The January 22 plebiscite has paved the way for Croatia — part of the erstwhile Yugoslavia — to join the European Union as its 28th member state in 2013. The move must be ratified in national parliaments across the EU. Regional security, access to the vast job markets, and investment inflows are among the potential benefits of EU membership. But neither was Zagreb's ‘yes' vote emphatic, nor has the imminent expansion been greeted with particular enthusiasm by existing members. All told, a far-cry from the euphoria and excitement witnessed when the EU embraced the former Eastern Europe in 2004 or when the single currency was launched in 2002. Croatia enters the EU precisely when the danger of Greece's exit from the euro zone is looming and the time-table for the accession of prospective members appears indefinite. The lack of a coherent response to the debt crisis makes a bad situation appear worse. It is tempting to interpret the 44 per cent turnout in the referendum as a measure of democratic deficit. But then, voter apathy is not quite unheard of in this trans-national context. Secondly, it should be borne in mind that the EU vote followed close on the heels of a national general election in December. In that light, the roughly two-to-one approval of EU membership is significant.

Democracy, market economy, and rule of law are among the eligibility criteria for EU membership. Abolition of the death penalty is also a precondition for admission, and this reform perforce imparts a rational and humane aspect to the administration of criminal justice. The potential of such a step to bring closure to historic wrongs and build reconciliation among Balkan countries that are torn by bloody ethnic strife cannot be exaggerated. By admitting Zagreb, the EU will send out a signal to the other Balkan states that it attaches a high premium on cooperation with the Hague tribunal which is adjudicating the war crimes of the 1990s. This is of particular relevance to Serbia, whose position on Kosovo's ‘independence' has pushed back its ambitions for EU membership. It is no mean challenge for the Balkans to balance their cherished values of national independence and sovereignty with the more current imperatives of regional integration. Consolidation of the EU would prove a formidable challenge owing to the machinations of extremist and anti-immigration parties. The bloc needs a new vision in the 21st century.

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