Croatia has some powerful backers when it comes to its ambition to become the latest country to join the European Union next year. Following a meeting on Monday morning between Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican released a statement reading: "The Holy See reiterated its support for Croatia's legitimate aspirations to full European integration."
The papal support is not strictly necessary; few harbor serious doubts that Croatia will become the 28th member of the EU in the near future. Still, criticism of the country's progress towards fulfilling a number of accession requirements has been widespread this month after the European Commission released its monitoring report on Oct. 10. And the sharper tone, European Enlargement Commissioner tefan Füle tells SPIEGEL in the magazine's latest issue, published on Monday, is largely what he had in mind.
"We wanted to wake up Croatia with our last report," he said. "Croatia has to do its homework in the areas of competition, the judiciary and fundamental rights."
Germany has led the charge in recent weeks when it comes to openly doubting whether Zagreb is indeed ready for membership. Most prominently, Norbert Lammert, president of German parliament and a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has voiced skepticism.
"The examples of Romania and Bulgaria show that the expectation that problems are easier to solve once accession to the EU has been completed does not work in practice," he told SPIEGEL last week. "We can't make the same mistake twice." Several other German politicians have voiced similar concerns.
No More Exceptions
Füle confirmed to SPIEGEL that the problems run into by the two Balkan countries have led to a new approach to enlargement. "Following the accession of (Romania and Bulgaria), we introduced a new surveillance mechanism to ensure that a country will be able to live up to its European responsibilities in all areas from the moment it joins."
Both Romania and Bulgaria have been having difficulty stamping out corruption and living up to other EU requirements. Romania in particular has made headlines in recent months due to an ongoing feud between its prime minister and president, a dispute that at times has led Bucharest to disregard basic democratic principles.
"There will no longer be rule exceptions as was the case for Bulgaria and Romania," Füle said. He emphasized that EU member states are directly involved in the accession process, adding that "if there are any requirements that a candidate doesn't fulfil, EU states can slow down the process or stop it altogether at any time."
The monitoring report released this month found shortcomings in several areas including food safety, agricultural and rural development and the environment. Accelerating privatization and making improvements to the judiciary were also among the trouble spots singled out in the report.
Füle says he believes that Zagreb remains on track for accession next summer, though. "I am confident that the country will (make the necessary improvements) on time," he told SPIEGEL.
With reporting by Christoph Schult
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