Article, featured

Enlarging the EU ‘Club’: Dobrodošla Hrvatska!

Dr. Agne Limante

MA candidate in EU Law at King’s College London


Today, the 1st of July, right in the mid-summer heat, Croatia will become the 28th member of the European Union. It will happen 22 years and just few days after Croatia declared its independence[1] and disintegration of Yugoslavia began bringing to the region war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

This article will take a brief look at Croatia’s accession process, highlighting its main challenges and reminding of the EU accession conditionality applied towards aspiring countries in the Western Balkans.


Croatia’s path

The relations between Croatia and the EU began developing after Croatia’s international recognition (15 January 1992). However, by the end of 1990s, Croatia was still a state with a nationalist-pattern government that did not always comply with the EU conditions the way it was expected to.[2] It was especially hard to persuade Croatia to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a United Nations court of law dealing with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Hence, once elected in 2000, the moderate government received pressure from the EU to change the line of politics of their predecessors. The EU openly stressed the importance of extraditing war criminals and the need to encourage repatriation of refugees. Croatia started implementing those requests.

Proceeding further, in October 2001, Croatia signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU and on 21 February 2003 presented its application for membership. The following year in June 2004, the European Council granted Croatia candidate status. Accession negotiations were started only later in October 2005.

Almost six years later, in June 2011, the last four chapters of accession negotiations were closed and in December 2011 the Accession Treaty[3] was signed. After the positive outcome of the referendum in Croatia where 66.27% of voters supported Croatia’s accession to the European Union,[4] the process of ratification of the Accession Treaty by the EU Member States began. Last month, with the German Bundestag ratifying Croatia’s Accession Treaty the process was finalised,[5] opening the door to accession on 1 July 2013.


Cooperation with the ICTY and Croatia’s case

Ensuring that Croatia and other Western Balkan states[6] cooperated with ICTY[7] was part of the international community’s (US, NATO, EU) overall strategy in the Western Balkans. Nevertheless as noted earlier, it was not easy.

For the majority of people living in Croatia, the war was recent, memories were vivid and the indicted war criminals were perceived as respected war heroes who won independence for their countries.[8] Under President Tuđman, cooperation with the ICTY was not supported at all. Only after his death it started being widely discussed and a question of ethnic cleansing featured in political discourse.[9]

Unwilling to give up, the EU was strict, threatening that failure to cooperate fully with the ICTY could ‘seriously jeopardise’ rapprochement to the EU.[10] This threat appeared to be real – when Croatia was slow to arrest those indicted by the ICTY, especially General Ante Gotovina (who was indicted on a number of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Croatian War for Independence), insufficient cooperation with the ICTY was used as a ground to suspend Croatia’s accession talks.[11] Such strategy appeared to be effective and in 2005 Croatia finally arrested Gotovina. Interesting to note, in November 2012 he was acquitted on all charges by the appeals panel at the ICTY and the Croatian government plane flew the general home, where he was treated like a hero.[12]


Accession negotiations

The negotiations with Croatia were divided into 35 negotiating chapters (31 was in case of earlier enlargements) – some new, some just result of the re-structure.

The list of chapters to be negotiated by Croatia for the first time (with Turkey) included ‘judiciary and fundamental rights’. Such a novelty highlighted that fundamental rights is no longer regarded solely as an eligibility condition, but forms an integral part of EU acquis.[13]

This new chapter, including judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, fundamental rights and the already discussed ICTY co-operation, also appeared to be the toughest of the negotiating chapters. EU Commissioner Viviane Reding in 2011 called the chapter of judiciary the “last stumbling block” of Croatia’s accession. She praised the progress, admitting that “in one year, they have completely reformed their judiciary system and have made it irreversible”.[14]

When closing the negotiations, EU officials seemed very excited. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he wanted “to applaud the Croatian authorities, in particular the current government, for their hard work over the last years”. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, meanwhile, stated that Croatia had changed “tremendously” during the EU accession negotiations, morphing into a “mature democracy based on the rule of law and into a functioning market economy”.[15]

Despite the applause, however, critics still claimed that Croatia’s reform efforts were far from sufficient. The positive attitude of the EU, they argued, represented strong pressure from Member States such as Hungary, Germany, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic to allow Croatia to join.[16] This ‘friends and enemies trump real progress’ attitude is quite widespread in the Balkans. Adding this to the fact that Bulgaria and Romania are often seen as examples of accession with insufficient progress, this seems to further downgrade the importance of EU conditionality towards acceding countries.


Western Balkans on the rocky road into Europe’s club

The other Western Balkan States are still waiting at the EU’s door. They understand that since 1990s the EU enlargement process became much harder for the candidate states. The road to the EU is clearly marked by signs asking to jump through many hurdles and over many rocks.

It is widely accepted that in respect of the states that acceded to the EU in the 2004 and 2007 enlargement rounds, the EU imposed much more stringent accession conditions than it used to impose. However, due to bloody wars related to the fall of Yugoslavia and post-war challenges, the EU conditionality set for the Western Balkan states is even more of a multi-level phenomenon than before.

