ECONOMY

Croatian foreign minister is optimistic over prospects of early EU accession

BRUSSELS – Croatia’s foreign minister said late on Friday he was encouraged by support for his country’s EU membership bid after a spate of foreign visits in his first month in office and hoped for official candidate status in June. Miomir Zuzul, in Brussels marshaling support for Croatia’s application to join both the European Union and NATO, said he understood Croatia must, however, deal with demands for the return of refugees who fled after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Since his appointment last month, Zuzul has already met seven current or future EU foreign ministers to press his case, and he visits another five European capitals next week. «That is the first issue on our agenda on all our visits,» Zuzul, appointed in December by conservative Croatian Democratic Union Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, told Reuters. «This is a trip where we are trying to get support,» he added, saying he was being met with «understanding and support for the steps the government is taking.» Croatia applied to join the EU last February, and expects the bloc’s executive Commission to issue an official opinion in the spring on whether the country meets criteria which could lead the EU to invite it to join. If the opinion is positive, Zuzul said, he hopes the European Council of EU heads of state and government will invite it to become a candidate country at a meeting in June. «Realistically, the first date we can get an answer on our status is June. If it’s not June then it could be postponed for several months, maybe to the end of this year,» he said. «We hope we will be able to prove that we are very serious in fulfilling all criteria, political, administrative, and financial, and that we can be considered for candidate status.» Economic success Croatia is far ahead of many of its Balkan neighbors in economic terms. Commission figures put its annual gross domestic product per capita at $5,420 in 2002, well above Serbia and Montenegro at $2,055 or Bosnia and Herzegovina at $1,383. Croatia says it wants to join along with Romania and Bulgaria, probably in 2007, arguing its economy easily matches theirs. But there remain some serious political obstacles. Chief among these is the continued failure to hand over General Ante Gotovina, indicted for war crimes, to the United Nations war crimes tribunal. Croatia has also come under pressure to do more to allow the return of refugees who fled in the war which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. Asked if these two issues were coming back to haunt him on this trip, Zuzul replied: «They never disappeared, and they will not until they are actually taken care of, and we are aware of that.»