Croatia's accession to the European Union on 1 July sees the 28th state accede to the organization. It joins at a time in which the European integration project is under considerable strain and the prospects for future enlargement of the EU are highly uncertain.
Croatia is the first country to be admitted to the EU in a single country enlargement since Greece in January 1981 and the seventh 'wave' of enlargement for the European political and economic integration project. As a small country of 4.5 million people it will not represent a major problem of assimilation within the EU's institutions and decision making procedures. Beyond the standard accession treaty, ratified by all member states to allow for a new member to join the club, there has been no push to reform the EU's institutions which has been the feature of past enlargements.
Croatia’s entry negotiations in 2005 were with a very different European Union. The EU had successfully completed its enlargement to eight states in Central and Eastern Europe in May the preceding year and the prospect of Bulgarian and Romanian accession was on the horizon. Furthermore, Slovenia's accession in the May 2004 enlargement had demonstrated that former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia successor states had the prospect of a future in the EU. Furthermore, the financial crisis and the on-going problems of the Eurozone were still to come.
Croatia’s application for membership was submitted in 2003. Two key obstacles in the course of Croatia's negotiations were the requirement to demonstrate full cooperation with the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and border disputes with Slovenia. In both of these areas the enlargement process was delayed as Croatia was not seen to be undertaking the necessary measures to ensure resolution.
With membership negotiations opening in 2005 the process of screening Croatia's capacity to accommodate the demands of EU membership and the negotiation of accession via 35 'chapters' of the EU's acquis of rules and regulations was the most extensive of any EU aspirant state to-date. Public support for EU membership has generally been high through the negotiation and ratification process. The national referendum on membership held in Croatia on 22 January 2012 saw 66% support accession on a 44% turn out. Membership was supported by all the political parties in the Croatian Parliament.
The major criticism of Croatia's membership of the EU is that it is premature. Concerns about political and economic corruption and the functioning of the judiciary have been expressed by expert commentators. Croatia currently ranks as the 62nd most troubled nation on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (but ahead of Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Greece and Italy). Even as recently as March this year the European Commission was expressing concerns on the rule of law and the fight against corruption in its Monitoring Report on Croatia's accession preparations.
For the EU Croatia’s accession holds considerable symbolic and practical importance demonstrating that the states of the Western Balkans have the prospect of joining the organization.
Croatia's performance as an EU member state will be closely watched with a view as to whether membership ensures enduring improvements in the functioning of the democracies and economies of the Western Balkans. With agreement to open Serbia's accession negotiations made at the European Council meeting at the end of last week a new chapter in the history of the Balkans has been opened.