European Commissioner Olli Rehn cited several conditions that Croatia must meet, such as resolving the border dispute with Slovenia, improving its judiciary, cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia and reforming its dockyards. If these conditions are met, "We can envisage completing negotiations in the first half of 2010," Rehn told the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels on Wednesday. Croatian Chief Negotiator Vladimir Drobnjak said in an interview on Wednesday much of the work aligning Croatia's legal framework with European Union standards has already been completed.
"I can say with confidence we have entered the final stage of the process," Drobnjak said. Once the dispute with Slovenia has been worked out, Croatia will be able to wrap up the accession process in well under a year, he said. Croatia has been a candidate country for the European Union since 2004 and accession negotiations began in October 2005.
Drobnjak declined to comment on specifics of negotiations with Slovenia, citing the two governments' decision this summer to employ a "silent diplomacy." Croatia has faced a tougher acceptance process than previous candidate countries, including a more formalized system of meeting benchmark measurements. In its most recent progress report, the European Commission praised Croatia's advances but highlighted the need to make its judiciary system more transparent and efficient and reduce political corruption. In October 2008 the chair of the Committee for the Prevention of the Conflict of Interest, Desa Mlikotin Tomic, resigned following corruption allegations. Last year Croatia implemented a new system for monitoring corruption. Drobnjak said wiping out all misuse of power is a tall order in any country.
"It's a chapter where you can never be perfect," he said. "It's impossible because you deal with human nature."
Croatia's last major hurdle will be preparing its agricultural sector to compete within the larger European market.
"We have a rather traditional sector. Farms are small and disintegrated," said Visnja Samardzija, head of the European Integration Department at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb. Drobnjak acknowledged farmers' unease, but said Croatian goods will fare well in the larger European Union market so long as they are high-quality and fairly priced. "If your product is competitive then you can survive nicely regardless of the size of the market. If the product is not competitive, you will perish," he said. Many Croatians view the accession process and its accompanying legal and economic changes as more important than the country's formal entry into the European Union. "It brings a certain kind of motivation to do the reforms," Samardzija said. Leading Croatian entrepreneur Nenad Bakic said the process imposes new standards on a country still shaking off the habits of its Communist past.
Louis Frankopan, director of the real estate company, Zagrebacki Neboder, said joining the European Union is in line with the country's mercantile past and its position on the Adriatic Coast.
"We have an expression," he said, "'finger in the sea and friends with everyone.'"
-By Kristina Peterson, contributing to Dow Jones Newswires