Once a country torn by civil war, Croatia is on its way to becoming an EU member. Some experts say it could be welcomed into the fold in just two years' time -- and are already seeing positive effects for the region.
In Zagreb, the EU flag is already flying next to the national one
Now that the European Union has officially started membership negotiations with Croatia, the accession process is moving swiftly along. This month, the European Commission will begin technical preparations for the actual detailed negotiations. The first working session aimed at matching Croatian with EU law, for example, has been slated for Oct. 20.
While in the case of Turkey, experts are predicting a lengthy negotiation process of anywhere from 10 to 15 years, Franz-Lothar Altmann, Balkans expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks Croatia could be ready to join in two years or less. Even Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader isn't that optimistic -- he is hoping his country will join the EU in 2008.
Croatia more "agreeable"
Croatia is regarded as being "less weighed down with problems" than Turkey, making it more "digestible" for the EU, Altmann said. The Balkan nation is economically more stable, and much further along in the process of building up democratic institutions.
Croatia's Prime Minister Ivo Sanader with UN chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte
Croatia's justice system and the delays typical in court proceedings provide the biggest need for discussion, Altmann said. A case in point -- entry talks could only go ahead after the United Nations' chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, secured the "complete cooperation" of Croatian officials for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Talks were originally meant to begin on March 5, 2005, but had to be postponed due to Zagreb's reluctance to cooperate.
Opening a door for the region
Despite its judicial issues, Croatia is entering the negotiations with confidence. On Saturday, the country celebrated its 14th year of independence -- a big step which will allow Croatia to act in a much more sovereign manner than if it were approaching the table as merely the "adoptive child of the ex-Yugoslavian family," Altmann said.
The opening of EU membership talks with Croatia is also seen as opening a door for the other children of that dysfunctional family.
"The fact that a country that was actively involved in the civil war is taking up negotiations with the EU is a positive signal for the entire region, said Kristof Gosztonyi, a Southeast Europe expert who for many years worked at the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzogovina.
"For the Balkans, the prospect of the EU is an important anchor of stability," Altmann said.
It's in this context that the agreement between the EU and Serbia and Montenegro to start negotiations for a stability and cooperation pact can be seen. Such a pact is generally regarded as an important first step for future negotiations over EU membership. In addition, a decision is expected next month about the start of membership talks with Macedonia. Of the former Yugoslavian states, so far, only Slovenia has made the lead into the EU.
Already a destination for European tourists: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Still, the question often arises whether the EU is even ready to expand further. If it were to accept Turkey, Croatia and the other Balkan states, the number of EU members would jump to over 30. At the same time, it's unclear what will happen to plans to adopt a European constitution. Critics of further expansion have warned that, by taking on further members, the political union that is the EU today could dissolve into a vague sort of free trade zone.
"A small country like Croatia won't make a big difference, but even so, it really is time for the EU to give some thought as to how to implement future political integration," Altmann said.