Croatia hopes to end EU talks in 2009, but problems remain

Luxembourg - Croatia hopes to conclude its talks on becoming a member of the European Union by the time the bloc's executive ends its term of office in late 2009, but stumbling-blocks remain in its path, officials said Tuesday.

Ireland's rejection Thursday of the EU's Lisbon Treaty could also impact on the process, but only indirectly, they said.

"Croatia will continue its ongoing reforms ... Our objective is clear: to complete negotiations before the end of the present European Commission's term of office" in November 2009, Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic said after a meeting with EU diplomats in Luxembourg.

As for the Irish vote, which has thrown the EU into institutional crisis, "I can see the psychological and political complications, but formally and legally there is no connection," Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, who chaired the meeting, said.

At the meeting, Croatia opened EU accession talks on bringing its domestic legislation into line with EU laws in two subjects, or "chapters": the free movement of workers and social policy and employment.

The move brings to 20 the number of chapters in which Croatia has opened talks with the EU, out of a grand total of 33.

It is "a sign that Croatia is making good progress," the head of the commission's enlargement department, Michael Leigh, said.

The commission "hopes very much" that Croatia will be able to open talks on all the remaining chapters by the end of the year, Leigh said.

Such a move would put Croatia in a strong position to close the chapters - and therefore qualify for EU membership as soon as current members approve it - in short order.

However, questions remain over Croatia's ability to meet the EU standards which have been set over the issues of competition, public procurement and corruption, Leigh said.

"More work is needed" in these areas, he said.

Croatia's state involvement in its shipbuilding industry, a dispute with Slovenia over fishing rights in the Adriatic and ongoing questions as to its ability to crack down on corruption are all controversial issues which could prolong the talks.

EU officials are traditionally reluctant to comment on exactly when candidate members could join the bloc.

However, Rupel said that he "hopes for the best," and that 2009 or 2010 "could be the year" for Croatian accession. (dpa)