Croatia is set to become the European Union’s 28th member state on 1 July, 2013. Its membership process has been long and arduous, fraught with political tension, bilateral disputes, and the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars. The country’s membership application was submitted in 2003 and negotiations officially started in 2005. They were then postponed twice, not coming to a conclusion until 2011 when a Croatian referendum on EU membership was finally held. With 66% in favour, the final stage of the accession process was set in motion.
Croatia’s membership can in some ways be described as a test for potential further expansion into the region the EU has dubbed the Western Balkans (described as Albania and all of the remaining former Yugoslav states). Rosa Balfour of the European Policy Center states that the EU’s ability to manage the region will reflect on its international reputation: “If the EU cannot succeed in the Balkans, it cannot have global aspirations”.
In Croatia, reforms within areas such as financial regulation and environmental protection were not the only criteria for membership established during the negotiation process. The EU required Croatia’s full co-operation with the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). In early 2005 the tribunal deemed Croatia’s participation lacking and negotiations were postponed. Later the same year the Chief Prosecutor claimed Croatia had mended its ways and in December 2005 Ante Gotovina, a general from the Yugoslav Wars charged with crimes against humanity, was arrested. Some have suggested that the reason Croatia was reluctant about co-operating with the ICTY was because many Croatians felt the conviction of Gotovina was “unfair and humiliating” and an unjust punishment of the Croatian state itself. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years of imprisonment in 2011, yet acquitted of all charges later the same year following an appeal.
A further threat to Croatia’s EU membership has been conflict with its neighbour Slovenia. Slovenia, an EU member since 2004, has delayed or vetoed Croatia’s negotiation process several times in the past few years. The two states have had a number of border disputes, many of them dating back to the Yugoslav Wars. In 2009 Slovenia blocked Croatia for several months due to the territorial disagreement concerning the Bay of Piran.
More recently it is the Ljubljanska banka, one of the largest Slovenian-based banks in the former Yugoslavia, which has been causing problems. Following the complicated secession of both Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia, the bank was liquidated in the early 1990s. In 1994 a new incarnation of the bank called Nova Ljubljanska banka was formed with all of the assets of the old one, yet none of its liabilities. Since then more than one hundred thousand Croatian citizens have sought legal recourse demanding repayment of their savings which they claim to have lost following the Ljubljanska banka’s collapse. This legally and financially complicated matter was originally supposed to be solved at the beginning of this year. Yet the recent political crisis in Slovenia stalled matters, and only a temporary agreement was reached. It was decided that the issue would be resolved after Croatia becomes an EU member.
Part of the difficulty in Croatia’s bilateral negotiations with its neighbours may lie in the prevalence of nationalism in Croatian politics. Borut Grgic, founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana, said about the Bay of Piran conflict: “Slovenia is now making things difficult for Croatia. Then if Croatia joins, it will make things difficult for Serbia, and then Serbia will block Kosovo. As a result of this dispute, the whole region can take a step back”. If national sentiment becomes a tool for the cultivation of these states’ identities it may stem from a history of internal conflict and barely 20 years of sovereignty. Despite EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule’s position on minimising the impact of bilateral disagreements the inability to fully resolve the Ljubljanska banka conflict before Croatia’s accession and negotiations with states like Montenegro and Serbia on the horizon will likely ensure that disputes between neighbours will colour the EU’s potential enlargement in the Western Balkans. In all likelihood EU accession negotiations will be a grounds for airing past grievances, many of which are legacies from the wars.
Croatia will face more challenges in the future, despite having undergone a complicated negotiation process. Critics feel that, despite its efforts, Croatia is still not ready for membership and has been given an easy ride in exchange for the symbolic value of its accession. Others maintain Croatia has made significant progress, and compared to Romania and Bulgaria it was not given a politically motivated fast-track to membership. Either way, its struggling economy and high unemployment will remain high on the agenda even as Croatia begins a new chapter as a member of the European Union.