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Croatia confident of keeping EU bid on track

Croatia is on course to begin its most demanding negotiations with the EU in three months’ time and stick to its target date for membership, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said on Wednesday.

“I’m confident we can meet all necessary criteria by this summer and conclude entry talks on schedule. Our strongest motive is that we’re doing this for the better life of our citizens, not just for the sake of satisfying the European Commission,” Sanader told Reuters in an interview. The Commission said this month Croatia could conclude entry talks by October 2009, which could allow membership by early 2011, if it pushes through all key reforms. They include improving the inefficient public administration and judiciary, fighting corruption, reducing state subsidies and restructuring ailing industries such as shipbuilding. “All those areas are undoubtedly very demanding to tackle, but we’ll tackle them, because we want our citizens to live in a country with high European standards,” Sanader said.

By the end of June Croatia must set out clear plans on how to reform the judiciary and shipbuilding and take decisive action to reduce corruption. Sanader said Croatia’s economy was likely to suffer a post-accession shock similar to that experienced by other eastern European EU newcomers, but that it would pave the way for prosperity rather than ruin. “Our reforms are aimed at making our companies competitive and I believe that most of them will be able to operate and successfully compete in the common market,” Sanader said.

Talks with the EU began in 2005 and while all major Croatian parties favor membership of the bloc, reforms have been slow so far mostly due to their social sensitivity. One of the most sensitive industries in the negotiations is shipbuilding, but Sanader said he was optimistic. “We want to save all of our (five) big shipyards and we’ll prepare restructuring plans with managements and unions. Private investment, social sensitivity and competitiveness on the EU market is what we want to achieve. The EU also does not want our shipbuilding industry to go bust,” Sanader said.

 

NATO INVITATION

Sanader said an invitation to join NATO, which Croatia expects next week at the alliance’s Bucharest summit, is proof that the country is on a right track. “I expect we’ll get the invitation next week. It shows that we’ve already done a lot to embrace values shared by NATO members, which include democratic standards, rule of law, respect of human rights and a functioning market economy,” Sanader said. “It would also help our EU bid as most of the countries that joined the EU first entered the NATO alliance.” Sanader said Croatia wanted to be a showcase in a region that has suffered wars and instability in the last two decades. He said that despite tensions related to Kosovo’s independence no major trouble should be expected in the Balkans.

Serbia, which is backed by Russia in its efforts to retrieve Kosovo, will hold a general election on May 11 which will pit pro-European forces against hardline nationalists. Sanader said he believed in Serbia’s pro-European future. “I do not believe that anti-European forces will win the election. I believe that those, who see European integration as a path to follow will prevail. Croatia is ready to assist Serbia to progress in that direction,” he said. (Reuters)