Croatia's entry into the EU may come at a difficult time, but it is an important step for both sides. It should also not be the final step in the enlargement process, says DW's Verica Spasovska.
Verica Spasovska, DW's Eastern European Department (MSOE)
"Welcome, Croatia, to the European Union! It is good to see the EU accept a new member on July 1!"
In 2004, the year 10 European nations joined the EU accompanied by rejoicing on all sides, the greeting would have been taken for granted. But in the midst of the euro crisis, skepticism and concern accompany Croatia's entry. Fueling fear of EU enlargement, a recent headline in the German daily, Bild Zeitung, read: "Is Croatia the next bottomless pit for billions of euros?" Others regard Croatia mainly as a corrupt and nationalist country where recent history is still marked by a frosty relationship with Serbia.
Croatian politicians are aware that enthusiasm for enlargement has dissipated and entry by the new member will be quiet and low-key. The political class in Zagreb has accordingly and pragmatically stated that much remains to be done to meet the European Union's rules and regulations. This is true, in particular, for the dilapidated economy, administrative reforms and the fight against corruption.
Incentive for reforms
Such entirely legitimate self-criticism should not, however, obstruct the realization that Croatia, over the past years, has made major progress in all those areas. The EU Commission assessed the success in fighting corruption – in contrast to members Bulgaria and Romania – as clearly positive. Croatia's constructive cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to come to terms with crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars was regarded as an important prerequisite to concluding accession negotiations.
Today, removed from the more nationalist tendencies that shaped the first years after independence, Croatia is an open and tolerant country determined by the rule of law. None of this would have been possible without the accession process. The plausible perspective of EU membership set a process in motion that boosted reforms. The EU accession process was the catalyst that accelerated democratization - a fact that enlargement opponents should consider when they urge the EU to consolidate before taking on any more members.
For Germany, enlargement brings more benefits than costs. The export-oriented economy has benefitted enormously from EU enlargement, while the feared onslaught on the job markets of established EU member states has failed to materialize.
The door is open
There is yet another crucial aspect easily forgotten when taking a purely economic view of the advantages and disadvantages of enlargement. The European Union is a peace project, created in response to the devastating effects of World War II. The enlargement strategy for the western Balkans is a tool to secure peace in the region. Croatia is a nation where experiences of war are still fresh; they know how fragile peace can be. This experience can strengthen the European concept.
Croatia's entry is also a big step for neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Croatia assumes a model function for the other western Balkan candidates and could become the motor for reconciliation. Croatia's entry should encourage the other candidates in the region not to neglect their reform efforts even though the path to the EU is long and rocky. An important signal: just days ahead of Croatia's EU entry, the German Bundestag opted to start accession talks with Serbia as well. It is a promise that European solidarity does not end at its current borders, that the welcome to new member Croatia was not the last welcome in the union.