When the European Commission published its last report on Croatia’s accession process in March, the message was unequivocally that the changes wrought over the eight years since the country began negotiations with the EU were irreversible. The EU should not be worried about this new member state.
Its conclusion is buttressed by the contention that it has learnt lessons from the EU’s enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria, particularly about the importance of starting to tackle the trickiest issues for candidate countries early in the process and closing them only at the end. (The experience of dealing with Croatia has reinforced the lesson: chapters 23 and 24 – on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and on freedom and security – are now opened with subsequent candidates at the start of talks and closed last.) An extended period of pressure on Croatia means that the Commission is very confident that corruption and the rule of law will not become a headache.
On the political level, the climate has also changed, with little of the pressure to bring Croatia into the EU swiftly that was evident in the case of the 2007 enlargement. This has made for a slower, lower-key process for Croatia, with the main risk from adverse public opinion being in Croatia rather than in EU member states.
Nonetheless, Croatia’s path to the EU was thorny – because other EU member states have been prickly. In the latter stages, German doubts may have been the most visible, but the Dutch have been the most consistently wary. The hard line taken by the Dutch reflects a recent generalised hostility to enlargement. But it also reflected a principled concern that Croatian governments were unwilling to send two generals – Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac – to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face war-crimes charges over the conflict with Serbia. As a result, talks began only after Gotovina was captured and transferred to The Hague in 2005.
The two men were eventually acquitted in November, to much jubilation in Croatia. For many Croats, the issue of war crimes became a matter of two men – who had been duly cleared. But as Vesna Pusic, Croatia’s foreign minister, commented at the time, the verdict did not clear others already found guilty of crimes.
The legacy of the war had been a running sore in relations with the EU since accession talks began in 2003, and while issues related to war crimes did not feature in the final to-do list given to Croatia by the Commission, details in the final progress report hint at some of the previous problems. War-crimes cases were addressed by courts in the areas where the crimes were alleged to have taken place – an approach unlikely to convince the victims or ensure speedy processes. Only recently have cases been passed to specialised courts.
Croatia also had to battle a perception of corruption created by a string of scandals, including the killing of the daughter of a prominent lawyer in 2008. The then prime minister, Ivo Sanader, suggested the murder was the work of the mafia and sacked two ministers. Sanader himself, the premier between 2003 and 2009, was later convicted of corruption and is serving a ten-year sentence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Croats have a low view of their political and business elite. Croatia ranked only 62nd in the world for transparency in a survey by Transparency International in 2012.
But those perceptions perhaps need re-touching. The Commission thinks so: it points to hundreds of convictions in recent years as an indication that anti-corruption institutions have put down roots. The effort has been reinforced since January by the creation of a conflict-of-information commission that has already ensnared some politicians. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who served under Sanader in the foreign ministry many years before he became Sanader’s political rival, suggests that Sanader’s trial is testament to the system’s willingness to reform itself.