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CROATIA ENTERING THE EUROPEAN UNION IN 2013: PROMISING MESSAGE FOR THE WESTERN BALKANS

Croatia entering the European Union in 2013:  Promising message for the Western Balkans
Croatia is very close to become the 28th member state of the European Union on 1 July 2013. Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003 and the European Commission recommended making it an official candidate country in early 2004. Then the candidate country status was granted to Croatia by the European Council in mid 2004. The entry negotiations, while originally set for March 2005, began in October that year together with the screening process.
The accession process of Croatia has faced some difficulties by the insistence of Slovenia, an EU member state, that the two countries' border issues be dealt with prior to Croatia's accession to the EU. After resolving border dispute with the neighbouring country Croatia finished accession negotiations on 30 June 2011 and on 9 December 2011 signed the Treaty of Accession to become the EU's 28th member state. The ratification process, by the national parliaments of all 27 EU member states, is expected to be finished by the end of June 2013. Thus, Croatia will become the second country from the former Yugoslavia which is going to join the European Union after Slovenia which joined the Union in the 'big bang' enlargement of 2004. Therefore, it is not exaggeration if it is said that the EU has been transforming political, legal, economic, administrative, and social landscape within the western Balkans through its enlargement policy.
Additionally, within Croatia the EU accession referendum was held on 22 January 2012, and the 67 per cent of Croats taking part voted in favour of EU membership. About 33% were against. The voters in Croatia were asked "Do you support the Republic of Croatia's membership of the European Union?". A simple majority was required for membership to be approved. There was no minimum threshold in order for the poll to be valid. All the major political parties in Croatia favour joining the EU, despite the financial crisis engulfing the organisation.
Opponents of the "yes" vote - non-parliamentary, nationalist and army veteran groups - earlier warned of a loss of sovereignty, just two decades after Croatia became an independent state. However, the voting results from the Croatia's referendum on European Union membership suggest that a large majority of people want to join the EU. The endorsement means that Croatia, barring any last-minute hiccups, will become the EU's 28th member country in July next year, symbolising its break with the Balkans and former Yugoslavia and anchoring it strongly in the European mainstream as well as Nato. Also, it is of crucial importance to investigate political and social ramifications of Croatia's European integration process on the region of the Western Balkans. Simply put, if the EU decided to accept Croatia as the next member state does it mean that other EU aspiring countries from the region of Western Balkans can hopefully expect EU membership in the foreseeable future?
The EU's main objective for the Western Balkans region or the South East Europe is to create a situation where military conflict is unthinkable – expanding to the region the area of peace, stability, prosperity and freedom, established over the last fifty years in the European Union. Better to say, in the wake of the violent conflicts in early 1990s that marked the recent history of the Western Balkans region, the European Union considers it a priority and important strategic policy to promote the development of democracy, peace, stability, and prosperity in the South Eastern European countries of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. The EU’s Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for the Western Balkans is the overall Europeanisation instrument for the region through which aforementioned goals are expected to be achieved. Launched in May 1999, “the SAP is an ambitious strategy that helps the region to secure political and economic stabilisation and to develop a closer association with the EU, opening a road towards EU membership once the relevant conditions have been met” (European Commission, 2001). Except for Slovenia, which is the EU member since 2004 enlargement, and Croatia which is set to join the bloc in 2013 other countries for the region of the western Balkans have faced serious difficulties on their road towards the European Union membership.
For instance, despite the fact that Montenegro was officially granted the candidate country status on 17 December 2010 it is continuously experiencing ecological, judicial and crime-related problems that may hinder its membership bid. When it comes to Albania, following its application for EU membership, its candidacy status was not recognized by the EU along with Montenegro in December 2010, due to the long-lasting political tensions in the country.
Also, among Macedonia's main obstacles to its full EU membership is the ongoing dispute with Greece over the country's name and recent inter-ethnic clashes between Macedonians and Albanians. Macedonia expects to be finally invited to accession talks after the recent International Court of Justice ruling against Greece’s objections to Macedonia’s NATO membership. Also, Bosnia is still facing deep inter ethnic divisions seriously slowing down its EU aspirations. Although Serbia received a full candidate status on 1 March 2012 it has serious political problems with Kosovo declaring independence from Serbia. Although Kosovo is officially considered a potential EU candidate by the European Union it is still far away from the EU membership since it is probably the region's most unstable place due to its inter-ethnic tensions with Kosovo Serbs and Serbia's opposition to its independence. Thus, as Winston Churchill once stressed, obviously the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.
