What can we learn from Croatia’s experience?

Prepared by: The Atlantic Initiative Team

On June 30, the last day of the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), Croatia concluded the final four chapters in the negotiation process toward acccession in Brussels – Market Competition, Judiciary and Basic Rights, Financial and Budget Provisions and Other Affairs. This formally ended Croatian accession negotiations with the EU and opened the path for Croatia to become the 28th member of the EU on July 1, 2013, after the ratification of the Accession Agreement.

Croatian membership in the EU will constitute the recognition of the reforms undertaken in the country over the past decade. It will affect the rest of the Western Balkans as well, since the region is facing the prospect of undertaking the same process Croatia underwent on its path to EU membership. 

The Prime Minister of Croatia, Jadranka Kosor, thanked European leaders for the support the country received on its path to European membership.

“I have always said that there will be no greater gift for Croatian citizens on the twentieth anniversary of their independence than the finalization of negotiations that will make Croatia a proud 28th member of the EU. It is happening now and fills me personally and my Government with great pride, but it also encourages us in the work we will be doing prior to the signing of the Accession Agreement, before Croatia joins the company of European countries and peoples as a full-fledged member. At this moment, I would especially like to thank Croatian war veterans, the most honorable people who fought for the creation of a free, independent, democratic, and European Croatia. I have to say that they truly supported us completely on our European path,” said Kosor, at the press conference in Brussels after a two-day summit of European leaders held late June. At the summit, the EU Council was urged to conclude the remaining negotiation chapters. The Presidents of the European Council and Commission, Herman Van Rompoy and Jose Manuel Barroso, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also attended the conference.

Kosor expressed that all the processes that were initiated toward combating corruption and crime and for judicial reform would be enduring, and would ultimately benefit all the people of Croatia. Kosor also affirmed that this “historic moment for Croatia” conveyed a message to neighboring states that Croatia would continue to help and support them toward EU membership once it became a member, “because that is the only way for permanent peace, stability and prosperity in Southeastern Europe.” The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, also stated that this was a “historic moment for Croatia, the Western Balkans and the European Union.”

With the finalization of Croatia’s EU negotiations, the Vice President of the Delegation of the European Parliament for Southeastern Europe, Jelko Kacin, noted that this was a big day for Croatia and all Western Balkan states.

“The finalization of negotiations is the best evidence of Croatia’s consistent implementation of internal reforms toward EU membership. The key to a steady and sustained pace toward EU accession is in the strengthening of institutions and introduction of the rule of law, fields in which Croatia has achieved great progress,” he said.

He especially congratulated the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the EU, whose stated priority was to finalize accession negotiations with Croatia. Kacin says that Budapest worked tirelessly to ensure the successful completion of the lengthy and demanding negotiation process. He also commented on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s accession prospects. 

“Croatian membership in the EU should serve as a final warning to the leaders of BiH. The current political crisis in the formation of a Council of Ministers must end as soon as possible, so that the institutions of BiH can be reformed, thereby enabling the start of negotiations on EU membership,” said Kacin.

The Vice President of the Delegation of the European Parliament for Southeastern Europe reiterated that there was a clearly stated position on EU membership for all Western Balkan states, with accession primarily dependent on the dynamic implementation of internal reforms. In Kacin’s opinion, as a member of the EU and NATO, Croatia will become even more significant and visible as an engine of European integration and a factor in regional stability. He is convinced that all Western Balkan states should learn from the rich experience Croatia gained during its six years of negotiations.

“Twenty years after independence, Zagreb is an active and constructive player in the process of European integration for West Balkan countries,” remarked Kacin.

After the intergovernmental conference on accession at the ministerial level that was held in Brussels on the 30th of June, important statements were also conveyed by Gordan Jandroković, the Vice President of Croatia and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration; Janos Martonyi, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs; and Stefan Fulle, the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy. Jandroković underlined that “all reforms and processes in Croatia are irreversible.” Talking about the future, Jandroković is convinced that the Accession Agreement will be signed during the Polish presidency, which will then be followed by what he expects to be a successful referendum. He emphasized the importance of the finalization of Croatian negotiations for the rest of Southeastern Europe, saying that Croatia would continue to be “the main promoter of enlargement.” Jandroković noted that Croatia learned from its own experience what is required for the resolution of bilateral issues in the negotiation process.

For his part, Fulle stated that Croatia’s accession communicates a strong signal to the countries of the Western Balkans.

“Provided that the conditions are met, the doors of EU are open,” said the Commissioner for Enlargement.

Upon joining the EU, Croatia will receive generous financial support. For every Euro Croatia pays into the European treasury, it will receive three Euros from joint funds. Thus, the more Croatia contributes funds, the larger the influx of money into the country from European funds. The best example of this might be Poland, which in its first two years of EU membership from 2004 to 2006, received 12 billion Euros for various projects. It is estimated that in the next fiscal period, from 2006 to 2013, Poland will receive another 68 billion Euros!

For this reason, it is unsurprising that people in Poland recently declared they were “europhiles” in various polls, with 85% of them satisfied with membership in the EU. This is compared to EU sentiment in 2004, when only a very weak majority voted for EU membership in the pre-accession referendum.

“The Prime Minister ordered all the ministries to send out all possible project applications in order to receive money from the funds. There was a lot of resistance, however, as it was a new approach. None of the ministries adopted the method easily, since it was unknown terrain for all involved. At each government session, I grilled the ministers to see what was being done in various sectors to receive funding from Europe. It was not pleasant. However, it paid off,” said Elzbieta Bienkonwska, the Polish Minister of Regional Development, for Večernji List from Zagreb (weekly addition Obzor, 18 December 2010). In her ministry, 1200 employees are working on the acquisition of funding.

