EU Urged Croatia to Speed up Economic Reforms

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European Union officials on Wednesday urged Croatia to speed up reforms, saying that no date for membership in the bloc could be set until negotiations with the Balkan country are in the final stages.

Croatia is expected to complete entry talks with the EU by 2009, but the 27-nation union must first resolve institutional problems preventing it from taking on more members. It also battles ’enlargement fatigue’ after accepting 12 countries - most of them former communist nations in Eastern and Central Europe - in the last three years.

Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said Croatia should hurry its judiciary and economic reforms, step up efforts to fight corruption and resolve its border dispute with neighboring Slovenia. „More needs to be done,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Guenther Gloser told the European Parliament, which approved a report praising Croatia for its progress so far but saying the country of 4.5 million has not yet complied with all EU membership requirements. „Corruption is still a serious problem. Reform efforts should be accelerated. There's a lot on Croatia's plate,” Gloser said.

Croatia has opened talks on six of 33 chapters, or policy fields, and talks in more areas are expected to begin by June when Germany's EU presidency ends, the European Commission said. „The negotiations must be much more advanced and in their final phase before an entry date can be set,” said EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, speaking on behalf of the EU executive. He said trials in Croatia still take too long and court rulings are not always properly implemented. He also called for increased independence of judges.

Other problems listed by EU officials include a simmering border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, and the need for better cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia, which both seceded from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, have bickered over a few border points at land and sea. Several negotiations over the past few years have failed and Croatia has called for international arbitration - a move Slovenia rejects.

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said Zagreb was committed to solving the problems outlined by the EU, but complained that the border dispute had been mentioned. „Our open issues with Slovenia are not a European matter; they are a bilateral matter, and Slovenia knows that,” Sanader said in Zagreb. „Slovenia managed to enter the EU and NATO while its issues with Croatia were not solved - and so can Croatia.” The European Parliament deplored the Croatian government's offer to support the defense costs of Croatian army generals tried in the UN tribunal in The Hague for crimes allegedly committed during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. It also called on Croatian politicians to try and improve the public perception of the tribunal.

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