Croatia Joins the E.U., but Does Europe Really Need to Expand?

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Marko Djurica / REUTERS

Croatian police prepare to raise the E.U. flag for the first time at the Bajakovo border crossing between Serbia and Croatia on July 1, 2013

To much fanfare and celebration on July 1, Croatia became the 28th member of the E.U. Its accession comes nearly eight years after negotiations for its entry began and about two decades after it emerged as an independent state, born amid the brutal, bloody wars that surrounded the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The majority of Croatians supported the move, but others feared that their own financial troubles would be exacerbated by the E.U.’s crippling debt crisis, which has ravaged a number of other southern European countries. Ahead of Croatia’s admittance, the E.U. had to be satisfied that political reforms to tackle corruption and improve Zagreb’s rule of law have worked.

(MORE: Croatia Celebrates Joining the E.U.)

Here’s what Croatia is bringing to the table and why some other countries are headed down — or retreating from — the same path.

A History of Violence

E.U. membership is the latest sign that Croatia has stepped out of the shadow cast by the recent wars in the Balkans. During its fight for independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, which left about 20,000 people dead, Croatian forces killed hundreds of ethnic Serb citizens and drove some 200,000 of them from the country, eventually winning independence as a state comprising almost entirely ethnic Croats.

Croatia has previously been less than cooperative with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, refusing to hand over former generals indicted by the court for war crimes. And Croatia’s complicated relationship with its past was evident last year when, after the International Criminal Court overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals charged with atrocities against Serbs in the 1990s, the nation celebrated and welcomed the generals home as war heroes.

But Croatia and its neighbors have also spent the past 17 years trying to turn the page. Local courts have convicted Croatians for crimes during the war, and more recent cooperation with the war-crimes court in the Hague was a precondition for E.U. membership. The governments of Serbia and Croatia have also inched toward reconciliation. In 2011, Serbian President Boris Tadic arrived in the Croatian border town of Vukovar and formally apologized for the killing of 260 ethnic Croats by Serb forces, marking a symbolic warming in relations. The E.U., itself a union forged among nations still haunted by the trauma of World War II, offers a cloak of peace and progress for the postwar Balkans.

You Want to Join the E.U.? Really?

Negotiations toward membership began in the early 2000s, long before the euro crisis brought the E.U. to its knees. Many Croatians have since protested accession, fearing the small country — with a population under 5 million — will succumb to the contagion of the euro zone’s debt crisis. Among Europe’s voting public, there is widespread discontent with the E.U., headquartered in its bureaucratic fortress in Brussels. Its members’ economies are in disarray, while their military budgets seem to shrink each year. From being a template for achieving continental — and perhaps even global — harmony and prosperity, the E.U. has become the latter-day “sick man” of the world stage.

But Croatia’s leaders are hoping E.U. membership will provide a much needed jolt for the country’s faltering economy that is in its fifth year of recession. About 21% of Croatians are unemployed, nearly twice as much as the E.U. rate, and Croatian per capita GDP is now the third lowest within the E.U. (after Romania and Bulgaria).

Croatians hope, in addition to gaining access to up to $15 billion in foreign aid from the E.U., membership will open the floodgates to further direct foreign investment and tourists — vital in a country with a long Adriatic coast and where tourism composes about one-fifth of GDP.

President Ivo Josipovic has dismissed critics who say Croatia, with E.U. membership, is digging itself deeper into a hole. On Croatia’s Nova TV, he said he responds to questions from E.U. journalists about why he wants to join with another question. “‘You come from the E.U. Is your country preparing to leave the bloc?’ They would invariably reply: ‘Of course not.’ Well, there you go, that’s why we are joining, because we also believe the E.U. has a future,” he said.

Josipovic said recently that joining the E.U.’s big market and culture was better than the alternative. “There are more reasons to stay together than split,” he added. “Fragmented European economies can’t compete.” British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that sentiment on July 1 when he told students in Kazakhstan that despite Britain mulling an exit, a widened E.U. would strengthen continental democracy (especially in the Balkans) and elevate cooperation and trade among members.

Serbia’s Status

Nearly 20 years after it fought heavily against Serb forces in the early 1990s, Croatia’s accession may be a bellwether for Serbia. In late June, about two months after Serbia formally agreed to cede its last foothold in Kosovo, pushing the European Commission to recommend that accession talks be opened, E.U. leaders not only signaled commitment to begin negotiating Serbia’s admission in January 2014 at the latest, but also to ramping up discussion with Kosovo about framework for an association agreement. José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, called the decision “indeed historic.”

Expanding the E.U.’s Borders

Accession to the E.U. used to mark a European nation’s economic coming-of-age, but deepening financial troubles have tarnished that status. Still, four other countries may not be far behind in satisfying the acquis — the detailed set of requirements that must be met for entry.

For Montenegro, another former Yugoslav republic, its admission is largely dependent on whether it adopts a constitutional amendment that strengthens its judiciary. Macedonia won praise for its economic development, but its bitter dispute with Greece over the very name Macedonia — a region in northern Greece whose cultural patrimony Athens says Skopje is wrongly appropriating — could be a roadblock. Iceland is deep into its candidacy bid, but its new center-right government has walked back on joining in order to shield Iceland’s recovery from the E.U. debt crisis. Accession talks for Turkey, which began negotiations alongside Croatia in October 2005, were to resume in June after a three-year standstill. But E.U. Foreign Ministers backed Germany’s proposal to postpone talks amid concerns about its lacking reforms, recent antigovernment crackdown and human-rights issues.