Croatia hopes that, in its first six months of membership during the second half of 2013, it will have approximately 800 million Euros at its disposal. These funds cannot be withdrawn all at once, but must be claimed over a longer period of time. For the first six months of its membership, 687.5 million Euros are expected for Croatia, proceeding from the EU’s current financial framework, the Cohesion and Structural Funds. In addition, direct payments to farmers in Croatia are expected to amount to 93.5 million Euros, including funds retroactively paid from the 2014 European Budget. When added to other, miscellaneous funds transfers, one comes to a grand total of 800 million Euros. However, Croatia will also have to pay money into the European Budget, which is expected to amount to 267.7 million Euros during the first six months of its membership.

Economic cooperation between BiH and Croatia will become more complicated as a result of Croatia’s membership in the EU, as the CEFTA regional benefits that regulate commerce between the two states will no longer be applicable. This is according to Dr. Mile Lasić, a professor at the University in Mostar and author of European Union: Origin, Strategic Dilemmas and Integration Achievements (Sarajevo Publishing, 2009).  It is only one dimension of the impact that Croatia’s accession to the EU will have on BiH. Lasić notes that other consequences are likely to be psychologically and politically positive, stimulating renewed action “even in such an endlessly lost and divided BiH as the country is today.”

Lasic detailed his analysis for the Atlantic Initiative: “I expect that, first of all, Serbs will become spiteful – if Croats can, then we can too, even if it means that they must gradually concede the illusion that is Kosovo, which is already lost and it seems has been lost several times. In that context, entrenched opinions in BiH will also shift, first in Banja Luka, which is currently against the European clause and against all the necessary actions that need to be undertaken. They will have to establish the State Aid Agency, which has not yet been done, and will have to attend to matters at the state level. It is already clear to reasonable people in Republika Srpska. Once, I was present when Dragan Čavić (President of Democratic Party, author’s remark) said that this in fact was an exaggerated and artificial dilemma: what is transferred today to Sarajevo will already be transferred tomorrow to Brussels. Therefore, Čavić demonstrated that he understood the implications of transferred or divisible sovereignty, which in essence characterizes decision-making within the EU’s system of government. There are things that have to be transferred to the state level, and that is the way to ensure our entry into the EU. Almost as a rule, these things at the state level will be transferred onward to Brussels, if we ever attain EU membership.”

Lasić’s observation that Bosnia-Herzegovina must learn from the Croatian experience is interesting, in addition to his interpretation of what constitutes the fundamental problem. According to his analysis, all outside mediation “now has to be directed to forcing decision makers to work toward European integration.” Lasić considers it essential that BiH acquire candidate status. 

“Obtaining candidate status does not mean the process will not accelerate accession, but at least the process will be defined. With candidate status, concrete negotiations can begin, and chapters are opened and closed. The Croatian experience illustrates that it is possible to achieve the impossible. Thus, what seems impossible today in BiH can become reality as it did in Croatia, though it may seem unimaginable for even the most reasonable people, who are incidentally not bad patriots but are just good citizens who are dissatisfied with the status quo. The presumption is that outside mediation slowly propels the country toward candidate status, by moving BiH forward chapter by chapter,” said Lasić.

Today, however, there is another problem in Bosnia-Herzegovina – the hypocrisy of politicians regarding EU accession. Lasić says that all our politicians, with few exceptions, are against EU membership.

“The process of so-called vertical accession is accepted by our politicians, which includes accepting certain EU conditions and making vertical connections. Thus, the SAA has been signed, and although there has been a long period of hesitation, there is still progress towards attaining candidate status. If two out of the five components are fulfilled, BiH will be on the path to candidacy – we experts call this ‘EU-zation.’ However, what follows vertical accession, deep horizontal transformation, is not accepted by our politicians because they know very well that with the second phase comes the rule of law, which includes full prisons in BiH. Therefore, they mislead our ingenuous citizenry,” asserts Lasić.

The potentially crucial factor in galvanizing action on EU membership could be the pressure of “hungry stomachs” and social unrest, predicted by Lasić, which would lead to a situation in which the politicians of BiH view the EU as their only source of relief and progress. If this happens, politicians will finally have the motivation to begin serious action toward EU membership. The worst outcome would be for BiH to remain in a gray zone in perpetuity. 

“In that sense, I respect initiatives such as the one headed by my colleague Nerzuk Ćurak, who wants corpus separatum for BiH. I do not completely share his hope in something like that, but I do share his concern. He worries because he doubts that we will ever attain candidate status. Similarly, I am asking for help initially, toward securing candidate status and starting negotiations. Later, outside mediation and pressure will also be useful, so that we can be transformed gradually through negotiations and the resolution of certain negotiation chapters. In BiH we have never had the rule of law, and through this process we would get it, integrating acquis into our internal legislation,” says Lasić.

 Unfortunately, BiH is the only country in the region that has not applied for EU membership. The Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative of BiH, Denisa Sarajlić-Maglić, warned in her article written for Dani (no. 711 of 18th of March 2011) that because of this, we were almost two years behind Montenegro, which achieved candidate status in late 2010. Serbia applied for membership in December 2009, and Albania did likewise in April of the same year. 

BiH has to fulfill three conditions for the EU to consider its application for membership credible: implementation of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina case; adoption of the Law on the Census; and finally, the adoption and implementation of the Law on State Aid. Unless these conditions are fulfilled, there will be no progress towards membership in the European Union.