Croatia wraps up tough talks to join EU in July 2013

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Croatia on Thursday formally wrapped up negotiations to become the European Union's 28th member on July 1, 2013, hopefully paving the way for entry to other Balkans states.

"Today is a historic day for Croatia," Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Gordan Jandrokovic said after the closure of six years of tough negotiations aimed at ensuring the country matched EU standards on issues ranging from human rights to competition policy.

The next step is the drafting of an accession treaty, which the commission said is expected to be signed by the end of the year. The treaty will then have to be ratified by EU states and Croatia, through a referendum.

"Following the ratification procedure in all Member States and Croatia, accession is foreseen for 1 July 2013," the commission said in a statement.

Croatia has enjoyed a banner week after celebrating 20 years of independence from Yugoslavia last weekend and 16 years since the end of the bloody inter-ethnic war that ensued.

"We celebrate two decades of Croatia's modern statehood strengthened by the success in achieving a strategic goal -- Croatia's return home, where we belong, to Europe," Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor told a special government session in Zagreb.

Croatia will be only the second ex-Yugoslav republic to join the EU after Slovenia in 2004, and at the close of a ceremony marking the end of the accession negotiations, Croatia pledged to serve as an example to its Balkans neighbours.

"This is an event which is important for our neighbours," said Jandrokovic. "We would like them to follow in our footsteps."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement that Croatia's success would serve as an "incentive" for other Balkan states to move towards EU membership.

Merkel believes Croatia "worked hard," and "is delighted" its bid was approved, according to her spokeman Steffen Seibert.

She said the achievement was "thanks to a strong political commitment and and major reforms."

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Croatia's progress "shows the way for other countries of the region in pursuing their European future."

However Serbia, another EU hopeful in the region, still needs to sort out relations with breakaway Kosovo.

Macedonia needs to resolve a conflict with Greece over its name, Montenegro has to forge ahead on justice reform, and Albania and Bosnia are still struggling to overcome internal political divisions.

After European leaders agreed last week to embrace the Balkan nation in the EU family, the European Commission and Croatia closed the last of 35 policy chapters on reforms that all candidates must implement to join the EU -- from progress in the fight against corruption and cooperation with the UN's Yugoslav war crimes court.

But at the request of some EU nations which believe Bulgaria and Romania were given entry before being fully ready, a monitoring system will be put in place to ensure Croatia follows through on reforms before entry.

"The European Commission has consistently supported Croatia on this reform path. We have been fair but strict: no discount has been accorded, no shortcuts taken, no corners rounded," said EU enlargement commission Stefan Fuele.

"The commission will continue this strict, transparent approach to monitor how Croatia delivers on the commitments so that it will be able to fully assume the responsibilities of membership from the first day of accession," he said.

With the end of negotiations, the EU will begin drafting an accession treaty likely to be about 100 pages long. Croatia hopes the text, written in the EU's 23 official languages plus Croatian, will be finalised by the end of the year.

In Montenegro, leaders of the region also said Croatia's EU membership has a historic importance that opened doors for others aspiring to join the bloc.

But Europe's taste for new entrants is on the decline, soured by the global financial crisis.

© 2011 AFP

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