Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union at midnight, passing a milestone in its recovery from war but remaining anxious over the troubled state of its economy and the bloc it is joining.
Croatia joins the EU just over two decades after declaring independence from federal Yugoslavia, a step that triggered four years of war in which about 20,000 people died.
Facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21 per cent, few Croatians are in the mood to party.
“Just look what’s happening in Greece and Spain! Is this where we’re headed?” said pensioner Pavao Brkanovic yesterday in a Zagreb marketplace. “You need illusions to be joyful, but the illusions have long gone.”
Some economists have warned that Croatia could seek an EU financial bailout as soon as it becomes a member. But Croatia’s foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, rejected this, saying that the country would qualify for bailouts only if it is a member of the eurozone, a separate 17-country group that uses the EU’s common currency, the euro.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, called Croatia’s accession to the EU a “historic day”.
In a statement, he said: “EU membership will offer no magic solution to the crisis, but it will help to lift many people out of poverty and modernise the economy.”
President Ivo Josipovic told Croatia’s Nova TV on Saturday that journalists from EU countries had asked him why Zagreb wanted to join the bloc.
“My counter question was, ‘You come from the EU. Is your country preparing to leave the bloc?’ They would invariably reply, ‘Of course not.’ Well, there you go, that’s why we are joining – because we also believe the EU has a future,” he said.
The country of 4.4 million people, which attracts ten million tourists each year, is one of seven that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia during a decade of war in the 1990s.
Slovenia was first to join the EU, in 2004. Croatia has gone through seven years of tortuous and often unpopular EU-guided reform to gain its place. But some EU members remain concerned at the level of corruption and organised crime in Croatia.
The country’s accession took a knock when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s most powerful leader, pulled out of last night’s ceremony. Croatian media linked the move to a row over a former Croatian secret service operative wanted in Germany, though a spokesman for Ms Merkel denied this.
Ms Merkel urged Croatia to press on with reforms. “There are many more steps to take, especially in the area of legal security and fighting corruption,” she said in her weekly podcast.
For some Croatians, the merits of accession are undeniable.
“I know many people in Croatia are very sceptical but I think EU entry is the best thing that could have happened,” said businessman Zeljko Kastelan
Pro-EU voices in Croatia note that joining the bloc means Croatians could also find jobs in more prosperous EU countries, that their country could attract more foreign investment.