On July 1st 2013, Croatia will become the newest member state of the European Union. Its entrance into the EU will be highly symbolic, a narrative that the media will doubtless seek to stress.

Image courtesy of chensiyuan, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of chensiyuan, ©2011, some rights reserved.

We can surely expect to see scenes of celebration as the country becomes the 28th  piece of the EU puzzle, taking the European project one step closer to its unknown point of completion – a sovereign, independent nation now part of something bigger, working to achieve greater prosperity and build a better continent for all its people.

Equally, we can expect to be reminded of events 20 years previously, with images of the Croatian War of Independence – a nation torn apart by violence and devastated by sustained conflict; up to a quarter of its economy destroyed.

Croatia is not the first of the former Yugoslav states to accede to the European Union. Slovenia joined in 2004 in the historic wave of enlargement that saw ten new members admitted to the Union. That nation, however, on the fringes of the former Yugoslavia, saw comparatively little violence and a relatively easy split. Slovenia, with an absence of a large Serb population, was spared involvement in the attempt to create a “greater Serbia” from ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia that the Yugoslav Wars effectively became.

Croatia’s story is rather different. Although it did not see devastation and genocide to the extent of Bosnia, its losses – in terms of human casualties, physical damage and psychological trauma – were considerable. Its accession to the European Union might in many ways be seen as the completion of its national recovery. Membership of the organisation has long been a goal of the country’s governments, the centrepiece of a long-term foreign policy strategy of alignment with the West in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Eastern bloc.

Croatia’s war largely ended in 1995, but full territorial integrity was only restored in 1998 with the return of a few ethnic Serb territories on the country’s eastern border. Seeking to firmly embrace a pro-Western position, the country joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace outreach programme in 2000, and became a member of the alliance proper in 2009. EU membership seems like the natural next step in Croatia’s journey.

There are some signs of popular reluctance. Croatian public opinion has been fairly sporadic over EU accession since the initial application to join in 2003, and although a January 2012 referendum saw a vote of 66% in favour of accession, the poll was criticised for its low turnout of just 43%. One December 2012 survey also suggested that less than a quarter of Croatians view the EU favourably – with only 14% expressing support for the national Croatian government[1].

Generally, however, Croatians see their impending membership of the EU in a positive light, and whilst the Yes vote in the referendum was strongest in Croatia’s border region with Slovenia, a clear majority voted in favour in all counties.

Europe has generally been a stabilising force in the region, with its promotion of democracy through various outreach initiatives, as well as the reforms brought about through the membership negotiation process. Indeed, in awarding the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, the Nobel Committee cited the Union’s contribution to the Balkans peace and reconciliation process through the movement towards integration.

The aspiration to be part of Europe plays a leading role in the national strategies of all Balkan countries. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all officially recognised candidate countries, while Albania – easily the least developed state in the region – has also submitted its application. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are also designated ‘potential candidate countries’ – states which have not applied but which the EU expects to move towards integration in the coming years.

Future EU enlargement in the region seems unlikely to develop at any pace, however. Unlike Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia’s war wounds still feel very much unhealed, with the country awkwardly gerrymandered into two constituent republics for ethnic Serbs and ethnic Bosniaks, and the divisive politics of identity defining the public discourse.

Serbia – although the most prosperous of the prospective members – is highly unlikely to gain admittance before resolution of the Kosovo crisis. The nation, which declared its independence in 2008, is recognised as independent by 22 of the EU’s 27 member states and a narrow majority of members of the UN, making a Serbian accession virtually unattainable until its claim to Kosovo is renounced. Kosovar accession, similarly, cannot be considered seriously until the dispute is concluded.

Negotiations over Macedonia’s place in the EU are frozen due to a naming dispute which will seem frankly petty to outsiders. Greece, home to its own region called Macedonia, refuses to allow its northerly neighbour to use that name, having agreed after lengthy argument in 1995 to an Interim Accord allowing the provisional use of ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, until a resolution could be found. Greece reneged upon this deal, however, in 2008, vetoing Macedonia’s NATO membership bid over the naming issue. Despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice that in doing so, Greece had violated the 1995 Accord, Greece, a current member of the EU, still intends to veto the possibility of any progress for Macedonia.

Meanwhile, Albania’s infant democracy and low standards of living seem prohibitive, while Montenegro faces potential issues due to its unilateral adoption of the euro as its currency. Border disputes are also a significant problem, with one between Croatia and Slovenia delaying the former’s accession for several years.

The region is, in short, so plagued with issues that it seems unlikely we will see any further accession within the decade.

And with the natural focus on the Eurozone crisis and institutional reform, enlargement has been shunted substantially down the agenda to the extent that it would seem mad to expend significant resources on the Balkans.

In three months’ time, the Union that Croatia will join will in all likelihood still be one fraught with tension and uncertainty. The very real possibility of a British referendum on secession also means that Europe will be more concerned with retaining existing members than admitting new ones.

That said, Croatia’s accession provides a welcome positive story for the EU, amidst all the financial doom and gloom. The media narrative we can expect in July may be tiresome and overplayed, but it will serve as a chance to remind the citizens of Europe of the Union’s fundamental purpose – to unite the peoples of Europe in collaboration and to foster peace, stability and prosperity across the continent.