Taking into account the fact that the region of Western Balkans has continuously been going through deep political and social crisis throughout its history the European Union is generally perceived as some kind of saviour or Messiah. Thus, the EU has played overwhelming role in spreading peace, stability and democracy in turbulent region of the Western Balkans. For instance, the EU has been pursuing important security missions in the region under ESDP - in FYROM, the successive military and police missions, and in BiH the EU Police Mission and the military mission EUFOR Althea are at work. In BiH, the EU Special Representative (EUSR) embodies the EU’s political and security commitment while also holding the post of the international community’s High Representative. EULEX Kosovo, the EU’s largest mission to date, is a CSDP rule-of-law mission with an executive mandate. EULEX took over responsibility for security and stability in Kosovo from the UN-mandated Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Thus, in the post-Yugoslav Balkans, the EU’s involvement in the crises of governance is generally perceived strategically as leading on through successive stages of Europeanisation to full EU membership in the long run. That is, the EU missions in the western Balkans are working with a process of transition from the first imperative of stabilisation for ending overt conflict through to the long-term objective of integration with the Bloc.
As probably the greatest concern for the western Balkans as a whole, though, is the economy important foundations have been laid to improve the region’s economic situation, and growth rates have risen significantly. Thus, trade policy of the EU with the Western Balkans is an essential instrument to contribute to the economic development and stabilisation in the region. For instance, according to statistical data it is clearly stressed that the states in the Balkans have two major groups of trading partners – the EU member states and the counterparts in the region. According to the trade figures for 2010 the EU goods exports to the Balkans were about €26,49 billion while the EU goods imported from the Balkans were nearly €14,03 billion. The European Union also has developed exceptional autonomous trade preferences granted to all Western Balkans until the end of 2015. Western Balkan economies will therefore continue as of 1 January 2011 to benefit from an unlimited duty-free access to the EU market for nearly all products. Since 2000 the European Union has established for the first time exceptional unlimited duty-free access to the EU market for nearly all products originating in the Western Balkans. Together with the bilateral Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) in place with all Western Balkans except Kosovo, these trade preferences support economic integration with the EU and hence foster political stability and economic progress in the entire region.
Furthermore, the EU supports financially the reform process and the overall development of the Western Balkans and Turkey from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), from EIB loans, and by means of better coordination with the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and other donors. Before that, between 1991 and 1999, the EC/EU has provided support (of € 4.4 bn) to these countries in the framework of various assistance programmes. In the second period, between 2000 and 2006, the main instrument of EU financial support was CARDS (Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilisation) as part of the Stabilisation and Association Process. As of 2007 the EU financial support for the Western Balkans and Turkey is provided under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). It replaces previous pre-accession instruments (Phare, ISPA, SAPARD and the former instruments for Turkey), and CARDS which covered assistance to the Western Balkans. In the framework of the assistance, countries of the Western-Balkans and Turkey receive funding to prepare them for meeting membership criteria in the political, economic and legal realm. The average annual allocation for the Western Balkans under IPA for the period 2007-2011 is approximately €800 million. This is by far the highest per capita amount provided by the EC to any region in the world (around €30 annually). In addition, since 1991 the European Union has committed, through various assistance programmes, € 6.8 billion to the Western Balkans.
Also, the EU has become important actor in terms of democracy promotion reforms in the region of the western Balkans. One important component of a Europeanization process within the non-EU member states has been the process of democratization or transition to liberal democracy. In this sense to ask an applicant country to meet the Copenhagen political criteria in order to start the full accession negotiations means the realization and implementation of democratization reforms in that particular country. In this regard, the main objective of the Stabilisation and Association Process signed in 1999 with the countries from the western Balkans was to push democratic transition of the countries from the region through substantial domestic reforms which are based on European values and structures. The EU also proved its democracy promotion capacity in the Central and Eastern European countries which joined the Bloc in 2004. Thus, Pridham (1997) has even developed an interactive approach for studying the role and influence of the EU in promoting democratization reforms in the post-communist Europe. His main objective has been to understand how European integration process interacts with domestic factors thus contributing to democratic transition. In a similar manner, developing democracy and integration within the western Balkans is also seen as the road to peace and stability.
