EU membership negotiations with Croatia can be completed in the first half of 2011 provided its reforms stay on the right track, said Foreign Committee Affairs MEPs in a resolution adopted on Wednesday. Yet the biggest challenge may be "selling" the benefits of EU membership to a skeptical Croatian population.
MEPs congratulated Croatia on its "substantial progress" in introducing reforms that would be necessary for it to join the EU. "Negotiations with Croatia can be completed in the first half of 2011 provided that the necessary reforms continue to be pursued resolutely", they said. MEPs see considerable improvement in the changes to the constitution and to the judiciary, as well as Croatia's closer co-operation with the International Crime Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). They stress however that the tribunal's request for important military documents still remains outstanding.
Among the remaining challenges to concluding EU accession negotiations, MEPs list Croatia's complex reform of the public administration, the fight against corruption, support for returning refugees and the adoption of restructuring plans for shipyards in difficulty.
Whilst acknowledging the government's efforts to fight corruption and prosecute two former ministers and a former prime minister, MEPs judge that corruption "seems to have been widespread in Croatia and remains a serious overall problem". Moreover, few corruption cases have come to court and most remain at the investigation stage, they add. The Committee asks OLAF to co-operate closely with the Croatian authorities in order "to shed light on the potential consequences of generating secondary corruption within EU institutions".
Overall, progress has been made in the field of refugee returns and public hostility towards returning Serbs has diminished, MEPs say. However, yet more efforts are needed to help returnees to acquire permanent resident status, improve house reconstruction and launch social integration projects for returnees, thousands of whom have not yet returned and remain in Serbia.
The Croatian government should accelerate the process of restructuring and privatising shipyards, failing which it will not be possible to close the "competition" chapter of the EU accession negotiations on time.
The biggest challenge starts at home
MEPs are very concerned that the majority of Croatian citizens think that Croatia's EU membership would not benefit the country, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey. They therefore urge the Croatian authorities and civil society to mobilize and make citizens "feel the European project is theirs as well". Croatia will need to put EU membership proposals to a referendum. In addition, parliamentary elections will take place in November this year.