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Croatia joins the EU

01 Jul 2013

Croatia became the twenty-eighth member of the European Union today. At a time of economic crisis in the EU, it is heartening for Member States to be reminded that membership of the Union remains an attractive prospect and that countries like Croatia are prepared to make difficult reforms in order to join. It is also proof that the EU’s transformative power in the Western Balkans continues to deliver stability and the rule of law in a region that has been marred by violence over the past twenty years.

Croatia is the second country of the former Yugoslavia to join the EU after Slovenia in 2004. The country has a population of 4.4 million, which makes it most similar in size to the Republic of Ireland of all EU Member States. Like Ireland, it will have 12 Members of the European Parliament until the 2014 election, when the number of representatives will drop to 11.

Although Croatia was given a clean bill of health and the green light for joining the Union, the country’s economic weakness is still a key issue. The economy has not grown in five years. Unemployment is at almost 20% and GDP per capita in the country is 61% of the EU average. Croatia will be looking to EU structural and cohesion funds, as well as access to the EU’s single market, to help develop its ailing economy. The EU, of course, has its own economic problems so Croatia’s celebrations have been somewhat tempered by the knowledge that membership is not the panacea that it was once perceived to be.

Croatia will also face the difficulty of policing one of the EU’s longest external land borders in a region where drug trafficking and illegal immigration are significant problems. However, EU membership does not make the country an automatic member of the Schengen zone of border-free travel. Croatia, like Romania and Bulgaria, must fulfil a list of further conditions before joining Schengen. Croatia hopes to become a Schengen member in about two years.

The Accession Treaty for Croatia, like previous accession countries before it, allows a period of seven years during which Member States may choose to put in place transitional arrangements to restrict access by Croatian workers to their labour markets. Eight EU Member States, including Ireland, have lifted all restrictions on Croatian workers. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation considers it ‘highly unlikely’ that significant numbers of Croatians will migrate to Ireland because of Ireland’s current economic status and the fact that Croatians traditionally migrate to Germany, Austria and Italy when looking for work in the EU.

Croatia’s accession comes after a week of significant progress for enlargement in the Western Balkans. At last week’s European Council it was agreed that the EU would open accession negotiations with Serbia and Stabilisation and Association Agreement negotiations with Kosovo. Speaking at the Irish Presidency/IIEA Conference on the Western Balkans in May 2013, Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Vesna Pusic said that the ‘negotiating process was not important in term of attaining membership, but for the building of state institutions and implementing reforms.’ In her advice to other potential EU Member States in the Western Balkans, she said: ‘The whole process is a learning process… It’s an exercise in gradually maturing politically and developing skills and instruments to help solve problems.’

The video of Vesna Pusic’s speech is available here.

Further information about the Irish Presidency/IIEA Western Balkans conference is available here.

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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