Croatia was the first country to negotiate EU membership under the stricter enlargement policy. The EU now demands 100% perfection from future member states. How did Croatia perceive the new enlargement policy? Is it fair that Croatia had to meet stricter criteria than other states who joined the EU?
"I have mixed feelings about the renewed enlargement policy. On the one hand, the fact that Croatia has to meet additional criteria is not fair as these stricter conditions are not a result of Croatia's own faults or shortcomings, but of a disappointment among the EU member states after the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. The membership of both countries was based on a political decision instead of strict conditionality. To avoid the same mistake, the criteria were adjusted for Croatia. Of course, to be treated differently from the candidate countries before you seems unfair.
On the other hand, it was understood from the very beginning that the harsh conditions were for Croatia's own benefit. The only way to become a member of the EU is to correct your sins, deal with the difficult war heritage and cooperate wit the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, improve the rule of law, fight corruption, imrpove the protection of minorities and so on. This second feeling of wanting to secure a European future and being prepared to work for it definitely prevails. Now that we are at the end of the accession process, we can say with certainty that the strict EU policy was in Croatia's advantage."
Do you think the new enlargement approach is effective in helping candidate countries to better prepare for EU membership?
"Yes, the message of the European Union has always been very clear: Croatia could become a member after fulfilling all conditions, or not become a member at all. For Croatia, only the obligations were fixed, not the dates."
Strengthening the rule of law and fundamental rights (chapters 23 and 24) are central themes in the accession negotiations. The requirements are mainly found in general principles and European standards. How could Croatia determine exactly what the targets were and how to implement them?
"The criteria for chapters 23 and 24 on the rule of law can be a little blurry or vague. Instead of adopting hard acquis Croatia had to follow best practices or best standards in other member states. For us it was easy not to repeat the mistake made by Romania or Bulgaria. Also some older member states provided us with good examples of how it shouldn't be done. Right now, the Croatian records on the rule of law are not perfect, but Croatia is doing much better in comparison with countries who were not as strictly monitored.
Croatia is under very severe surveillance from Brussels and the internal legislation was scrutinized in detail. In the periodical progress reports every mistake of failure was listed. So, even though some of the conditions for chapter 23 and 24 can be subject to your own interpretation, Brussels clearly indicated what the government had to do to meet the benchmarks on the rule of law and the judiciary."
Did Croatia have any difficulties in meeting the benchmarks of chapters 23 and 24 on the rule of law?
"These two chapters cover the most sensitive issues in the accession process. Croatia managed a breakthrough on rule of law reforms after a series of anti-corruption efforts which resulted in the prosecution of top politicians. These successes caused a chain reaction in the judiciary, improving the implementation of court decisions and increasing the transparency and efficiency of the judicial system. Now people have more trust in politicians and judges, knowing that they will be punished if they do not follow the rules."
The Netherlands will look critically at the progress made in Croatia before ratifying the accession agreement. What is on the agenda in Croatia until the july 2013 to leave no doubt that the country is ready for membership?
"The prevailing tone of the last monitoring report from april 2012 is positive. The report gives a detailed account of what Croatia has accomplished and what still needs to be done, mainly in the area of competition policy and strengthening the judiciary. In the beginning of October the Commission will present a comprehensive monitoring report on the progress of Croatia which will give a more detailed assessment of the areas where further efforts are necessary. The signals are that Croatia has nothing to worry about.
I cannot image any incidents which would cause the Dutch parliament to doubt the performance of Croatia. This doesn't mean that everything is perfect in Croatia. Just like all other European countries we are hit by the economic crisis and we are struggling to recover. Yet, these are problems which we share with the Netherlands and all other member states."
There is a lot of concern among the people in Europe about further enlargement. What would you say to the Dutch people who are worried about the accession of Croatia?
"The Dutch can be pleased with Croatia as their new EU neighbour. The accession of Croatia is very different from earlier enlargements. Croatia is the first country which enters the EU alone. Only Greece entered alone forty years ago , but that was based on a political decision of the member states which was not supported by the Commission. For Croatia, the accession negotiations are completely different. Now it is a technocratic process. Croatia is the most prepared country for EU membership ever, thanks to the strict enlargement criteria. Our accession to the EU will be good for our country and it will be good for the EU."
Mr. Tonino Picula participated in the debate 'Promise to the Balkans', organized by the Alfred Mozer Stiching. A report can be found here.