JOINING THE CLUB: A woman holds the European Union and Croatian flags in Zagreb on Sunday during a celebration of the accession of Croatia to the EU. Picture: REUTERS
JOINING THE CLUB: A woman holds the European Union and Croatian flags in Zagreb on Sunday during a celebration of the accession of Croatia to the EU. Picture: REUTERS

ZAGREB — Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union (EU) at midnight, passing a milestone in its recovery from war but still anxious over the troubled state of its economy and that of the bloc it is joining.

Croatia joins just over two decades after declaring independence from federal Yugoslavia, a step that triggered four years of war in which about 20,000 people died. Facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21%, few Croatians are in the mood to celebrate.

The EU is mired in its own economic woes, which have created internal divisions and undermined popular support for the union. EU flags fluttered from a stage in Zagreb’s central square ahead of festivities, but there was little mood of celebration on the streets.

"Just look what’s happening in Greece and Spain. Is this where we’re headed?" said pensioner Pavao Brkanovic. "You need illusions to be joyful, but the illusions have long gone."

About 170 foreign officials, including 15 heads of state and 13 prime ministers, attended the main ceremony, with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council president Herman van Rompuy present. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said on Saturday he was repeatedly asked by EU journalists why Zagreb wanted to join the bloc.

"My counter-question was: ‘You come from the EU. Is your country preparing to leave the bloc?’ They would invariably reply: ‘Of course not.’ We also believe the EU has a future."

The country of 4.4-million people, with a coastline that attracts 10-million tourists each year, is one of seven that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia during a decade of war in the 1990s. Slovenia was first to join the EU, in 2004. Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are still years away.

Croatia has gone through seven years of tortuous and often unpopular EU-guided reform. It has handed over more than a dozen Croatian and Bosnian Croat military and political leaders charged with war crimes to the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. It has sold shipyards, steeped in history and tradition but deep in debt, and launched a fight against corruption that saw former prime minister Ivo Sanader jailed.

Some EU capitals remain concerned at the level of corruption and organised crime. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc’s most powerful leader, pulled out of the accession ceremony. She urged Croatia to press on with reforms.

Reuters