Croatia celebrates 10 years in the EU – membership remains remote for neighbouring countries

Croatia celebrates 10 years in the EU – membership remains remote for neighbouring countries
Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic shakes hands with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. Croatia switched to the shared European currency, the euro, and removed dozens of border checkpoints to join the world's largest passport-free travel area. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)


A decade ago, Croatia became the then 28th member of the European Union. The country has achieved its strategic goals, but membership has led to a significant population outflow. In the meantime, neighbouring countries are still in the waiting room.

After ten years of waiting, joining the EU on 1 July 2013 was one of the most important events in Croatian history and, together with NATO membership achieved four years earlier, the country’s most important foreign policy goal since independence. However, this might have been the last EU enlargement for many years, as none of the candidate countries is close to membership.

Croatia’s negotiations took longer than for any other current member state, five years and nine months. They were conditional on full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY), which insisted on the arrest of General Ante Gotovina. The negotiations were burdened by the cooperation with the ICTY in The Hague and Slovenia’s blockade due to a bilateral border dispute, as well as by enlargement fatigue in the existing member states at that time.

Croatia applied for membership on 21 February 2003, official candidate status was granted on 18 June 2004, and negotiations started on 3 October 2005. The last of the negotiating chapters was closed on 30 June 2011.

Great progress, but not swift enough

Today, after ten years of EU membership, many strategic goals have been achieved, among them joining the Schengen area and the eurozone, as well as Croatia’s first Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2020. Brussels also supported the country in connecting its southernmost exclave with the construction of the Pelješac Bridge.

With a downward trend in public debts, the country has good fiscal results. The government even projects debt to drop below 60 percent next year, which is the ratio allowed under the Maastricht criteria. Nevertheless, before its accession to the EU, Croatia’s economy fell into a recession that lasted more than six years. The total decline in real GDP in the period from 2009 to 2014 amounted to 12.6 percent. GDP only exceeded the 2008 level again in 2019.

Another problem is the big gap between the country’s capital Zagreb, which has a GDP of 131 percent of the EU average, and the eastern counties, which have a GDP that is below 40 percent of the European average. Zagreb generated 34 percent of the national GDP in 2018, while the majority of the population (67 percent) lives in areas where GDP per capita is below 60 percent of the European average.

Population outflow

Croatia lost nearly 10 percent of its population due to emigration in the past decade. Better work and life conditions in richer member states, but also the labour shortage – particularly in Germany, which has more than two million job vacancies – led to a serious population outflow.

However, for Croatia, there are several signs that the trend of moving and leaving the country has slowed down, but it hasn’t stopped yet. The experiences of other countries show that immigration and emigration balance each other out once the level of economic development reaches about 80 percent of the EU average, Croatia is at 73 percent at the moment.

Potential growth is negatively affected by population decline and low productivity, but reforms that would lead to more efficient public administration and a better judiciary would have a positive effect. To reach the European average in the foreseeable future, Croatian growth would have to be much faster than it is now. Nevertheless, the benefits of EU membership become apparent when Croatia is compared to some other former Yugoslavian countries that are doing less well economically.

EU enlargement perspective for the region

All Western Balkan countries except Kosovo have been granted candidate status: Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022, Albania in 2014, Serbia in 2012, Montenegro in 2010 as well as North Macedonia in 2005.

Although the Russian attack on Ukraine brought some changes in the enlargement policy and geopolitical aspects are again at play, it is difficult to imagine further enlargement without a reform of the decision-making process, which is already difficult with the present 27 member states.

As for the countries of the Western Balkans, at the summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, the EU promised them that they would become members when they met the conditions. Twenty years later, only Croatia and Slovenia are EU members, even though Brussels continues to emphasise its commitment to enlargement and the countries of the Western Balkans emphasise that membership is their strategic goal.

