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Finally arrived

December 9, 2011

Croatia has made it: After being accepted into the folds of NATO in 2009, on Friday, Zagreb signed an accession treaty to join the EU in July 2013. For Croatians, it's the realization of a long-time dream.

Croatian flag
For years, Croatia has had its sights set on joining the EUImage: dapd

Belonging to Europe is an intrinsic part of the Croatian national psyche. Indeed, as soon as the country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, the government expressed its aim of becoming a member of the European Union. Still, it took 10 more years and a war with its neighbors in Belgrade before the country even started the official process to prepare for EU membership.

In November 2000, Croatia began to negotiate a so-called "stabilization and association agreement" with the EU. In the treaty, both sides agreed to a framework for their future political dialogue, including defining commercial terms. Croatia was asked to adjust its national constitution along European standards and to make a greater contribution to regional talks and cooperation efforts with its neighbors.

That process has been monitored along the way. In comparison to earlier EU treaties which the EU drew up with other countries in central and eastern Europe, the negotiations with Croatia were much more far reaching and detailed.

Border dispute with its neighbors

A ceremony marking accession to NATO in Zagreb
Croatia marked its accession to NATO in April 2009Image: AP

Croatia made its official application for EU membership when Social Democrat Ivica Racan was in government in March 2003. Six months later, the EU gave Croatia a checklist, which Zagreb completed and returned after only three months. In April 2004, the European Commission recommended that Croatia be given official "candidate status," which was later confirmed at an EU summit.

The start of accession negotiations was pushed back by almost six months, because some countries were concerned that Croatia might not cooperate completely with the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Official negotiations finally got underway in October 2005, at the same time as similar negotiations with Turkey.

The first accession conference took place in October 2005. The final chapter in the negotiation process was concluded on June 30, 2011. During negotiations, Croatia was subjected to an almost year-long blockade by Slovenia. The reason for this was the unresolved issue of the sea border between Slovenia and Croatia in the Adriatic. The spat was brought to an end by means of an agreement between the respective governments in Zagreb and Ljubljana, which agreed to leave the decision to a court of arbitration. The court's ruling is expected in the coming months.

Fight against corruption

The Slovenian blockade was one of the main reasons for the surprise resignation of Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in July 2009. His successor, Jadranka Kosor, came under intense pressure from the EU to tackle widespread corruption in the country. As a result of police investigations, numerous cases of corruption, nepotism and fraud have been uncovered in the past two years.

Ivo Sanader
Former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was detained over corruption chargesImage: AP

Many of those cases involved leading members of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the main center-right party founded in 1989 by the first Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Directors of state enterprises with close links to the party, along with a number of ministers and even former Prime Minister Sanader have also been accused of or found guilty of corruption.

A normal country

Not long before parliamentary elections, which resulted last week in a shift to the left, state prosecutors had begun investigations into the entire HDZ. That knocked the slim chances the center-right party had of reelection and handed a clear win to the opposition, led by the Social Democratic Party.

The fact that this change of government made few headlines outside the country shows that Croatia has become a part of the European norm, in which center-right and center-left parties often alternate in government.

That's why it's only logical that Croatia has now signed the EU accession treaty. In February or March 2012, the people of Croatia will be called to vote in a referendum on the subject. The 27 EU member states now have just under 18 months to ratify the treaty. If all goes according to plan, Croatia will become the 28th member of the European Union on July 1, 2013.

Author: Alen Legovic / ji
Editor: Nancy Isenson