Croatia – a door opener for the Western Balkans?

By Anitta Hipperanitta

The European Union welcomes today Croatia, its 28th member. Enlargement fatigue and current economic fears do not foresee however a honeymoon for Croatia. In fact, 2013 saw EU enlargement policy entering into troubled waters. Iceland stopped its negotiations with the EU. Turkey defied democracy and rule of law through its excessive use of force in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Serbia has moved further on the road to EU membership through the historical agreement of normalization signed with Kosovo on 19 April 2013. The EU leaders agreed on opening the negotiations with Serbia in 2014, yet progress needs to be achieved in the implementation of the agreement. Further, along with Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia remains stuck in the EU waiting room for the next decade.

Romania and Bulgaria have been merciless in pointing out the weaknesses of the EU’s conditionality mechanisms. The backlashes of the justice reforms and the lack of ownership on the part of the political elites in addressing the reforms in a responsible manner after the EU-accession led to a rethinking of the EU enlargement strategy. The EU Commission put a strong emphasis on the respect for the rule of law by opening the Chapters 23 and 24 of the acquis at the beginning of the EU negotiation process. The Western Balkans benefited from the EU’s experience with Romania and Bulgaria as the conditionality mechanisms became sharper. It remains to be proven if the EU conditionality is sufficiently tailor-made to address the multitude of challenges in Western Balkans, which add to problems with corruption and organised crime a series of ethnical conflicts and reconciliation processes.

Unlike Romania and Bulgaria, Croatia will not be subjected to the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. This mechanism proved to be useful despite huge criticisms at the domestic level in pointing out the regression in EU post-accession reform. As there will be no monitoring mechanism for Croatia, the political elites need to prove that joining the Union was a merit-based process. Croatia’s EU accession experience is valuable in tackling the Balkan’s complex political and economic challenges. Croatia is one of the top exporters in the region, and despite leaving the Central European Free Trade Agreement structure to join the EU market it will continue to cooperate with its neighbours. Further, Croatia’s experience with border and banking row disputes with Slovenia, which threatened to block the accession negotiations, might prove valuable in the Balkan region.

Dark clouds were quick to gather over the celebration marking Croatia’s entry to the EU. The German chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled her visit to Zagreb, allegedly due to Croatia’s refusal to extradite Perković, a key figure of secret service, charged with murder in Germany. In June 2010 the Croatian Parliament voted in favour of the extradition of Croatian citizens to other countries and the entering into force of the European Arrest Warrant on 1 July. A few days before joining the EU, the Parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Judicial Cooperation preventing the extradition of Perković and limiting the application of the European Arrest Warrant for crimes committed before August 2002. The changes on the law stirred mistrust in Brussels towards the Croatian commitment to set rules. The EU Commission spokesperson stated that Croatia cannot restrict the implementation of the European Arrest Warrant mechanism.

Brussels needs a success story in the Western Balkans and Croatia has the potential to deliver it by continuing the reform process after EU-accession. The extent to which the political elites will make use of it remains the real test that comes only after the EU accession.


Anitta Hipper is a PhD Candidate in Political Science, University of Freiburg and currently a trainee at EU Commission, DG Enlargement.

The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors and not of the institutions mentioned above.

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