on Croatia's bid to join the EU that was approved by the European Commission on March 2 either showed the Balkan country the route needed to follow to wrap up the negotiations by the target date of the end of June, or was so critical that it effectively ended any remaining hopes it could meet that date.
For its part, the Croatian government was putting an optimistic spin on the report, which criticises it for not meeting all of the 10 benchmarks required in reforming its judiciary and in fighting corruption and organised crime, meaning that this "Chapter 23" of the accession process won't, as had been hoped, be closed. Croatia has closed 28 out of 35 chapters in its accession negotiations with the EU.
"Croatia is making considerable progress and also very important this is a shopping list of what we need to do and I am sure that we won't just double, but triple our efforts," Davor Bozinovic, the Croatian defence minister, told bne on the sidelines of the Globesec 2011 forum in Bratislava. "Our final goal is to wrap up negotiations in June."
Janos Martonyi, minister of foreign affairs for Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency and, for the historical prestige, would love to be in charge when another country joins the EU family, said that despite all the "difficulties and challenges," his government is still determined to conclude the negotiations by the June deadline, which would see Croatia join from 2013.
Taking one for the team
One familiar refrain trotted out by candidate countries and their supporters is that the accession of a country to the EU is not just about that one country, but is also about giving hope to the others waiting further down the line and convince them that it's in their interests to continue down the reform path. "What matters here is the political message not only for Croatia but other countries - that despite all the enlargement fatigue and reservations over this process, don't give up," Martonyi said. "That will give a message that the EU is working, that it is not a fortress. We don't want to isolate ourselves."
The European Commission certainly understands that, yet since allowing in Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, both of which upon joining immediately started backsliding in their efforts to tackle corruption, it is being unapologetically stricter in forcing the candidate countries to fully meet the conditions of accession. "I think it would be unfair to say that the rules of the game have changed, but the way we work with the candidate country, yes we have, we did change. We are more demanding in trying to see the country indeed fulfills everything. What really matters is not ticking the boxes, but showing a track record," Stefan Fule, European Commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, told bne. "But this should not be a surprise to anyone. We all know this since 2006 and the previous enlargement."
For Fule and others, it is only by ensuring that at the end of this process there will be a candidate country fully prepared to assume the responsibilities stemming from membership, the Commission can make the process of enlargement a credible one and one the existing member states will continue to agree to support.
And if that risks infuriating citizens of the candidate countries, then so be it. The Croatian capital Zagreb was rocked by violent anti-government protests on February 26 as a wide range of interest groups took to the streets to voice their disenchantment with an administration increasingly seen as being out of touch with public opinion. In the protesters' minds at least, the country's political elite is tainted by a toxic admixture of corruption, economic illiteracy and toadyism towards the EU, which is being regarded with increasing hostility by Croatians fed up with the long drawn-out accession process. Several thousand anti-government protestors, mostly young people, marched through the Croatian capital again on March 2 calling on conservative Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor to step down.
In the long run, Fule stresses that what the Commission is doing will be for the benefit of the Croatian people. "This will be of benefit to the citizens of the enlargement country because what the whole of Chapter 23 is about is that you have this prosecutorial council, you have legislation but does it work? Will it stand the test of independence? This is not just important for bureaucrats in Brussels, but also important for the citizens of Croatia."
With Croatia regarded by many as a hotbed of corruption - the previous PM, Ivo Sanader, who did much to get Croatia as far as it is in the EU accession process, is now in custody in Austria on suspicion of money laundering and embezzlement of millions of euros - that's probably true. But such arguments will probably do little to cool tempers when, as many predict, Croatia will have to abandon its self-imposed deadline of the end of June and move it back to the end of the year at least.
In the longer term, Fule's comments to bne also suggest that this crucial Chapter 23, which covers judiciary and fundamental rights, will be moved up in the accession process of candidate countries to nearer the beginning rather than near the end, as it currently is. This is a reflection not only of the EU's growing preoccupation with the spiralling corruption in the newer member states - the single worst performing indicator across the set of countries over the past decade - but also in the difficulty that countries have in putting in place the institutions and laws needed to root it out.
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