ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatia has no second thoughts about joining the European Union despite the continent's economic crisis, and it supports enlarging the bloc even further to help bring about reconciliation in the once-warring Balkans, the country's president said Friday.
Ivo Josipovic told The Associated Press in an interview that after 10 years of painful membership negotiations, Croatia "did not have the opportunity to choose the time" of its formal EU entry, which is set for Monday.
The EU is in deep financial turmoil and Croatia's own economy has been in recession for five consecutive years, so the excitement of becoming the 28th member of the bloc has dimmed, though street festivities are planned starting Sunday.
"We are aware that we are not going to be perfect from the first of July," Josipovic said. "But, together with the EU we have better opportunities to fight the economic crisis than by being alone."
Croatia, a nation of 4.2 million, sees the EU "primarily as a peace project, and then a common market and economy," the president added. "That's the reason we are supporting our neighbors as well to join the EU."
It was only two decades ago that Croatia was ravaged by a war that killed some 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless when minority Croatian Serbs rebelled against Croatia's proclamation of independence in 1991.
The Serb-led Yugoslav army came to their rescue by relentlessly shelling and destroying many Croatian towns and villages. The war in nearby Bosnia was even more brutal, killing around 100,000 people and leaving millions homeless.
Croatia is only the second of the six former Yugoslav states to join the EU, after Slovenia became a member in 2004.
Serbia is likely to start EU membership negotiations in January; Montenegro is probably the next in line after Croatia to join; Macedonia's bid has been blocked by Greece over a name dispute; and Bosnia is far from joining because of bickering among its Muslim, Croat and Serb leaders.
Josipovic said Croatia wants to help its Balkan neighbors "politically and technically" gain EU membership.
"Being together in the EU means that any further conflict is senseless," Josipovic said. "It would be definitely the end of the tensions in southeast Europe."
Some EU countries, including Germany, have been reluctant about immediate further enlargement of the EU, primarily because of the ongoing financial crisis. Iceland has dropped its EU bid, while Britain is considering holding a referendum on whether to stay in the club.
The pro-EU voices in Croatia note that joining the bloc means Croatians could find jobs in more prosperous EU countries, that their country could attract more foreign investment, and that the EU's leadership in Brussels could help keep widespread corruption and economic mismanagement in check.
But euro skeptics worry that already plunging living standards will further decline, with increased taxes that could result in rocketing prices. They also fear that the opening of the labor market will result in other EU citizens occupying their jobs.
The Croatian president said Croatia had come a long way, and that joining the EU would help it progress even more.
"Croatia was destroyed in the war, not only physically," Josipovic said. "There are some consequences of the war still, but our negotiations (with the EU) show that a society like Croatia can recover from war, can make friendships, can make good relations with neighbors and fulfill very hard requirements from the EU."
In a separate interview with the AP on Friday, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said he believed that his country was well on its way to joining the EU after Croatia. Djukanovic said integrating all the Balkan states into the EU and NATO is the only way to achieve stability.
"Our imperative is stability of the region, and that will happen when all the countries catch up with Montenegro ... and become stable on the road to the EU," Djukanovic said. "I believe that Montenegro can continue to be a leader of the Western Balkan countries on the way to the European Union."
Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro, contributed to this report.