"It is clear that the European Union must continue to evolve if it is to overcome the significant challenges it is facing and if it is to be successful in an increasingly competitive global economic environment," remarked enlargement commissioner Stefan Füle in a speech
this week. "The EU that the Western Balkan countries should eventually join will no doubt look quite different from the EU of today."
Brussels has opened accession negotiations with Montenegro, while the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia are candidate countries. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are potential candidates. The shape of the EU, if and when these nations join some years down the road, is a great unknown – how deeply will the eurozone have integrated? How will the long-term effects of the economic crisis manifest themselves? Will the United Kingdom still be a member? The advantage the Western Balkan countries have is that they know these changes are coming and many outstanding questions should be answered by the time they sign up to the club.
Not so for Croatia, which is due to become the EU's 28th member state on July 1. It has been through 12 years of preparations and negotiations, starting out long before the crisis hit and now joining at a time when the eurozone and the wider bloc are still in flux. Although the euro area may be slowly regaining the confidence of financial markets, the real economies of Europe remain weak and unemployment has continued to rise to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile debates rage about how fast and how deep the political and economic integration of the 17 euro countries should go – as well as how to protect the interests of those outside the single currency in a new era of closer economic coordination.
The EU will be a challenging environment to step into, even if Croatia is not joining the eurozone just yet. But the country already faces problems similar to those of current members. According to Eurostat, unemployment moved above 17 per cent towards the end of last year – not too far short of the 26 per cent endured by crisis-hit Greece and Spain, and higher than the rate seen in bailed-out Portugal and Ireland. Croatia saw zero growth in 2011 and the economy is thought to have contracted 1.9 per cent last year. It is expected to be stagnant in the coming 12 months, putting it in close alignment with the 0.1 per cent growth predicted for the eurozone and not much worse than the 0.4 per cent expansion forecast for the EU as a whole.
A cynic might say that its poor economic performance means Croatia will fit into the modern day EU just fine. In any case, there are more short-term difficulties to overcome before membership is confirmed. An unresolved bank dispute
dating back to the dissolution of the Yugoslav state could see Slovenia fail to ratify Croatia's accession treaty in time to meet the planned July 1 entry date. It is unrelated to EU membership – as Füle noted in his speech, in the future the bloc does not want "bilateral 'mines' to explode in the middle of the accession process" – but the issue has still come down to the wire. Croatia's foreign minister Vesna Pusic is meeting with her Slovenian counterpart today in the latest attempt to reach a solution.
Pusic, in an interview
, revealed why the EU's current difficulties have not provoked regret that Croatia had taken the road to membership. Firstly, the accession process was as much about institution building and state building as it was about the end goal of membership. And second, the harrowing spectre of the Balkan wars. "Our society has the experience of: if not Europe, then what?" she said. "Most member states don't see that there is such an ugly or threatening alternative to this, but we actually see that. We've seen it in our lifetime, we've seen it 20 years ago." In that perspective, the relatively minor challenges of becoming an EU member at a time of economic crisis and political uncertainty should not be insurmountable.