BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Croatia should wrap up accession talks with the European Union in the first half of next year, a few months later than planned, and still hopes to join the bloc in 2012, a senior government official said.
The EU has given the former Yugoslav republic no target entry date but diplomats say it is realistic for Croatia to conclude negotiations next year.
If so, Croatia could become the next state to join the 27-member EU, despite the general lack of enthusiasm towards further enlargement in the bloc following its eastward expansion in 2004. Iceland also hopes to join in the next few years.
The next few months will be crucial. Zagreb will have to prove it is serious about fighting corruption, cooperating with war crimes prosecutors and ensuring a level playing field for EU companies.
“Our idea is to conclude (negotiations) by March,” state secretary for European integration Andrej Plenkovic told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Brussels.
“And I hope we can sign the (EU) accession treaty during the Hungarian presidency,” he said. Hungary will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2011.
Croatia had previously said its goal was to end negotiations on the 33 required policy areas or “chapters,” to align candidate states’ laws with EU rules, by the end of this year.
It is expected to finalise two areas next week — food safety and financial control, bringing the number of closed chapters to 22.
But several policy areas have been held up by Croatia’s disputes with neighbouring EU member Slovenia and concerns that Zagreb has not done enough to help the United Nations war crimes tribunal with investigations into the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Slovenia is still threatening to block further EU progress for Zagreb in a spat over access for a Slovene bank to Croatia’s market. A dispute over borders has been resolved.
EU diplomats say Croatia has yet to show a consistent track record in fighting corruption, which plagues much of the Balkans, and needs a nod of approval from war crimes prosecutors.
Plenkovic said Zagreb was negotiating with Ljubljana on the banking issue, which emerged with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Slovenia was also part of the Yugoslav federation.
He said Zagreb was intensifying efforts to locate artillery logs from Croatia’s 1991-95 independence war against Serbia, which U.N. prosecutor Serge Brammertz says are needed for a trial of three Croatian generals.
“There is a genuine will (to find them). Nobody would jeopardise the accession process,” Plenkovic said. But he added: “I cannot promise (we) will find something.”