Despite economic woes, Croatia prepares to party into EU
A pedestrian speaks on a mobile phone outside a shop selling Croatian football merchandise in Zagreb. Many Croats fear the country’s firms will struggle against EU competitors, potentially weakening further an economy that shows little sign of growth but has high unemployment, a widening budget deficit and rising debt. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Croatia is starting a weekend of celebrations ahead of its accession to the European Union at midnight tomorrow, despite fears over how its ailing economy will fare inside the bloc and what appears to be a last-minute spat with Germany.
“It is truly a historic moment for Croatia . . . You’ve always been European – you are now a full member of our European Union,” EU president Herman Van Rompuy, told yesterday’s EU summit in Brussels.
Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic said the country intended to join the EU after it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, before the war with Serbia intervened, claiming 20,000 lives and driving 250,000 people from their homes. “I am sort of emotional at this moment,” he said. “Twenty-two years ago it looked as though everything would be resolved in a few weeks’ time. Then the war happened.”
Nod to Serbia
As the 28th member, Croatia “will do everything and anything to help and assist our neighbours who are not yet in the club”, he said, with a nod to Serbia and others. Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic and prime minister Ivica Dacic, along with Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga, will attend celebrations in Zagreb with the leaders of most EU states and top officials from Brussels.
Croatia will have many public events to mark the occasion. “I’m very satisfied and happy,” Croatia’s president Ivo Josipovic said. “Gaining EU membership and improving relations in our neighbourhood were my two main political goals.” He said Croatia had to work harder to win accession than other states in central and eastern Europe, a process that had “made us a better society”.
“In human rights, democracy and relations towards minorities, the situation is much better than five years ago. On some critical issues like corruption . . . it has not been easy but we have been successful, and we have to continue this fight.”
Last year Croatia jailed former prime minister Ivo Sanader for 10 years for taking over €5 million in bribes from a Hungarian energy firm and an Austrian bank. Many Croats fear the country’s firms will struggle against EU competitors, potentially weakening further an economy that shows little sign of growth but has high unemployment, a widening budget deficit and rising debt.
One EU leader who appears not to be heading to Zagreb this weekend is German chancellor Angela Merkel. Aides say she does not have time, but Croatian and German media say her decision seems to be linked to the case of Josip Perkovic, a former Yugoslav intelligence agent suspected of involvement in the 1983 murder of a Yugoslav dissident in Bavaria.
Croatia has refused to extradite him but will be obliged to act upon an EU arrest warrant from Monday. Croatia’s government recently proposed legal changes that would protect Mr Perkovic from extradition.