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Croatia and the EU: Revisiting the Conditionality Principle

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The European Union has not seen smooth sailing over the past few years. The EU has faced a number of challenges from a recession and a currency crisis to tension between hardline conservatives and liberal reformers and questions surrounding the expansion and identity of the EU.

The experience of Croatia, the newest state to join the EU, may prove enlightening when it comes to the EU's prospects for the future. This was the thesis of a talk given at the European Conference at Harvard by Ms. Vesna Pusic, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia. Minister Pusic spoke on March 1, 2014 at the Harvard Kennedy School at a conference co-sponsored by Harvard and the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Croatia's accession to the EU has been a long and involved process that has changed the country itself, but the EU has also changed in that period of time. It began 12 years ago, in 2001, with the ratification of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, laying the groundwork for relations between Europe and the Western Balkans countries. In 2003, Croatia officially applied for membership; then, in 2005, started the negotiations; and finally, on July 1, 2013, Croatia became an EU member state. The process of accession and negotiations and the accompanying reforms and adjustments were as important to Croatia as membership itself. On the flip side, Croatia's accession process may indicate some important changes for the EU itself.

Croatia's membership in the EU is in many ways the culmination of a long process of reconstruction after war in the 1990s after the breakup of former Yugoslavia. Croatia's EU accession was also an opportunity for a long-term guarantee of institutional stability in a state whose citizens almost universally remember that there is a realistic alternative to peace. During the process of negotiations for EU membership, Croatia moved its focus from "heroic" politics and issues to more "pedestrian" everyday concerns such as institutional design and regulation.
Pusic also emphasized the important role of European values such as freedom of movement, free market, political pluralism or individual freedoms were something that attracted Croatian citizens to EU membership and basically were never questioned. Today in Europe, we can see Eurosceptic movements that are very discriminating towards foreigners, minorities or anything that is different from something that is considered mainstream European society.

The EU accession has also created change in Croatia's foreign policy and Croatia's view of its place in the region. In the beginning of the accession process, the general attitude was that the objective would be for Croatia to join the Union and its neighbors to remain outside the EU. Over time, though, it became clear that in order to achieve the stability of the region, you needed to move the entire region toward this European framework.

For the European Union as a whole, Croatia's accession process and membership has signaled several key shifts. The first and most important has to do with the conditionality principle for EU accession. Traditionally, countries first have to meet certain conditions, go through negotiation process and then join the European Union. But Croatia may be the last country to join the EU under such conditionality principle.

For instance, in the cases of Serbia and Kosovo, normalization of their bilateral relations was not used for precondition for Serbia to start the negotiations, nor for Kosovo to start the negotiations for SAA, but this normalization of relations became part of their negotiating framework. Instead of demanding fulfillment of conditions before the start of negotiations, the EU has aimed to solve those issues within the negotiation process.

The EU is also experiencing enlargement fatigue and a debate over subsidiarity. Whereas the first eight countries of Eastern Europe to join in 2004 were welcomed with open arms, euroskepticism has set in since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. Economic downturn and growing euroskepticism has resulted in a push for greater subsidiarity -- in other words, there is higher support for devolution of power from the EU back to individual member states, but also there is a rise of vocal eurosceptics in the European parliament, especially when you think about coming European elections in May and what can be the outcome of the elections.

The future of the EU likely involves more enlargement, but at a more cautious pace and a clarification of EU foreign policy toward its neighbors. EU accession of the Western Balkan countries should be understood not as enlargement, but as a consolidation of what is already European territory, given the fact that the area in question is relatively small and surrounded by EU member states, not to mention the fact that the region is of vital strategic significance to the European Union. The case of Turkey is very much different and it would be real enlargement, given the size of territory and population that would then join EU. And the countries of Eastern Partnership are very much different, but that have to be seen as area of cooperation and not as area of confrontation with Russian Federation.

The future is not clear and the path for the EU will not be smooth, but Pusic's talk provided valuable insight into the process of joining the EU and the future of the Union.