For better, for worse: the European Union takes Croatia as its 28th member

12 June 2013
Corina Stratulat (Head of European Politics and Institutions programme and Senior Policy Analyst)

It’s official: on 1 July 2013, after a gruelling, decade-long engagement, Croatia is tying the knot with the European Union. Croatia is the first country to join the EU since Bulgaria and Romania’s entry in 2007, and its accession expands the European ‘family’ to 28 member states. The country’s EU membership is a crowning achievement and will rightly be celebrated, according to tradition, with fireworks and emotional addresses in Zagreb and Brussels. But the nuptials will not be followed by a honeymoon period, given the complexity of the current socio-economic and political context. Instead, Croatia will plunge straight into a tepid marriage and needs to prove itself, both in the EU and the Balkan region.

Welcome to the (wild) West!

The prospect of prosperity and stability inside the EU does of course remain, but it is admittedly less salient at present than when Croatia embraced the goal of EU membership in 2003. The country is getting in just as other member states have been or are contemplating their exit amidst rising debt, mounting unemployment, an ailing euro, burgeoning political squabbles, and widespread public indignation. The logic of “what’s mine is yours” also applies in times of hardship: the EU’s problems are now Croatia’s problems too (and vice versa).

Preoccupied with the crisis and uncertain about the future, EU member states are not exactly in high spirits about Croatia’s entry. The migraines that Bulgaria and Romania’s accession gave the Union have further dampened the festive mood of this enlargement round. National politicians are not alone in fretting about expansion; a clear majority of European citizens in the EU15 also oppose it, and only some of the new member states back the bids of the remaining aspirant countries (Eurobarometer 72, Autumn 2012).

All this translates into high expectations of Croatia’s conduct as a member state. Advocates of enlargement are keen to showcase Croatia’s entry as proof that the EU can still exert a transformative influence over EU-hopefuls, and as a leap forward in consolidating peace and stability in the conflict-ridden Balkans. But all eyes will be on Croatia: the country cannot expect its EU fellows to cut it any slack if it wishes to build a reputation as a credible partner.

Then again, the fact that Croatia is joining at a moment of fundamental EU re-alignment represents an opportunity for the country, which now has a seat at the decision-making table, to influence the shape of things to come rather than being – as it has been during its accession – at the receiving end of ‘Brussels’ diktats’. Will Croatia rise to this occasion?

The proof of conditionality is in the membership

With a sinking growth rate, large budget deficit, heavy national debt and double-digit unemployment, Croatia is off to a rather lousy start. This perception is reinforced by an Ernst & Young survey published this May, which revealed the country to be the second most corrupt in Europe, after Slovenia. Faith in the ability of the country’s politicians to clean up their act runs thin even among Croatian citizens, who would like to see a new, third political force give the two leading parties a run for their money (IPSOS Puls, December 2012). So the question of whether Croatia will add to the EU’s problems is as relevant as whether the country will be able to capitalise on its membership for the sake of recovery, such as by absorbing the billions of euros of EU funds earmarked for its development, post-accession.

Croatia may not be in top form but neither is it entirely out of shape. The road away from its war-torn past and towards the EU has been rough and peppered with difficult conditions for progress. Before being admitted to the Union, Croatia had to re-build its post-war institutions and society, hunt down key fugitives indicted for war crimes, foster a rule-of-law culture, rein in high-level corruption and organised crime, privatise its inefficient shipyards, and resolve thorny bilateral issues with neighbouring countries. Zagreb has dragged its feet along the way on occasion, but the colossal effort that Croatia has made to earn the coveted member-state status must not be overlooked. Dealing with the ‘pains’ of accession ought to have already become a habit. This will now come in handy for any potential membership ‘pains’.

The major risk for Croatia is transformation fatigue. Not only must the country dodge stagnation by overcoming its present socio-economic and political deficits, but it also needs to avoid slipping back on attained reforms. Persistence is in itself taxing after many years of hard work, but it becomes even more so without popular backing. Croatians have made their disenchantment with the EU agenda quite clear in repeated opinion polls on integration, the recent anti-EU protests, and the low turnouts in the country’s accession referendum (43%) and first European elections (21%!). Contra vox populi, it might prove difficult for Croatia to play a constructive role inside the EU. Yet Croatia’s post-accession performance will be a test of the rigour of EU conditionality.

Croatia and the future of the EU’s ‘frontier history’

The future of enlargement to the Balkans also rests partially on Croatia’s shoulders. The country’s accession may breathe new life into the EU’s (tired) enlargement policy, and could also motivate its neighbours – which like Croatia, aspire to membership – to step up their reform and transformation efforts.

Croatia might not help much to improve the region’s image problem in the EU or to increase the Union’s appetite for expansion by being a ‘good’ member state. But if it breaks the rules of the ‘club’, the remaining aspirants in the Balkans face long-term marginalisation. This could spell bad news for young and fragile Balkan democracies and undermine the huge investment already made by the EU in the region, and would not bode well for the Union’s foreign policy ambitions either.

To be sure, the role that Croatia assumes henceforth in the region can also hinder or facilitate the other Balkan countries’ path towards the Union. For now, Croatia’s entry reassures the rest of the Balkans that genuine reform efforts open the doors of accession, thereby boosting their commitment to the integration process. In turn, this could give a new impetus to enlargement. But the possibility of disputes arising between Croatia and its Balkan neighbours cannot be ruled out, even if Croatia has settled over the past year its bilateral problems, especially with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The negative experience of its membership negotiations being blocked by Slovenia in 2008-2009 over the Gulf of Piran will hopefully help Croatia to resist any potential temptation to raise similar obstacles for its regional neighbours in the future.

Croatia’s entry into the European Union is for all intents and purposes an important and timely success story. With great success comes great responsibility. Croatia must now wholeheartedly assume its responsibilities – towards the EU, its own citizens and the Balkan region – in order to continue to be successful.


Corina Stratulat is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author.

For better, for worse: the European Union takes Croatia as its 28th member