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Membership of the EU was not on the cards for Croatia when the European Community sent a delegation to Ljubljana, back in July 1991, to persuade the leaders of Slovenia and Croatia - both preparing to secede from Yugoslavia - to exercise self-restraint.

In those days, Europe was concerned about the prospect of Yugoslavia's disintegration. Upon the delegation's return to Amsterdam, its leader, Hans van den Broek - foreign minister of then EU president the Netherlands and later EU commissioner for external relations - issued a brief statement, expressing regret over the mission's failure. Broek made it clear that the EC had no intention to impose its will on any other country, and also that, from then on, the political elites of Slovenia and Croatia must take sole responsibility for whatever was to happen. In other words, from then on, they were free to do whatever they wanted.

What followed is common knowledge: the war between Croatia and Serbia broke out just a few months later, culminating in a bloody crisis that engulfed the whole of the Balkans and lasting almost until the end of the decade. Tens of thousands died, hundreds of thousands fled abroad - most of them to EU countries - where they stayed in refugee camps for years, burdening their host countries with serious costs and logistics problems.

In 1999, Javier Solana became the EU's first permanent high representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy. He considered it one of his key tasks to draft a new EU strategy for the Western Balkans. In June 2003, he submitted to the Thessaloniki summit the draft of his security doctrine, entitled A secure Europe in a better world', which argued for the need to "promote a ring of well governed countries to the East of the European Union and on the borders of the Mediterranean". "The importance of this is best illustrated in the Balkans," he said.

Another landmark event was the first EU-Western Balkans summit, held on the margins of the Thessaloniki European Council, where the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro received the Thessaloniki declaration', which gave the concrete prospect of EU membership to their countries. The declaration came complete with recommendations and an action plan for European integration.

Eventually, "European perspective" became a magic term in the EU's Western Balkans policy. Between 2004 and 2009, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn repeatedly referred to this perspective as "the glue that keeps the Western Balkans together and on a stable, peaceful, European track". The countries at issue took this perspective so seriously that Croatia, for one, submitted its EU membership application in the very year of the Thessaloniki declaration'.

The application came in handy. "It served as tangible evidence for the fact that the perspective was more than just a promise," a Commission official close to the dossier commented. Moreover, in several respects, Croatia could be considered relatively prepared for official candidate status. This relatively small country of 4.2 million inhabitants had well-functioning institutions and a sound economy, which held out the promise that its eventual accession would not impose a burden on the EU's budget.

All this occurred against the backdrop of the accession of ten "new member states" in 2004, and the ensuing "enlargement fatigue" considerably reduced the "old" members' willingness to quickly embrace the idea of the Union's further expansion. The failure of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 increased further the EU's inclination to be less open.

On top of all this, a few objections surfaced against Croatia. The best known example is the case of war crimes suspect General Ante Gotovina, against whom The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered an indictment to Zagreb. A group of member states, among them heavyweights the UK and the Netherlands, squarely rejected the idea of opening accession talks with Zagreb until such time as Gotovina was apprehended. Gotovina, who was considered a hero in his country, was finally captured and arrested in the Canary Islands in 2005. (Ironically, seven years later he was acquitted of all charges and the ICTY ordered his release). But Gotovina was only a symptom of a larger problem, as Zagreb had to face repeated criticism for its initial sluggishness in repatriating war refugees.

And yet, Croatia's application for EU accession did not get derailed. One reason was the Thessaloniki declaration' and the EU's motives behind it, but the persistent lobbying by certain member countries also played a part. To quote press reports from those days: "Most of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy moved to help" Croatia. Backed by Germany, the toughest lobbyists were Austria and Hungary. These two countries' relations with Croatia date back centuries (the Kingdom of Croatia used to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary).

In this respect, it was a very lucky coincidence that Croatia's accession talks entered their final phase during Hungary's EU Presidency, in 2011. In February of that year, it seemed impossible to complete the process by the end of June, when Budapest was to hand over the Presidency to Poland, as Zagreb still had issues to address in a number of areas. At first, the Commission did not even want to issue an opinion on Croatia's state of preparedness. The original plan was to publish it as part of the autumn progress reports. Meanwhile, rumour had it that Croatia was likely to accede together with Iceland. It required quite a bit of determination on the part of the Hungarian Presidency to convince the Commission to identify specific shortcomings in Croatia's candidacy, without passing a judgement, and to leave it to Zagreb to work against the clock and address all the outstanding issues. Croatia had just managed to do its homework by the end of June, but then it seemed almost impossible to wrap up everything from the procedural point of view. The time was simply too short for every area to be covered by all the relevant forums before the 23-24 June EU summit, and the European Council also had to approve the closure of the process. Finally, Budapest succeeded in convincing the EU summit that its conclusions should refer to the anticipated closure of the accession talks with Zagreb.

The talks were eventually concluded on the morning of 30 June 2011. Later the same day, the Commission released its proposal for the new seven-year EU budget (multiannual financial framework), which caused a major shock and changed the mood immediately. Then, in the early days of July, the euro became dangerously weak again, so much so that an extraordinary summit had to be called to save it. Nobody paid attention to the Union's enlargement any more. To quote Ambassador Peter Gyorkos, Hungary's permanent EU representative and Coreper chair at the time, "We had a window of opportunity. Failure by us to use it fully would have delayed the conclusion of the talks by months or even years because the circumstances had changed".
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Publication:European Report
Geographic Code:4EXCR
Date:Jul 1, 2013

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