Croatia's government is hoping to secure a date for accession talks when European Union leaders huddle for their winter summit in Brussels next Thursday despite signs of growing Euroskepticism at home.
Saluting the Yugoslav past, not an EU future
"I believe we've done a lot to meet the highest political criteria for membership in the EU and that European leaders who will decide our future status on Dec.16 will have in mind all our good moves," Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said.
The Balkan country is pressing for a starting date of March or April next year and hopes to join the 25-nation bloc in 2007 along with Romania and Bulgaria, making it only the second former Yugoslav republic after Slovenia to join the club.
"Positive arguments for Croatia are too strong to be neglected," Sanader (photo) said, dismissing the negative argument commonly thrown at Zagreb that it is failing to cooperate with the UN war crimes court at The Hague.
Failure to arrest war criminal
Delaying Croatia's accession to the EU because of its failure to arrest retired general Ante Gotovina -- wanted for war crimes against ethnic Serbs during the country's 1991-1995 independence war -- is "completely unacceptable," he said.
Brussels has repeatedly called on Zagreb to arrest Gotovina but the fugitive remains a hero to many Croatians and the government denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.
The government is also struggling to convince Europe that it is genuinely committed to other difficult membership criteria, namely the return of some 200,000 ethnic Serb refugees.
Cathedral square in Croatia's capital, Zagreb
As the government remains fixated on the prize of EU membership, a survey in November showed nose-diving Croatian public support for integration. Less than 50 percent of Croatians now want to be part of the bloc, a massive plunge from 72.4 percent in January.
"The fact that Croatia is constantly facing the same demands has had a negative impact, notably among the population who suffered during the war," a political analyst Radovan Vukadinovic told AFP.
"Although legitimate, the demands by The Hague court have eventually had a counter-productive effect," he said. "The 'carrot' of EU membership seems to be more distant than it actually is."
Ruse to delay membership?
Croatian war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina
He said people had come to the conclusion that the Gotovina (photo) case was merely an EU ruse to delay Croatia's membership.
"They believe that even if the Gotovina case is solved, Brussels will find new conditions that Croatia will have to meet," Vukadinovic said.
The government has also failed to explain why Croatia should join, he said.
"They failed to show what are the advantages, how to deal with difficulties and why would Croatia actually benefit from joining the EU," he said.
EU leaders have to decide
The first draft of conclusions for the summit welcomes the progress Croatia has made in preparation to kick off accession talks, but also calls on Zagreb to detain Gotovina.
This leaves the question of a starting date for Croatian accession talks open for EU leaders to decide at the summit.
Foreign Ministry State Secretary Hidajet Biscevic complained recently that since all traces of Gotovina had vanished, Croatia had been given a "mission impossible" by the EU. But at the same time he said that in the light of the approaching EU summit Zagreb was aware that Gotovina's case "remains its obligation."