Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Croatia on Uncertain Course for EU Membership

Cillian Donnelly

BRUSSELS, Jul 3 2009 (IPS) - The Swedish government, which now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union for the second half of this year, says plans to bring Croatia into the EU have not been derailed despite recent political events in the country. Croatia is officially set to join the Union as its 28th member in 2011.

The re-emergence of a border dispute with neighbour Slovenia, an EU member country, and the sudden resignation of prime minister Ivo Sanader Jul. 1 has led to some speculation that Croatia’s ambitions will have to be put on hold.

Sanader gave no reasons for his departure, but denies he harbours ambitions for any EU job, or that his resignation has anything to do with accession negotiations.

A spokesperson for the Swedish government told IPS that no single person can bring the collapse of a complicated process. “There is a consolidated position in (Croatian capital) Zagreb,” the spokesperson said. “Not even the opposition opposes joining the EU.”

The Swedish presidency, he said, is “absolutely pro-enlargement”. A Croatian diplomat said the Swedes were “keen” to get Croatia, as well as Turkey, into the Union.

But despite this public optimism, some doubts about Croatian accession linger behind the scenes. At an internal meeting Wednesday between the European Commission’s Enlargement section and the Swedish government, held just hours before the resignation of Sanader, direct references to Croatia were omitted, with the meeting concentrating instead on Turkey.

The process of enlargement, which Sweden has made one of its priorities, is a complicated one. An aspiring member has to carry out a number of political reforms, such as those of its judiciary, policing and social policy, and, more controversially, demonstrate that it wishes to become a “market-based economy”.

Once a country does all this, it becomes a ‘candidate country’, and more detailed negotiations for membership can begin. New membership may be blocked by any one member state.

Both Croatia and Turkey have made swift progress in their negotiations with the European Commission, but both fall foul of one accession condition – that no two EU member states can be in dispute on borders or similar issues.

Turkey refuses to recognise the independence of a united Cyprus; Croatia has been in an 18-year-long dispute with Slovenia over a section of the coastline both countries claim as their own.

In December 2008, the Slovene government raised several objections. Last month Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn attempted to re-start negotiations, only for the talks to break down once more over the border issue, leading to the speculation that Croatia’s chances of becoming a member by 2011 were all but off.

A diplomat who has worked on the Croatian accession negotiations told IPS that as long as Slovenia remains inflexible, the Swedes have an uphill battle in moving things swiftly along.

“On the technical side, Croatia has made good progress, but the bad news is that the formal opening and closing of chapters (of an agreement) has been hampered by this Slovenia dispute. The Swedes are pro-enlargement, and keen to get both Croatia and Turkey in, but it seems to me that there is barely a single chapter that can be worked on right now.

“I believe a whole bunch of chapters could be closed tomorrow with the right kind of political will. But it seems we have just too little to work with right now.”

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