Croatians are celebrating their entry into the European Union as the once war-torn nation becomes the bloc's 28th member. Many hope membership will help boost Croatia out of recession.
At the stroke of midnight on Sunday, Croatia joined the EU, the first expansion of the bloc since 2007.
Croatia has come a long way since its 1991-1995 war of independence that claimed 20,000 lives. In seeking membership, the country has had to undertake political and economic reforms.
"We are here on this historic night. It was your desire to join EU, and your hard work has made this possible," the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said as he congratulated the thousands of revelers in central Zagreb early Monday.
The country of 4.4 million becomes just the second of the former Yugoslav states to enter the EU, following Slovenia's entry in 2004.
At the stroke of midnight, Croatia took down its "Customs" sign at the border crossing with Slovenia and placed an "EU" sign up at its border with Serbia.
Serbia just learned last week that they can begin negotiations in January 2014 for their own future entry in the EU.
Concerns still exist
The timing of Croatia's accession, however, is far from perfect, owing to the global debt crisis and the country's own economic woes.
Croatia has been in recession for four years, unemployment stands at 20 percent, and its per capita gross domestic product is 39 percent below the EU average.
And then there are the existing problems within the bloc itself to contend with, such as the debt crisis and resulting dip in member solidarity. In some member nations, for example, public support for the union is falling, leading to questions over the bloc's further expansion.
Croatia's aspiration to join the EU has been known ever since it proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia, which sparked the deadly war against rebel Serbs.
Last year, Croatians voted through a referendum for EU membership, the final hurdle to Sunday's accession to the bloc.
It is hoped that EU membership will help bring greater foreign investment and boost the Croatian economy.
Despite questions over timing and its economy, thousands gathered in Zagreb on Sunday to celebrate the culmination of 20 years worth of change, reform and success.
Revelers were joined by 170 foreign officials, 15 heads of state, 13 prime ministers and the presidents of the European Commission and European Council.
Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic pointed to to the historical significance of the occasion. "In the history of a nation, there are few events such as this one," he said.
"The accession of Croatia to the European Union is confirmation that each one of us
belongs to the European democratic and cultural set of values."
tm/ccp (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)