By Wesley Uhl, Transatlantic Community Analyst
On June 30, the European Commission decided to close its accession negotiations with Croatia. Assuming all goes to plan, Croatia will enter the European Union on July 1, 2013 as the 28thMember State. For Croatia this is a great achievement, and they will look forward to their accession date when they will receive the full benefits of the Single Market, structural funds, and political recognition as a member of the powerful EU. For the EU, this shows progress for their neighbors in the Balkans, where the effects of Communism and ethnic violence far exceeded those in the Member States that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. But is this accession date too soon? Many claim that the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 was premature, and some believe Croatia appears to be in a similar position.
All EU candidate states are required to adopt the EU acquis before accession. The importance of this requirement became evident in 1981 when Greece was allowed to reform its government in many spheres after it became a Member State. The result was a frustratingly slow process of reform in Greece. With the benefits of membership already attained, the government had less incentive to reform than a typical state adopting EU standards. Arguably, the same thing has occurred in Romania and Bulgaria: the benefits of accession were given too soon and not enough time was utilized to ensure full reform.
When Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union in 2006, they had less than stellar ratings from organizations like Freedom House. Bulgaria had a Democracy Score of 2.93 from Freedom House (on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being the best), while Romania had a 3.39. Both trailed behind the eight other post-communist states that had already joined the EU, who had an average score of 2.04 that same year. Both Bulgaria and Romania have regressed since that time, with slightly higher scores in 2011. Unfortunately, the picture is fairly similar in Croatia, which had a score of 3.71 in 2006 and a score of 3.64 in 2011. In this regard, Croatia stands well behind where Bulgaria, Romania, and the other post-communist states in the EU stood when they reached accession.
The Croatian accession process comes at an interesting time. The EU must wrestle with the current economic crisis while still focusing on its geo-political goals of stretching the EU borders to new countries, including several in the Balkan region. Many believe that both sides will eventually benefit from the inclusion of a stable democratic Croatia into the EU, but there are significant questions about whether Croatia has enacted sufficient reform to warrant accession. Croatia brings a struggling economy into the EU when the region is already coping with a severe economic crisis. Nonetheless, the Commission has firmly stated that Croatia is ready, meeting all economic, political, and governmental requirements.
The Commission has to be fully aware of how careful it must be in all future accession processes. The backlash against Bulgaria and Romania’s lack of adequate reform has been significant, resulting in their recent denial of entry into the Schengen area nearly five years after entering the Union. While the Commission has moved quickly to close negotiations, they believe Croatia did an adequate job to quickly implement the necessary reform to warrant approval for accession. In fact, the Commission has not implemented the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which was used to monitor Bulgaria and Romania’s respective reform processes after they entered the EU. This is seen as a sign of confidence from the Commission that Croatia should not follow in the same footsteps as Bulgaria and Romania.
This is a moment of great responsibility for Croatia. At a time when the region needs to focus on economic stability and austerity, the EU has taken the initiative to further expand its borders and promote its geo-political goals. Croatia has the opportunity to justify that risk taken in such a tumultuous time, and demonstrate the progress the Balkan region has made in the last two decades. While the Commission recently told Croatia that it needed to make great strides in implementing reform in several key areas, the country has two years to show the rest of the Union that it belongs. There will still be specific oversight to ensure that the appropriate progress is made in the realms of judicial reform and law enforcement, but there will be no pressure from looming CVM reports. By taking the right steps over the next two years, Croatia will represent the future of EU enlargement, an opportunity for optimism after the troubled 2007 accession of Bulgaria and Romania.