Croatia strides into EU despite crisis

The European Union may be engulfed by a debt crisis, but Croatia still sees its imminent membership of the bloc as a victory, the Balkan state's president told AFP in an interview.

"Yes, the crisis (within the EU) is here, but we are stronger together... and the only way out from the crisis is through 'more Europe and not less Europe,'" Ivo Josipovic said.

The best proof of that is that none of the current 27 EU member states have dropped out of the bloc, he said less than two weeks before Croatia was due to be formally admitted.

"At the end of the day one can leave the EU, but we did not see any country that did so," said Josipovic.

Croatia will become the 28th member of the European Union on July 1, a decade after it first launched its membership bid.

It would be the second ex-Yugoslavia state -- after Slovenia -- to join the bloc after gaining independence following the bitter Balkans war in the 1990s.

"The 1st of July is an important date, the first day of a new era for Croatia ... historically, psychologically, politically, it will be the first day of a European Croatia," Josipovic said.

The president is however realistic about what the EU can do, saying that membership of the bloc itself would not generate any miracles.

Josipovic said 11.7 billion euros ($15 billion) of potential EU financial aid "should help the Croatian economy get stronger and competitive", but that it is up to Croatia to "modernise its economy to survive, with or without the EU".

The country of 4.2 million people has either been in recession or stagnated in the past four years, and unemployment now stands at over 20 percent.

Even though Josipovic remains bullish about the bloc, enthusiasm for the European project has faded among ordinary Croatians.

Tough demands made by Brussels in exchange for membership have turned the mood more eurosceptic.

Most controversial were demands to extradite top Croatian officers regarded as war heroes, to the UN war crimes court over the 1991-1995 war for independence.

Other unpopular requirements include the restructuring of loss-making shipyards.

Recent surveys show that support for Croatia's EU entry is now just above 50 percent, while last year, a referendum on the issue was passed with 66 percent in favour.

"Maybe some are not in the mood for a noisy party, but Croatians see EU entry as a victory as after lengthy and difficult talks and reforms ... we become part of the European club," said Josipovic, whose five-year mandate expires in 2015.

"Celebration will be nice and emotional, and of course modest due to the economic situation," said the 55-year-old, who is also a law professor and classical music composer.

"EU was originally a project to maintain peace ... and for us as a country which practically emerged from a war this component means a lot," stressed Josipovic.

Even though Croatia has lingering quarrels with its Balkan neighbours such as Serbia, including border disputes, Josipovic promised not to block their EU aspirations.

Rather, he said, Croatia would help them in their bids.

"We will advocate EU's enlargement policy and we are going to support them politically, they need our experience, our technical assistance.

"We are here and ready to help," said the soft-spoken, grey-haired Josipovic, who is Croatia's most popular politician.

Croatia's membership talks were held up for 10 months due to a border row with Slovenia, which became an EU member in 2004.

Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are on different stages in their application for EU membership.