Croatia will probably have to wait until 2013 or 2014 to become the next member of the EU, according to Hannes Swoboda, the European Parliament's rapporteur on the country's accession.
Croatia should finish EU membership talks by June but the ratification process by member states would last until the end of 2012 – meaning that late 2013 is a realistic date of entry, the Austrian MEP, a member of the Socialists & Democrats group said this week.
He was addressing the Parliament's foreign affairs committee, which adopted a resolution on Wednesday (26 January) stating that membership negotiations can be concluded by the middle of this year.
This is provided that Croatia makes progress in the remaining negotiation chapters – notably strengthening the judiciary, fighting corruption and full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the resolution states.
''If all goes well, a possible date for admission would be 1 January 2013. If a problem crops up somewhere, for example in the Dutch parliament, then we should work on making entry possible on 1 January 2014 so that Croatia could participate in elections for the European Parliament that year,'' said Swoboda, quoted by press agency Hina.
The current Dutch coalition lacks a majority on Croatia's accession and the previous government had blocked talks on judiciary reform until early last year, unhappy with the country's cooperation with the ICTY.
Hungarian President Viktor Orbán promised to make sure Croatia's accession talks are completed during his country's EU presidency, which ends in June.
Croatia has now closed 25 of the EU's negotiation chapters, leaving nine more areas to be fulfilled. Together with judiciary and fundamental rights, competition policy represents the most difficult chapter.
In October, President Barroso said that the judiciary is a key test of Croatia's readiness to join the Union. Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor replied that she was "very optimistic" about closing both chapters.
In their resolution this week, MEPs praised the progress made so far in terms of corruption, noting recent prosecutions of a number of former ministers and state-owned CEOs.
They also called on the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to help Croatia's anti-corruption and organised crime office investigate claims that some EU officials in the country have taken bribes.
As for competition policy, the privatisation and restructuring of Croatia's struggling shipyards remains a big hurdle.
Yet Olgica Spevec, head of Croatia's competition agency, recently complained that while its investors have to prove their long-term sustainability, most EU shipyards today are unable to do so.
Whether Croatia joins in 2013 or 2014, Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic stated that Croatia is ready and will not need a subsequent monitoring mechanism as was the case with Bulgaria and Romania, Hina reported.