Recently, seven member states called for the Western Balkans’ EU accession process to speed up. In a statement, the seven, led by Austria, warned that the enlargement process has been too slow and has not delivered enough tangible results for the people in the region. In light of the war in Ukraine and tensions in Kosovo, they also warned against the danger of instability in the region.

Slovenia pushing for ‘courageous political choices’

Slovenia is one of the countries that strongly advocates the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the European Union. On the 20th anniversary of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, Slovenian President Nataša Pirc Musar, Prime Minister Robert Golob and Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon issued a joint statement reiterating continued support for the countries of the region on their path to the EU. They recalled that many opportunities have been missed on both sides since the 2003 Summit. “The initial enthusiasm for reform in the Western Balkans seems to have waned somewhat over the past two decades,” they wrote. At the same time, they said, the EU was facing its own problems, and enlargement was not always a priority. “It is clear that this process is fundamentally a strategic choice and not a technical exercise. (…) Courageous political choices are needed,” they stressed.

The bloc is aware that it cannot leave the Western Balkans and the countries of Eastern Europe to the influence of other actors who do not share the values on which the EU is based. For this reason, there is the idea to bring the Eastern European countries closer to the EU’s single market and increase pre-accession aid.

Western Balkan integration is geopolitical interest of the EU

“Croatia waited for a decade. The success of any post-Cold War membership is crucial in justifying the need for any further membership. Each enlargement towards the Western Balkans renews the need to develop a mechanism to prevent the spillover of unilateral and bilateral disputes and interests to the multilateral level of the European Union,” said Lejla Ramić-Mesihović, head of the Department for International Relations and European Studies at the private International Burch University based in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She added that in many ways this limited the geopolitical plans and interests of the European Union, but also endangered the level of security and stability of the Western Balkans, which regarded the European Union as the most desirable geopolitical haven.

Spain’s EU Presidency gives hope

Spain takes over the EU Council presidency on 1 July with its sights set on the Western Balkans. The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited all the countries in the region, except Kosovo, last summer, while his Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares recently expressed his desire to strengthen Spain’s relations with the Western Balkans. In October, the Spanish foreign minister will probably bring together the heads of diplomacy of each EU country with their counterparts from the Western Balkans.

Kosovo remains the most sensitive issue for Spain in the process of EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans. The refusal of Spain and four other member states – Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania – to recognise Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008 complicates Pristina’s prospects of joining the bloc, although the Kosovar authorities applied for candidate status late last year. Moreover, Spain is the only country in the Schengen area that does not recognise visa-free travel for citizens with Kosovar passports, despite the support of the European Parliament and other Schengen countries for visa liberalisation. Kosovo was the last country in the Western Balkans to get this visa scheme in April of 2023.

In 2019, then Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi urged Madrid to recognise Kosovo’s independence, arguing that “Spain is not Serbia, because it is not governed by a Slobodan Milošević, and neither is Catalonia Kosovo.”

Serbia expects the Spanish Presidency to focus on enlargement

“Given that discussions are taking place at the highest level of the EU on a possible reform and improvement of the enlargement policy, the fact that Spain is a country traditionally friendly to this policy is certainly encouraging,” said Milena Lazarević from the European Policy Centre, a think tank based in Belgrad.

Due to Spain’s firm stance on not recognising Kosovo, she doesn’t expect that the Spanish government will put Kosovo’s application for membership on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the situation in northern Kosovo remains tense after the recent violent clashes between NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers and ethnic Serbs in the town of Zvečan. The ongoing escalation has frozen the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, that resulted in the Ohrid agreement for the normalisation of the relations last March. Serbs – who account for about six percent of Kosovo’s population – boycotted last month’s elections in northern towns where they are a majority, allowing ethnic Albanians to take control of local councils despite a minuscule turnout of under 3.5 percent of voters.

Many Serbs are demanding both the withdrawal of Kosovo police forces and of the ethnic Albanian mayors they do not consider their true representatives. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade has refused to recognise it, effectively preventing Kosovo from having a seat at the United Nations.


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