July 1 was an historical day for the European Union (EU) and Croatian citizens: the day the EU welcomed Croatia as the 28th member state of the Union.
This was the seventh enlargement of the EU from its six founding members, ie Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which back in 1957 founded the organisation now known as the European Union.
The latest enlargement, before Croatia’s accession, took place in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania became members of the EU. Croatia has been a candidate for accession for long and this week’s event is both a confirmation of Croatia’s capacity to deeply reform itself so as to be able to fully integrate into the EU and, at the same time, a proof of the attractiveness the EU has for its neighbouring countries.
At present, there are five recognised candidates for EU membership: Iceland (applied 2009), Macedonia (applied 2004), Montenegro (applied 2008), Serbia (applied 2009) and Turkey (applied 1987).
Serbia and Macedonia have not yet started negotiations to join. The other states in the Western Balkans – Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina – have signed Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the EU, which generally precede the lodging of membership applications.
The accession perspective provides strong encouragement for transformation, political and economic reform in the candidate countries. Reforms in the rule of law, including judicial reform and the fight against corruption and organised crime, benefit not just the countries concerned but also all the citizens and economic operators of the European Union and its partners.
The Copenhagen Criteria, defining whether a country is eligible to join the European Union, also emphasise the importance of Human Rights.
After 10 years of this rigorous process, Croatia now fully meets all the requirements to join the EU and benefit from its powerful effects on a country’s development. How will EU membership change the European Union and Croatian citizens’ life?
Croatia’s accession brings more security and stability for the country. Croatia will benefit from the internal reforms that have been implemented: more efficient judiciary, more transparent and well-organised public administration, reinforced human rights and civil liberties.
The day-to-day work of the European Commission to protect the citizens and lead the European Union towards a modern and effective democracy will directly affect the life of the Croatian people.
The EU membership also provides full access to the largest market in the world, with more than 500 million consumers, creating thousands of jobs and better living standards for Croatian citizens.
Croatia’s access to the single market also offers new business partners to the European economic operators. These economic effects are considerable: the year after their accession, Bulgaria’s and Romania’s GDP grew respectively by 6.2 per cent and 7.3 per cent.
Finally, each Croatian is now able to travel, study, work and even vote all over the European Union as any other European Citizen.
This enlargement of the Union is also a great chance for all EU partner countries, including Cambodia, to find new business opportunities in Croatia.
As the European Union provides an easier access to its market to Cambodia, I am sure that Croatia’s accession will be a great opportunity to reinforce the friendship between an enlarged EU and Cambodia from a business perfective and way beyond.
For instance, the European program “Erasmus Mundus” offers various opportunities for students from all over the world to go and study in the EU. This program will be extended to cover Croatian universities.
Every year, several Cambodian students are granted scholarships to study in the European Union. Next year the EU Delegation to Cambodia will strongly support a Cambodian student to study in one of the numerous renowned Croatian universities.
Croatia’s accession also provides fresh evidence of the transformative power of the EU enlargement policy: torn by conflict only two decades ago, the country, and the whole Westerns Balkans, is now a stable democracy, capable of taking on the obligations of EU membership and adhering to EU standards.
This transformation is also a powerful signal for all the potential candidates in the region: the EU keeps its commitments and accession can become a reality if the necessary reforms are undertaken.
Through Croatia’s accession, the European Union enhances its cultural diversity and its human potential by welcoming the wealthy Croatian culture. Moreover, the EU embraces its regional leadership by exporting its core values in the EU region and beyond.
Croatia will now participate in this challenging leadership by taking an active part in European governance, particularly with the perspective of the up-coming 2014 European Parliament Election.
In May next year, all Croatian citizens would have the opportunity to use one of their new rights provided by the accession and vote to elect the 12 Croatian Members of the European Parliament.
The world financial crisis continues to affect the European Union and its Member States.
At a time of doubt and questioning, I think that Croatia’s accession brings a strong message: even though this is a time of hardship for many in the EU, enlargement policy, and more broadly the European project, continues to contribute to peace, security, democracy and long-term prosperity across the continent.
Jean-François Cautain is the Ambassador of the European Union to the Kingdom of Cambodia.