All being said, since its seems that the EU has become almost unavoidable partner of the region's countries in terms of their economic, political, legal, and social reform processes it is often stated that there is no other alternative solution for these countries but EU membership. Despite the fact that the economic crisis continues in Europe and also support for EU integration process has fallen in most of the Western Balkans countries the majority still generally agrees that there is no alternative solution to their problems. The so called Europeanisation process of the region is seen generally accepted as the only viable path towards peace, prosperity, democratic development and cooperation for the region. As Abazovic points out, the EU is a historic opportunity which opens the path for the citizens of the western Balkans to follow the achievements of civilisation and political philosophy of the democratic states. Thus, a Europeanisation process has become a main reforming force in the region which has deeply resisted the opposite process of ‘Balkanization’ that is viewed as contrary to what may be ‘western’ values and norms.
Thus, as Croatia is going to join the EU next year in summer Brussels has been sending positive message to other EU aspirants in the western Balkans regarding their European integration reform processes. Thus as the EU has decided before it still tries to use ‘regatta principle’, meaning to reward the front-runner and punish the laggard EU aspirant country on the road to the European integration. Simply put, according to the EU’s so-called “regatta principle”, any accession candidate will be judged on the basis of its own individual readiness for membership. As on the E.U.-Western Balkans Summit of Thessaloniki , held on 19-20 June and 21 June, the Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten said: "Thessaloniki will send two important messages to the Western Balkans: The prospect of membership of the EU is real, and we will not regard the map of the Union as complete until you have joined us. We in the European Commission will do all we can to help you succeed. But membership must be earned. It will take the sheer hard work and applied political will of those in power in the region. How far you proceed along the road towards European Integration, and how fast, will be up to you." Although it is impossible to expect that the EU aspirants from the region will join the EU before 2020 it is of crucial importance that the reforms and efforts they have accomplished will result in the final membership. Thus, it seems that Brussels is still ready to accept new members from the Balkans although from time to time it has been sending message that it is tired of enlargement. It is also interesting and important for future of the EU itself that it has decided to admit Croatia as a new member states although the Bloc as a whole has been facing deep economic and financial crisis.
In fact, having decided that Croatia will become its new member the EU demonstrated its dynamic and still relevant existence despite financial troubles it has been facing. Thus, accepting Croatia in the club of EU states is a sign of relevance of the EU as a regional and global actor. The EU has used its enlargement policy to demonstrate its determination and will to both widening and deepening of the bloc. In fact, enlargement policy has been one of the EU's most successful foreign policies although it has equally suffered from considerable opposition from the start. Among other things, the European Union's enlargement policy was long seen as one of the Union's core projects which openly demonstrates its founding principles and ideals such as solidarity, common future, democracy, and cooperation. The EU's green light to Croats' future EU membership is good sign against growing Euroscepticism which strongly opposes to the process of European integration. In addition, as the EU is still open to future membership of a new countries it has proved thus that it is not a kind of “fortress Europe”. Thus, the enlargement policy has been the most important application of the EU's vaunted ‘soft power' – getting things done through persuasion, not coercion – to achieve change for the better across the European continent.
To sum up, it is of crucial importance for the rest of the Western Balkans' peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity that the EU has decided to accept Croatia as its 28th member states scheduled the next year in the summer. In fact, the EU has become almost unavoidable partner of the region's countries in terms of their economic, political, legal, and social reform processes it is often stated that there is no other alternative solution for these countries but EU membership. Although Bismarck once proclaimed that the region of Balkans is “not worth the life of a single German solider’’ today the EU is still interested in this turbulent but strategically important region and as such it is on the agenda of European politics. Thus, the rest of the region can expect that they will also join the EU in the future after implementing necessary reforms as Croatia did. In fact, Croatia has been promised to join the bloc after implementing required political, legal, economic, and administrative reforms based on extensive EU acquis. As it is clearly stated in the EU Maastricht Treaty Article 49: “Any European state which respects the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law may apply to become member of the Union”. However, it is still puzzling that Croatia is set to join the EU next year while Turkey, which also started accession talks on 3 October 2005 together with Croatia, is still far away from full EU membership. Will accession of Croatia and Turkey waiting in the row longest show the European Union is becoming an inward-looking "Christian club," as recently stated by Turkey's deputy prime minister Ali Babacan!?
Bedrudin BRLJAVAC - Contributor of Strategic Outlook
3.07.2012 - Hit : 1653


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