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
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