Croatia began what are set to be some of its toughest negotiations with the European Union on Wednesday in the hope of joining the 27-member bloc in 2012.
EU diplomats say successful membership for Croatia would help keep the door open to other western Balkan hopefuls and stablise a region torn by conflict in the 1990s.
The final three areas where talks on aligning Croatia with EU standards began on Wednesday -- competition law, judicial reform and foreign relations -- will determine whether the country can meet its entry goal.
The process often yields hard-nosed negotiation over how far a candidate nation feels it needs to adjust. "Important challenges lie ahead," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told a news conference.
"I am sure we will have a track record at the end to persuade member states that Croatia is 100 percent ready to assume the responsibilities of membership."
The country of 4.5 million people began EU entry negotiations in 2005 and aims to have completed negotiations on 23 of the 33 policy areas, or "chapters" up for debate by the end of next month.
Along with new applicant Iceland, it hopes to be the next to join the EU, raising the number of member states to 29.
Although the EU says it is committed to inviting new members, some governments are hesitant to do so at a time of economic difficulties in Europe and because of concerns that democratic standards are inadequate in the Balkans.
Countering such concerns, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said the process would continue.
"Despite the economic crisis, there are many countries that wish to become part of our house who can be future members," he said after meeting his Croat counterpart, Gordan Jandrokovic.
Croatia must prove it is effective in fighting corruption, promise to give up popular state-aid schemes for weak companies and ensure a level playing field for EU-based firms.
It also has to strengthen its efforts to overcome regional animosities that still linger in the western Balkans in the wake of the wars marking Yugoslavia's collapse in the 1990s.
EU member Slovenia has said it could block the conclusion of accession talks unless Croatia opens its market to Slovenia's largest bank, Nova Ljubljanska Banka (NLB).
Croatia's central bank says it will not allow NLB to buy a bank or open a subsidiary in Croatia due to an unresolved row involving NLB's predecessor, the now-defunct Ljubljanska Banka.
EU governments will be keeping a close eye on judicial reforms in Croatia, after Romania and Bulgaria disappointed in their efforts against fraud following their 2007 accession.
Croatia also must convince the EU it is doing all it can to assist war crimes investigations by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal's latest report said Zagreb was failing to provide full assistance.
Shipbuilding and agriculture are other areas where reforms have been relatively slow.
Political analyst Davor Gjenero said Croatia could conclude the talks in the first half of 2011, keeping it on track for membership in 2012. "Actually, Croatia could close all the chapters besides judiciary by the end of the year," he said.
Of the countries that emerged from the collapse of Yugoslavia, only Slovenia is in the EU. Aside from Croatia, others are years away from membership, held up by slow reforms and poor regional cooperation.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 01 Temmuz 2010, 00:43