by Marijela Kokalović (short version)*
The European integration is and has always been an economic and political process, open to all European countries that are willing and prepared to take on board the full body of EU law and sign the Treaties. According to Article 49 TEU, any European State which respects the fundamental values referred to in Article 2 TEU, i.e. “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”, and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. A valid application is however only the beginning of a long process, which sooner or later can lead to the fact that the applicant country becomes a Member State of the Union. The duration and speed with which each state, wanting to become a Member State, progresses depends on its own advancements towards implementing the acquis communautaire and meeting the ‘Copenhagen criteria’.
The Copenhagen criteria
The Copenhagen criteria, set out in December 1993 by the European Council in Copenhagen, require that candidate countries must fulfill the:
– political criterion, i.e. have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
– economic criterion, i.e. have a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union;
– acquis criterion, i.e. have the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union; and
– additionally be able to ensure that EU rules and procedures are implemented effectively through appropriate administrative and judicial structures.
In addition to the Copenhagen criteria the European Union also importantly takes into consideration the Unions capacity to integrate new member states, hence it is an important consideration in the general interest of both the candidate country and the European Union. As it enlarges the EU needs to guarantee that its institutions and decision-making processes remain accountable and effective. The Union must i.e. be in a position to continue implementing and developing common policies in all areas and have the ability to continue financing the policies in a workable manner.
The fact that states, wanting to become Member States of the Union, have to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria, a collection of political, economic and legal requirements, is good. Hence, setting up criteria that states have to fulfill before EU membership is granted may be the only way the Union can protect its interests and the basic values it is founded on from radical changes that could be caused by the integration of new Member States. The EU is a supranational organisation founded on fundamental values such as e.g. democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. To grant EU membership to countries that do not respect, protect and live these values would not only be a huge setback for the accomplishments that already have been reached with respect to these values, but it would also make the cooperation between the Member States more difficult if not impossible. Hence, agreeing on new reforms, legislation etc. is already difficult let alone if countries were granted EU membership without respecting the basic values and fulfilling certain criteria common to all Member States.
That the Copenhagen criteria have been referred to as being “fixed criteria that could not be amended or made flexible” by the first European Commissioner responsible for enlargement, Günter Verheugen, and as “the fundamental values on which the European Union is based, [that] are not subject to negotiation” by his successor Olli Rehn, the vice president of the European Commission, show the importance these criteria have. At the Helsinki European Council held in December 1999, the European Council with regard to the Copenhagen criteria furthermore asserted that compliance with the political criteria is a prerequisite for the opening of accession negotiations and that compliance with all the Copenhagen criteria is the foundation for accession to the European Union. From a formal perspective it seems that the membership criteria are applied strictly, but how does it work in practice?
Croatia and the EU recent developments
Croatia is as of 2011 an acceding country, that is to say a country which has completed accession negotiations and has signed an Accession Treaty with the Union. Croatia’s road to becoming an acceding country did not however happen overnight. Hence, Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003, accession negotiations started in 2005 and were completed 2011.
With regards to the EU membership criteria the Commission has asserted, in the Croatia 2011 Progress Report, that “Croatia continues to fulfill the political criteria” and that substantial improvement has been made in all areas, including the rule of law. Croatia must however continue to take efforts to consolidate these results. The country in question has overall i.e. introduced various reforms that both formally and in practice have contributed to progress and improvements in the various fields, but there is still a lack of efficiency.
Does a country that introduces various reforms and has taken various steps etc. however fulfill the political criteria, even though many of these reforms are not implemented effectively through appropriate judicial and administrative structures? Well if one considers the above mentioned statements by the EU commissioners, then the answer to this question would be a clear NO because the criteria are “fixed” and “non-negotiable”. Hence, rules and procedures can be introduced but if they are not effectively implemented they might as well not have been introduced at all. The fact that EU commissioners have referred to the Copenhagen criteria as “fixed criteria that cannot be amended or made flexible” and “the fundamental values on which the European Union is based, [that] are not subject to negotiation” is misleading because these criteria apparently are not that fixed or non-negotiable.
Apart from the fact that most of the reforms have to be further improved and made more effective, the situation for minority groups is also a challenge that further needs to be dealt with. The fact that the discrimination that occurs takes place at the local level shows that Croatia needs to take actions at the grass root level in order to fix the underlying problem, hence it is only then real progress will be made. Croatia may fulfill the requirements in the political criteria form a formal perspective, there are institutions that formally guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities, but they need to be more effective. Hence, a county can implement various reforms etc. but it has to secure their effective implementation at all levels of government, because it is only then the reforms will have effect and the real results will show.
As regards Croatia’s fulfillment of the economic criteria the Commission has asserted that it expects Croatia to meet this criterion by its accession date, 1 July 2013, which clearly indicates that this criterion has not yet been met. This is also obvious from the fact that even though progress has been made and Croatia is a functioning market economy that should be able to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces within the Union, some key challenges remain that Croatia has to deal with. It seems that Croatia has taken different measures and has introduced various reforms that theoretically should work well, but that the wanted results are not showing yet. As with the political criteria where Croatia needs to take measures to make the implementation of the adopted reforms and procedures more effective, Croatia in regards to the economic criteria needs to take more intensified efforts to implement the necessary structural reforms in order to fulfill the criterion and this will take time.
With regards to the acquis criteria it has just as the economic criteria not yet been met, but the prospects that Croatia will fulfill this criterion by 1 July 2013 is positive. Hence, Croatia has made good progress in most areas and there is already a high-level of alignment with EU rules in most sectors. The only remaining key challenge that Croatia has to deal with is, as with the political and economic criteria, the administrative part. Various reforms have been taken which formally show that Croatia is ready for becoming a Member State, and the remaining key challenges that have to be dealt with are mostly linked to the administration where further efforts are required to secure the effective implementation of EU rules and procedures.
To put it in a nutshell it seems that Croatia is on a good way to meet the Copenhagen criteria and that the country is in the last stages of the process. Croatia formally “fulfills” the political, economic and acquis criteria to a very good extend, but it still has to be able to ensure that EU rules and procedures are implemented effectively through appropriate administrative and judicial structures and this will take time. It will thereto be interesting to see if Croatia will manage to fix the remaining challenges before 1 July 2013 and what measures the EU will take if the remaining challenges are not fixed in time. If not, will the Union grant Croatia membership status or will it take a hard stand and protect its fundamental values and the criteria that the Union so proudly talks big about?
 In a report delivered in Seville in June 1992 by the European Council, the Commission discussed the meaning of “European”. According to the report the term European is based on an interweaving of historical, cultural and geographical elements that contribute to European identity. The Commission however furthermore asserted that the relationship must be reviewed and decided by each new generation.
*The full paper is 16 pages.
Alasdair Blair, mThe European Union since 1945, 2nd ed., 2010, Pearson Education Limited, London.
Christina J. Schneider, Conflict, Negotiation and European Enlargement, 1st ed., 2009, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Pavlina Nikolova, Negotiating for EU Membership: The Case of Bulgaria & Rumania, Croatia Yearbook of European Law & policy, Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2006, available at: http://hrcak.srce.hr/index.php?show=clanak&id_clanak_jezik=44726 (2012-05-20).