Brussels: Croatia celebrates 20 years of independence with a birthday offer courtesy of the EU -- which on the eve of the historic anniversary on Friday offered the Balkans country the status of its 28th member.
In a move raising hopes for other Balkans nations knocking at the European Union door, leaders of the bloc issued a summit statement commending Croatia for its "intensive efforts, which have allowed accession negotiations to reach their final stage”.
After six years of tough talks, the EU leaders called for "all necessary decisions for the conclusion of the accession negotiations with Croatia by the end of June 2011" -- a de facto authorisation for Zagreb to join the world`s biggest market.
"This is a milestone for Croatia and the western Balkans as a whole," said EU president Herman Van Rompuy.
If the process goes without a hitch, Croatia will join the EU on July 01, 2013, as proposed by the European Commission.
"This is an historic moment," said Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, admitting that arduous efforts to win membership had taken place in an equally difficult context as enthusiasm foundered amid the economic crisis and a failing appetite for enlargement.
"We feel we are coming home," she said, adding that "this was the greatest gift for the citizens of Croatia" as they remember the independence date that triggered a dark era of war.
"We persevered and could serve as a model for other southeastern European nations seeking membership," she told journalists.
The endorsement comes as Croatia celebrates 20 years of independence from Yugoslavia and 16 years since the end of the bloody inter-ethnic war that ensued.
At the request of some EU nations which believe Bulgaria and Romania were given entry before being fully ready, a monitoring system will be put in place to ensure that Croatia follows through on reforms in the judicial system between the end of negotiations and its accession.
"We don`t believe there will be real problems ahead of ratification," Kosor added. "The process is irreversible."
The European Commission this month opened the door to Croatia when it recommended closing the final four of 35 legal chapters that aspiring members must negotiate to gain EU entry -- political, economic, social and judicial reforms to bring a nation to the cusp of EU standards.
Croatia will be only the second former Yugoslav republic to join the EU after Slovenia in 2004, but the first that suffered the full force of the brutal wars that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s.
Criticised for failing to tackle corruption, reform its judiciary, and bring Balkan war criminals to book, Croatia must "continue its reform efforts with the same vigour, in particular as regards the judiciary and fundamental rights," the EU leaders said.
After Serbia inched closer to its dreams of EU membership by bringing in fugitive war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic last month while entering into dialogue with Kosovo, Croatia`s progress will raise hopes of EU entry across the Balkans.
"These developments bring a new momentum to the European perspective of the Western Balkans, provided these countries continue on the path of reform," the 27 leaders said.
However, Serbia still needs to sort relations with breakaway Kosovo.
Macedonia needs to resolve a conflict with Greece over its name, Montenegro has to forge ahead on justice reform, and Albania and Bosnia are still struggling to overcome internal political divisions.
The government in Zagreb has touted huge financial benefits from membership, calculating that Croatia will be able to draw some EUR 3.5 billion (USD 5 billion) from EU structural funds.
Economic experts expect entry will also boost investors` optimism, pushing growth in the country of 4.4 million whose economy is still in recession.
But many ordinary Croats do not share the enthusiasm.
Polls still show 44.6 percent support EU membership, but the opponents, on 41.8 percent, are gaining ground.