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World / Brussels briefing Print article | Email
Croatia wins incentive for EU entry talks
By George Parker and Judy Dempsey in Brussels
Published: October 8 2003 22:02 | Last Updated: October 8 2003 22:02

Croatia will be told on Thursday that it could start talks to join the European Union as early as next year if it improves its record on war crimes and treatment of refugees.

A decision on Croatian membership of the EU could be taken by government leaders in June 2004, with final negotiations expected to take a further four years.

GŁnter Verheugen, EU enlargement commissioner, believes Croatian membership could send a powerful signal to Serbia and other western Balkan countries that democratic reforms will be rewarded

But Mr Verheugen said the EU must first be convinced that Croatia had made a definitive break from its turbulent recent past, and fully complied with the Union's entry criteria.

He will present with Chris Patten, EU external affairs commissioner, an opinion on Croatia's readiness to join the EU in March 2004.

In an interview Mr Verheugen said the EU remained concerned about Croatia's lack of co-operation with the Hague war crimes tribunal. He said there were also reservations about treatment of returning Serb refugees, who fled atrocities in Croatia during the break up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992.

But Ivica Racan, Croatian premier, will be told on Thursday in Brussels the country has a realistic prospect of early EU membership if it addresses those concerns. Mr Verheugen said: "We should tell Croatia that they don't have to wait until other countries in the region have the same level of preparation.

"Croatia would increase the credibility of our democratisation process in the whole region."

His comments raise the possibility of Croatia joining the EU as early as 2008, a year after Romania and Bulgaria. Turkey is waiting to find out whether it can start entry negotiations.

Croatia has long resented being lumped together as part of the Balkans, insisting its cultural and religious identity - it is predominately Roman Catholic and was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire - gives it a special place in Europe. The rest of the western Balkans is largely Orthodox or Muslim.

Croatia's identity was one of the reasons why Germany, backed by Britain, rushed to recognise the independence of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 at the time that Slobodan Milosevic, former Yugoslav president, was using the nationalist card to prevent the country from breaking up.

Human rights organisations have repeatedly argued that the EU should not give Croatia any dates for possible membership until it co-operates completely with the Hague tribunal in sending alleged war criminals to the court for atrocities committed in 1991 and 1992 against the Serb minority living in Croatia and against Muslims in Bosnia.

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