Croatia must read European Union signals carefully

November 12, 2010

The European Commission told Croatia this week that its negotiations to join the European Union have reached their “final” stage. Sounds promising, considering how reluctant many EU governments are to admit any new members at a time when the bloc is coping with financial difficulties.

But there was another, more subtle message in the text of the Commission’s annual progress report on EU hopefuls. And it read quite  differently.

In fact, the EU executive told Croatia it will have to be more convincing than the most recent countries allowed in — Romania and Bulgaria — that its democratic reforms are working.

Admitting Romania and Bulgaria, two poor Balkan states, to the EU in 2007 is seen by many EU diplomats as a mistake. Both had to  conduct deep-reaching judicial reforms to prove their ability to deal with pervasive corruption to qualify for entry. Because the last-minute reforms had shown little effect by the time the countries were admitted, Brussels introduced a “monitoring” mechanism to check up on judicial progress.

Specifically, it wanted to see that Romanian and Bulgarian prosecutors could pursue top-level politicians without encountering political pressure and that courts could mete out appropriate judgments.

Over the past three years, monitoring reports have shown scant results in curbing abuse by Romanian and Bulgarian authorities. Embarrassing as it was to the new entrants, the process also proved essentially worthless in bringing about change.

Croatia, which ranks only marginally better than Romania and Bulgaria on the annual Transparency International corruption index, has deep problems of its own with abuses.

The Commission is sending a clear message: there will be no monitoring of judicial reforms after accession. Zagreb has to convince Brussels ahead of entry, and before it is given any target accession date, that its legal system is capable of exposing and prosecuting corruption. This could take time.

The Croatian government is adamant that providing such evidence will not be a problem. It expects to complete accession negotiations in the first months of 2011 or, at the latest, in the second half of the year. The EU’s rotating presidency will be held by Hungary in the first half of 2011, and by Poland from July to December. Both are staunch supporters of the bloc’s enlargement policy and will likely push to complete the talks.

But many Brussels diplomats privately say Zagreb may be over-optimistic.

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