In April 2011, the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, visited Zagreb and delivered a message that the criteria had not been met and that Croatia would not join the EU, but would spend some more time in the waiting room alongside Serbia.
The Croatian government, led by Jadranka Kosor, took this message seriously, and reforms were accelerated. On July 1, 2013, Croatia became the 28th member state of the European Union. After ten years, Serbia and other Western Balkan countries seem farther from that path than ever before.
Croatia’s negotiations were neither fast nor easy. Like the rest of the former Yugoslav countries, obstacles for official Zagreb included cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Hague, bilateral issues with neighbors, as well as the rule of law.
Additionally, similar to today, member states skeptical of enlargements, such as the Netherlands and France, posed challenges. However, the willingness of EU member states for enlargement was somewhat greater than it is today, so it is not wrong to conclude that Croatia caught the last train to join the European Union.
Unlike the other Western Balkan countries, EU membership truly was the main foreign policy goal for all Croatian authorities since gaining independence. The country started negotiations in 2005, and the final chapters were closed on 30 June 2011.
In the decade of membership, Croatia achieved all of its European integration goals, and as of 1 January 2023, it became a member of both the Schengen Area and the Eurozone. In the first half of 2020, Croatia also held the Presidency of the European Union during the challenging crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former European Parliament Rapporteur for Croatia, Hannes Swoboda, told European Western Balkans that Croatia’s overall accession to the EU was successful.
“At the time of its accession, there was still some readiness for enlargement, and especially Germany made it clear to the Netherlands and France that the EU must take at least one more country into the EU – primarily also for the sake of stability in the South East of Europe”, Swoboda recalls.
Economy – the greatest benefit of EU membership
Before joining the EU, Croatia experienced a recession that lasted over six years. The decline in real GDP from 2009 to 2014 amounted to 12.6 percent.
Just two years after joining the Union, GDP began to grow until 2020 when it dropped 8.6 percent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, being a member of the European Union, assistance from Brussels contributed to a rapid recovery, with growth reaching as high as 13.1 percent in 2021.
For example, in 2013, Croatia had a GDP per capita of 61% of the European average, while last year it reached 73% of the European average. In the year of EU accession, Croatians had a GDP per capita slightly above ten thousand euros, whereas, in 2022, it exceeded seventeen thousand euros. Thus, in terms of GDP per capita, Croatia surpasses Slovakia or Greece.
Croatians are also faring well in terms of the unemployment rate. In May of this year, it was below 5.6 percent. In practical terms, this means that Croatia has never had more employed people.
Further enlargement still so far
Many believe that Russian aggression on Ukraine has achieved what seemed impossible – putting enlargement policy high on the European agenda. However, further enlargement still appears distant. Montenegro has the highest prospects of becoming the next member state of the European Union, as it has opened all negotiating chapters and has progressed the furthest in the negotiations.
Former Member of the European Parliament, Swoboda, states that the methods of enlargement and strategies have changed significantly compared to that time, particularly with Ukraine and Moldova knocking on the European door.
In an opinion published on the website of the International Institute for Peace, Swoboda notes that all candidate countries aspiring to become part of the European family must be willing to implement necessary reforms and resolve domestic and regional disputes.
Reflecting on the idea of phased accession, Swoboda writes that it could offer clear support to all forces in the Western Balkan states that are striving for the implementation of principles and values.