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Croatia – making the case for enlargement

Submitted by on 01 Dec 2010 – 10:08

By Gunnar HÖKMARK, Chair, Delegation to the EU-Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee

Croatia is one of the priorities of the upcoming Hungarian Presidency. The country hopes to conclude EU accession negotiations and sign the Accession Treaty in the first half of 2011.

It has been a long road for Croatia that entered into its first formal relationship with the EU as far back as 2001, when it signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. A lot has changed since then, not least the EU’s own attitude towards enlargement.

After the EU’s historic enlargement to the East, in which enlargement as an EU instrument was used to achieve a higher political goal of re-drawing the architecture of Europe, Croatia has been negotiating on its EU membership in a different political climate. Today more than ever, when the historic argument is not as strong, we have a responsibility to make a strong and convincing case in favour of enlargement to our citizens, in order not to endanger what has been the most successful EU foreign policy.

Croatia is in this respect crucial. It will be the first country to follow the recent big enlargement that included the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. It will demonstrate the continuing strength of the EU’s pulling power and reinforce a commitment the EU has made to countries of South-East Europe. With Croatia in its midst, with its specific knowledge and historical experience, the EU can reinforce its position within a region that still counts on the EU to be a stabilising factor.

Croatian membership can serve as an example for other countries in South-East Europe on how to tackle the challenges of an EU membership bid. For the European Union it is important to send a message of no country left behind in a region which is not only beyond a doubt European in that it shares the same values on which the EU is built, but that finds itself as of 2007 surrounded by EU Member States, from Hungary to the north and Greece to the South, to Italy to the West and Bulgaria and Romania to the East.

However, in order for enlargement to be credible, Croatia also needs to demonstrate its preparedness to take on the burdens of membership. Now that the country finds itself within inches of membership, it can concentrate more of its reform efforts on the remaining challenges. The EU will be closely following developments in the reform of the judiciary and in the fight against corruption and in that respect the Croatian authorities have our full support.

Communicating enlargement is also a shared responsibility. Now that there is consensus within the European Union that Croatia is running the last meters in its EU membership bid, I look to the sometimes not too animated public support within Croatia for EU integration. In all fairness public support has known to be fickle particularly when it comes to the question of EU membership, as it is quite volatile and can demonstrate big swings either way depending on the nature of messages from Brussels.

But precisely for that reason Croatian politicians across the board have a big responsibility in making sure they communicate to the Croatian public all the advantages of membership. The EU is prepared to support them in their efforts. The reforms are not an end in itself and the negotiating process is not an end in itself; they are tools to give Croatian citizens the certainty and security of a country that has applied the highest standards of democracy.

The Hungarian Presidency has prepared an ambitious and charged political agenda. Croatia, a neighbouring country, is on the political priority list. And perhaps it would be only fitting if it would be during the Hungarian Presidency that Croatia was to conclude accession negotiations. Apart from the common history, Hungary as one of the new EU Member States can testify to the societal transformation that comes as a result of EU membership.

As for the European Parliament, we hope to have the ratification of the Croatian Accession Treaty on our agenda as soon as possible in 2011, so that we can welcome our Croatian colleagues into this House.