Croatia moves closer to completing EU talks

by Reuters
Tuesday, 19 April 2011 15:44 GMT

* Croatia closes two more EU accession "chapters"

* Chapter on judicial reform could prove tough

By Christopher Le Coq

BRUSSELS, April 19 (Reuters) - Croatia took a further step towards European Union membership on Tuesday, signing agreements on agriculture and regional development that it hopes will keep it on track to complete negotiations by June.

Croatia has now completed 30 of the 35 "chapters", or policy areas, that prospective members of the 27-nation bloc must complete, steps that are designed to align their economies and judicial and political frameworks more tightly with the EU.

Two other chapters are "non-legislative" and are simply adopted, meaning Zagreb has three more substantive policy areas to resolve in the next two months to meet a self-imposed June deadline for concluding talks that began in Oct. 2005.

While that leaves it in a strong position to complete negotiations soon, it still has one of the thorniest chapters open -- on the judiciary and fundamental rights -- and that is expected to prove divisive.

Even once negotiations are complete, ratifying the accession treaty could take up to 18 months, EU officials have estimated, meaning the earliest Croatia could take up full membership would be 2014.

<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

FACTBOX on Croatia's membership process [ID:nLDE73I1ES]

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

The sooner Croatia becomes a member, the sooner it can benefit from EU structural funds, disbursements from the EU's budget designed to help poorer regions catch up with the infrastructure across much of the rest of the continent.

Croatian officials say completing talks by mid-2011 could have a significant impact, with up to 3.5 billion euros in structural funds potentially in the offing for 2012 and 2013. After that, the EU will be involved in its new 7-year financial framework which may prove substantially less favourable.

But membership would also give the nation of 4.4 million, which nearly two decades ago was at the heart of the conflict in the Balkans, an opportunity to join a free-trade area of 500 million people, greatly expanding its economic potential.

Of former Yugoslav states in the western Balkans, Slovenia is already an EU member, but others such as Montenegro and Macedonia face a long wait after Croatia is admitted.

Hungary, which holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency and is charged with leading negotiations with Croatia, described Tuesday's agreement as a "huge step" and said accession by June was still possible although very ambitious.

In a report in March, the European Commission, the EU's executive, expressed particular concern about Croatia making the necessary reforms to its judiciary by the middle of this year, saying there was a need to curb corruption.

Since then, Croatia says it has ramped up its efforts, but the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, said expectations were high for more far-reaching improvements. (Editing by Jon Hemming)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.