Guy Norton in Zagreb -
After the best part of a decade, Croatia has inched further forward in achieving its long-cherished dream of securing membership of the EU. Or not, given the mixed international reaction to the latest monitoring report from the European Commission on the country's achievements toward meeting that goal of joining Europe's elite political-economic club.
Given growing skepticism about the further expansion of the EU within the existing bloc - in the northern part of Europe at least - it's no surprise that the latest report on Croatia's progress in meeting the criteria for EU membership has been greeted with a degree of disappointment or euphoria, depending on one's point of view.
Announcing the findings of the report the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, claimed that it represented a further endorsement of Croatia's EU membership credentials. "I have no reason to believe that Croatia will not become the 28th member of the EU, and there is no need for further supervision after July 1, 2013," he said October 10 after the reports release.
Similarly, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic claimed: "This is a pretty positive report which shows that Croatia is in step with its obligations in the preparations for EU membership."
While domestically at least there's so far been little or no controversy about the findings of the EU's latest report - set to be the penultimate one before its envisaged membership on July 1, 2013 - it's also fair to say that abroad there's been more than a little disquiet about adding Croatia to the EU pile in the wake of the less than successful addition of Bulgaria and Romania, which are widely seen as having been admitted to the EU ahead of time.
As befits most EU reports which are widely leaked ahead of their official release - the EU's Brussels administration comfortably rivals one-time Yugoslav capital Belgrade's bureaucrats for indulging in unashamed proactive political spin - the latest report on Croatia's compliance (or non-compliance) with the EU's directives, for which read dictats say critics, contained a measure of both good and bad news for the EU wannabe state.
While acknowledging that Croatia has undoubtedly made progress with regard to making long overdue progress in terms of improving the rule of law, the functioning of the public administration and justice systems, and an effective fight against organized crime and corruption, the report also said the Balkan state has still work to do in terms of meeting the increasingly high standards the EU has set for further enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe.
The monitoring report noted that out of 33 chapters regarding politico-socio-economic measures necessary for Croatia's EU membership, the country had almost completed 10 chapters, 15 present only a limited number of outstanding issues, while eight chapters covering issues such as finalising the restructuring of Croatia's shipyards as well as preparations to attract and invest EU development funds still needed to resolved. As such, the report admitted that the country would need to undertake further reforms if it is to meet the wishes of an increasingly powerful Germany, which as a result of its undoubted economic might is increasingly seen as the main political arbiter of the further expansion of the EU.
In Germany, traditionally one of Croatia's strongest political sponsors, public opinion is increasingly turning against adding economically weak countries such as Croatia, which has been in recession of the past four years, to the EU pack. Influential German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) claimed that according to the EU Commission, Croatia had failed to meet at least 10 conditions of EU membership and that the country like Bulgaria and Romania could still be subjected to post-EU membership monitoring if it failed to improve its adherence to EU standards. According to FAZ's Brussels correspondent Nikolas Busse, Croatia's failure to fully address the EU's concerns in the next few months could also conceivably lead to the postponement of the country's accession to the EU. So far 13 members of the EU have ratified Croatia's accession treaty, which was signed in December 2011, but Germany for one has said it will only agree to the country joining the EU following the submission of a final monitoring report in April 2013.
FAZ's critical stance on Croatia's EU membership ambitions has undoubtedly upped the pressure on the authorities in Zagreb to address the deficiencies in their compliance with the EU's wishes. It will also serve to remind the other EU wannabe states from the former Yugoslavia that public opinion in Germany will have a major influence on the speed of their accession to the EU club. Serbia take note.
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