Bitter-sweet occasion for Croatia, EU's 28th member

Croatia marks milestone with fireworks and fears for its economy and fate of bloc it is joining

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:04am

From today, Croatia is the 28th member of the European Union, a milestone that caps the Adriatic republic's recovery from war but is tinged with anxiety over the state of the economy and the bloc it joins.

Symbolically, last night amid the fireworks the "Customs" signs were to be removed at a border crossing with Slovenia, the only other former Yugoslav republic that has joined the EU since the breakup of the ex-communist federation in 1990s.

At the same time, the "EU" sign will be raised on the land border with Serbia, another ex-Yugoslav republic with which the bloc agreed on Friday to open membership talks by January.

But facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21 per cent, few Croatians are in the mood to party.

They join a bloc troubled by its own economic woes, which have created internal divisions and undermined public support for the union. "Just look what's happening in Greece and Spain! Is this where we're headed?" asked pensioner Pavao Brkanovic.

The country of 4.4 million people, blessed with a coastline that attracts 10 million tourists each year, has undergone seven years of tortuous and often unpopular EU-guided reform.

It has handed over more than a dozen Croatian and Bosnian Croat leaders charged with war crimes by the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

It has sold shipyards and launched a high-profile fight against corruption that saw former prime minister Ivo Sanader jailed.

Some EU capitals remain concerned at the level of graft and organised crime. Croatia will not yet join the 17-nation single currency zone, nor the visa-free Schengen zone.

Despite the mood, for some Croatians the merits of accession are undeniable.

"The EU is not perfect but it is the only option," said novelist Slavenka Drakulic Ilic.

"We need it for financial and economic reasons, and we need it for the sake of peace and stability. We belong to a region that is still volatile."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse