For Croatia, it is all over bar the fireworks. On the first of July, Croatia will join the European Union as the 28th Member State.
In February 2003, Croatia applied for EU membership and it was granted the candidate status in June of 2004. The entry negotiation process was then opened in October 2005. These negotiations started following the screening process that took about a year, including detailed comparisons between the Croatian legislation and the EU acquis communautaire. The Treaty of Accession for the Republic of Croatia to the European Union was signed on 9 December 2011 in Brussels, after which Croatia became an acceding country. All the Member States have ratified the Treaty and on 1 July Croatia will be part of the EU.
This entry was not a smooth process. Due to bad experiences related to former enlargements, stricter criteria were set for Croatia. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 showed a lack of preparation on the part of the new Member States. This resulted in their denied entry into the Schengen area, almost five years after entering the EU. They were still under the standards, especially in regards to the rule of law as well as the battle against corruption and organised crime. The EU learned from this experience, explaining the caution taken with Croatia’s accession procedure. The number of issues addressed during the entry negotiations was increased, and a specific monitoring system was created. The aim was to let the European Commission evaluate to what degree the accession requirements were being respected. In March the Commission issued the monitoring report, concluding that Croatia was ready to join the EU.
Even though support for EU membership in Croatia has declined since negotiations began in 2003, this is a great accomplishment for Croatia as it will benefit from the Single Market, structural funds, and political recognition as an EU Member State. EU membership will bring more freedom to Croatia, encapsulated in the phrase “free movement of goods, services, capital and people.” However, some restrictions will accompany these freedoms. For instance, restrictions on the Schengen area (like Romania and Bulgaria) and restrictions on the movement of labour will continue to apply for at least two more years.
The accession is taking place at an interesting time, seeing as Croatia is in the midst of an economic crisis. The Croatian economy is in recession and may have to ask for international or European financial aid as the public debt rises. Unemployment is 21%, up from almost 14% in 2008, and the population is considered to be ‘aging’. But Croatia is a relatively small economy and will therefore not seriously threaten the economic stability of the EU. A report from the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis showed that “the economy of the EU would be hardly affected” by Croatia’s entry. Welfare could increase by €3.1 billion, or less than 0.1% of European GDP. On the other hand, Croatia’s economy will be deeply affected in a positive way. GDP could increase by about 9% and consumption could increase even more if Croatia enters the Single Market.
This is an important moment for Croatia. Croatia has the opportunity to demonstrate the progress that the Balkan region has made in the past years. The Commission is requiring Croatia to make big steps by implementing reform in several areas, and Croatia also needs to show the other member states that it belongs in the EU. There will still be oversight in order to ensure that the appropriate progress is made in the realms of judicial reform and law enforcement. Since Croatia has undergone more demanding negotiations than previous acceding countries and it demonstrated its ability to implement reforms in a trustworthy manner, no post-accession monitoring will be imposed. In the coming two years, Croatia will represent the future of EU enlargement.
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