Croatia has not yet shown it merits a place in the EU

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The Independent Online

Europe should be marking a significant event on 17 March. Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic that 10 years ago was being torn apart by civil war, is to open formal membership negotiations with the European Union. The mood has soured, however, and EU leaders are poised to call off the talks over Zagreb's failure to arrest an army general who has been indicted for war crimes.

Europe should be marking a significant event on 17 March. Croatia, the former Yugoslav republic that 10 years ago was being torn apart by civil war, is to open formal membership negotiations with the European Union. The mood has soured, however, and EU leaders are poised to call off the talks over Zagreb's failure to arrest an army general who has been indicted for war crimes.

Croatia's Prime Minister, Stejpan Mesic, travelled to Brussels this week protesting that Zagreb is powerless to comply with the demands of the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for the arrest of General Ante Gotovina. Mr Mesic contends that the general has fled Croatia and, moreover, that EU pressure on the issue is damaging his public's support for the EU.

Europe's leaders would be unwise to listen to these hollow protestations. Croatia may have undergone an economic transformation since the death of its former president Franjo Tudjman in 1999. But its political transformation has not kept pace, and this is symbolised by the refusal to force individual war criminals to accept responsibility for their alleged deeds. An essential part of any nation's coming to terms with its wartime past is to ensure that justice is administered to those responsible for atrocities. General Gotovina is number three on the UN's "most wanted" list for his role in the killings of Croatian Serbs in 1995. But one of the reasons he has not been arrested yet is that so many Croats still regard him as a war hero.

The EU would also be setting a dangerous precedent in its dealings with the rest of the former Yugoslavia if it allowed Croatia to enter talks at this stage. The two most notorious indictees, the Bosnian Serbs Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are still at large.

Although he claims to be powerless, Mr Mesic could at least order General Gotovina's cronies to be arrested or placed under surveillance. Officials at The Hague believe the general is still in hiding in "the region". Such steps might go some way towards convincing the world that Croatia is serious about purging its legacy of violent nationalism and is ready to begin the process of admission to Europe's family of democracies.

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