Germany warns Croatia 'no rebate' on EU reforms
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Croatia could wrap up European Union membership negotiations next year but warned there would be no "rebate" on crucial reforms.
Kicking off a three-day tour of the former Yugoslavia in Zagreb, Westerwelle said in a speech to the Academy of Sciences that Germany fully backed a European future for Croatia but that membership had its price.
"If Croatia musters all its strength for the final sprint, then (EU) membership negotiations could be wrapped up soon, perhaps as soon as next year," said Westerwelle, who is also Germany's vice-chancellor, said.
"Croatia's accession as well as that of all the states of southern Europe is an essential part of making Europe complete."
He said that this year's Greek budget crisis showed that the EU must maintain its rigour to remain successful and would thus maintain the strict requirements for membership.
"That is why there will be no rebate on the accession criteria," he said.
"If we loosened the rules, we would only sow concerns about taking on new members."
Westerwelle praised Croatia's resolution of a conflict with Slovenia about their common sea and land border as exemplary for the region and said Serbia would be well advised to end its dispute with Kosovo.
He is expected to press Belgrade to accept the independence of its former province Kosovo as a condition for EU membership on his visits to Serbia and Kosovo in the next two days.
"Only cooperation and not confrontation are acceptable in Europe," he warned at a press conference in Zagreb.
Croatia aims to become the 28th member of the bloc in 2012 but diplomats say full membership would likely come about two years after the end of negotiations. If this were next year, Croatia could join in 2013.
While in Croatia, Westerwelle met with President Ivo Josipovic, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic as well as opposition leaders.
After the meeting Kosor said that Zagreb would continue to serve as an example for the region and help other Balkan states to achieve their EU ambitions.
"Now on our way to membership of the EU and when we are an EU member, we will encourage our neighbours to fulfill the EU criteria," she told a press conference.
Croatia, which proclaimed its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, made a major step forward in June as it opened the last three of 35 policy "chapters" which candidate countries must successfully negotiate prior to EU membership.
Westerwelle praised Croatia's progress on fighting corruption but noted discussions on a justice chapter are the trickiest hurdle remaining.
They will depend on the conclusions of a report on Croatia's level of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Among the six republics that made up Yugoslavia -- Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia -- only Slovenia is a member of the EU.
Westerwelle will visit Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo before returning to Berlin on Friday.
© 2010 AFP