Firstly, Western Balkan countries are subject to the accession criteria set out in Articles 2 and 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)[17] and the Copenhagen criteria laid down at the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in 1993.[18] Article 49 TEU constitutes the legal basis for accession to the EU. It states that any European state which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. [19] The Copenhagen criteria, meanwhile, is much more precise and require from any country wishing to join the EU to abide by the certain accession conditions, including political and economic criteria as well as acceptance of the EU acquis. [20]

Secondly, in the case of the Western Balkans, the EU significantly complemented the Copenhagen criteria by extending political conditionality and adding region-specific conditions encapsulated in the Regional Approach[21], the Stability Pact[22] and the Stabilization and Association process,[23] as well as the peace agreements and political deals. The EU listed additional conditionality including full cooperation with the ICTY, respect for human and minority rights, creation of real opportunities for refugees and internally displaced persons to return and a visible commitment to regional cooperation.[24]

Thirdly, extending the Copenhagen and Madrid Criteria, the Stabilisation and Association Agreements’ concluded with the Western Balkan states require “respect for democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law; the establishment of a free trade area with the EU; and the achievement of rights and obligations, in areas such as competition and state aid rules, that allow the economies to integrate with the EU”.[25]

In such a way, when knocking at the EU’s door, Croatia, together with other Western Balkan states, was presented with an extensive list of conditions it needed to fulfil to be able to join the club. With ups and downs discussed above, it proceeded and, as we witness today, successfully reached the goal attaining this exclusive club’s membership card.


A happy ending?

As noted by Hillion, Croatia’s accession to the EU illustrates that the Union is a polity that continues to attract, that it is helping to turn one of the darkest pages of Europe’s recent history, and that it sticks to its commitments.[26] Indeed, admitting Croatia to the EU is a significant step towards Europe’s reconciliation and important for still continuing peace building in the Balkans.

However, apparently the Croatians do not seem to be too enthusiastic anymore. Two and a half months before Croatia joined the EU, just 21% of voters bothered to cast ballots in 14 April 2013 election of 12 new MEPs.[27] On the other hand, considering the falling turnout in EU MEPs elections in the older EU Member states where voting is not compulsory,[28] one might say that this is simply typically European.

[1] Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence on 25 June 1991. Slovenia, which did not have a considerable Serb minority, managed to secede without getting engaged into Balkan wars. Due to this reason it was faster to develop and joined the EU with the 2004 ‘big-bang’ enlargement group.

[2] See further M.A. Vachudova, “Strategies for Democratization and European Integration in the Balkans” in The Enlargement of the European Union, ed. M. Cremona (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 120.

[3] Treaty of Accession of Croatia. OJ L 112, 24.4.2012.

[4] Data of the State Electoral Commission of Croatia. Available at

[5] The table with details of the ratification process is available at:

[6] The term ‘Western Balkans’ is used as including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, as well as Kosovo under UNSC Resolution 1244/99. See, for example, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council “Western Balkans: Enhancing the European perspective”. COM(2008) 127 final.

[7] The list of ICTY indictees contained 94 Serbs, 29 Croats, 9 Albanians, 9 Bosniaks, 2 Macedonians and 2 Montenegrins.

[8] M. Braniff, Integrating the Balkans. Conflict Resolution and the Impact of EU Expansion (I.B. Tauris, 2011), p. 108.

[9] See further M. Braniff, Integrating the Balkans. Conflict Resolution and the Impact of EU Expansion (I.B. Tauris, 2011), p. 108-113.

[10] 2533rd Council meeting (External relations), Luxembourg, 13 October 2003, 13099/03 (Presse 292).

[11] 2649th Council Meeting (General Affairs and External Relations), Bussels, 16 March 2005, 6969/05 (Presse 44). Symbolically, this EU decision coincidence with 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.

[12] See Balkan Insight “Croats Celebrate Acquittal of Gotovina and Markac”, 16 November 2012. Available at:

[13] For more extensive analysis see ‘Editorial comments: Fundamental rights and EU membership: Do as I say, not as I do!’ (2012) 49 Common Market Law Review, Issue 2, pp. 481–488; Gráinne de Búrca, Beyond the Charter: How Enlargement Has Enlarged the Human Rights Policy of the European Union, 27 Fordham International Law Journal (2003), p. 679.

[15] See EU Observer, “Croatia gets EU green light, despite lack of reforms”

[16] See EU Observer, “Croatia gets EU green light, despite lack of reforms”

[17] OJ C 326, 26.10.2012.

[18] Copenhagen European Council, 21-22 June 1993, SN 180/1/93.

[19] The values of Article 2 include respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

[20] (i) stability of the institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities (political criteria); (ii) the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union (economic criteria); (iii) the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union (acceptance of the Community acquis).

[21] Council conclusions and simultaneously adopted Declaration on former Yugoslavia. Bulletin EU 1/2-1996.

[22] See In 2008 the Stability Pact has been superseded by the Regional Co-operation Council, which up until now oversees regional co-operation in SEE and supports the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of the WB.

[23] Conclusions of the General Affairs Council of 21 June 1999, based on the Commission Communication to the Council and the European Parliament on the Stabilisation and Association process for countries of South Eastern Europe COM(99) 235 of 26.5.99.

[24] Council Conclusions of 29 Apr. 1997, Bulletin EU 4-1997, pt 2.2.1

[25] European Commission, The Stabilisation and Association Process for South East Europe: First Annual Report, COM(2002) 163 final, Brussels, 3 Apr. 2002.

[26] ‘Editorial comments: Fundamental rights and EU membership: Do as I say, not as I do!’ (2012) 49 Common Market Law Review, Issue 2, p. 481–488.

[27] See EU Observer, “Abysmal turnout in Croatia’s EU vote”:

[28] The turnout in the 2009 European elections was the lowest ever since direct elections for the Parliament started thirty years ago, with Slovakia getting the lowest turnout for the second time in a row. See European Election Database: