Augustin Palokaj is senior correspondent in Brussels for 'Jutarnji List', Croatia's biggest daily newspaper.
This op-ed was first published in Bulgarian here.
"Finally, with much delay and on the twentieth anniversary of the declaration of its independence, Croatia is expected to close six years of long accession talks with the European Union. The European Commission confirmed that Croatia has fulfilled all necessary conditions. In two years' time, on 1 July 2013, Croatia will formally become the 28th EU member state, enlarging the Union with an additional 56,595 square kilometres and 4.4 million citizens.
Of course some consider this a big success, since passing the finish line is always a success, even when you are late. I consider the Croatian accession talks to be a kind of combination of failure and success. Even the most sceptical back in 2004, when Croatia got its candidate status, would not have believed that membership would come only as late as mid-2013. Both sides are to blame.
Croatia was not sincere and tried to cheat in its fight against corruption. The EU, which learned its lesson earlier particularly with Bulgaria and Romania, strengthened the conditions and was a tough teacher. But there was also reluctance within the EU, some tired of enlargement and others were sceptical about Croatia. But now we are close to becoming an EU member and need to support this goal.
Who we are
Known mostly as a tourist destination (with 11 million foreign tourists visiting it annually) and a relatively successful sporting nation, Croatia's membership of the EU will not have a major effect on the Union. Its population is not as big as Poland, not as small as Cyprus but rather similar to Ireland.
Compared to other EU countries Croatia should not be considered as poor as Bulgaria and Romania, since it has a GDP per capita of 63% of the EU average, higher than seven existing EU member states. But it is not as rich as Switzerland or Norway, so it cannot afford to remain outside the European Union even though many Croatian citizens would prefer to stay out.
Formally Croatia will have a commissioner in the European Commission, 12 members of the European Parliament and Croatian will become one of the EU's official languages.
Croatia is a unique case in many aspects. It is the first country to join the EU that has recently had a terrible war, which ended in 1995. It will be the second country after Slovenia from the territory of the former Yugoslavia to become an EU member.
In its heritage, culture and tradition it combines the Mediterranean with Central Europe. Its population is predominantly catholic, a point that Pope Benedict XVI made during his visit last week to Zagreb, expressing his support for Croatian membership of the EU and hope that Croatia will bring its catholic spirit to the Union. Catholicism was sometimes mentioned as a reason why countries such as Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Italy support so strongly Croatian membership while the UK and Netherlands were more reluctant to do so.
But according to a survey by Gallup Europe, only around 60% of Croatians say that religion has any significant role in their daily lives. All other nations in the region of the Western Balkans, with exception of Albanians, are more religious than Croats. They elected Ivo Josipovic, a declared non-believer and agnostic, as president of the country and he continues to be Croatia's most popular politician.
Now that Croatia is finishing its accession talks, the government and other political forces will have to convince their citizens that it is worth becoming an EU member, something that is not easy to do. Croatian citizens will most probably vote in favour of joining the EU in the referendum but most have no illusions that membership will change their lives. Just 25% of Croatian citizens said in the latest survey that they see membership of the EU as good thing, but this does not mean that they will necessarily vote against it. Surprisingly there is more support for Croatian membership of the EU among existing EU citizens than among Croatians themselves.
Croatia has special relations with Germany and many in the EU consider Germany to be a kind of sponsor of Croatia within the EU. Germany was the biggest supporter of Croatian independence back in 1992 and it was ready to recognise it without the support of other EU members.
This was not an easy move just two years after German unification, when many others in Europe were suspicious of how a bigger Germany would act at European level. In Croatia they were singing 'Danke Deutchland' and in the city of Sibenik a statue of German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher was erected. Some say that the only time Germany might have regretted its recognition of independence was in summer 1998, when Croatia beat Germany in the quarter finals of the World Cup in France.
Germany remained a supporter of Croatia during accession talks but, being sceptical about enlargement in general, Germany was among those who insisted that Croatia can join only when it is 100% ready.
This '100% ready' would mean that there would be no monitoring by the EU after Croatia's accession. This is different from the case of the EU's two newest members Bulgaria and Romania. Many countries believe that admitting them to the EU in 2007 was a mistake as they were not ready, but no-one admits this officially.
Since they consider Bulgaria and Romania a bad example they wanted us to be a good example. That's why it took so long for Croatia to finish the negotiations. When Bulgaria and Romania joined, this was welcomed in Croatia and the rest of the Balkans. It was understood as 'if they can do it then everybody, even us, can do it as well'. But in the EU another 'school of thought' prevailed: 'We made a mistake with them and will not repeat it.'
Whoever doesn't believe that Croatia did more than Bulgaria and Romania in fighting against corruption should just visit the Remetinec prison in Zagreb: some cynically note that 'in this prison there is the biggest concentration of company managers and politicians in Croatia.'
So better late than never. But this is not the end of the road."