open access

Abstract

The accession of Croatia to the European Union is yet another milestone  in  the  history  of  EU  enlargements. After seven enlargement  rounds  the  membership  has increased  from the  original six  founding  countries  to  twenty-eight Member States.  Many  claim, quite rightly, that the enlargement policy is the most successful of the EU’s foreign policy tools. Even those who bring this bold argument into doubt have to agree that, when contrasted with other external policies, and the European Neighbourhood Policy in particular, the overall balance sheet of the enlargement policy is positive. The accession of Croatia is symbolic in a number of ways. As argued in this article, it closes one big chapter in the history of EU enlargements but, at the same time, opens another. Croatia is – most likely – the last country to join the EU this decade. After a sometimes painful pre-accession process, it has proved to be a ‘success story’ of the stabilisation and asso-ciation process. As the European Commission claims, it is living proof that the raison d’être and mechanics of the policy employed vis-à-vis the  Western  Balkans  have  their  merits.  However,  a  quick  look  into the future proves that the next enlargements will be far more complicated affairs. The current list of candidates and potential candidates is a mix of a heavyweight (Turkey) and the Western Balkan countries, all struggling to meet the fundamental prerequisites for a democracy based on the rule of law. Failure to comply with the Copenhagen criteria, together with a dwindling appetite for further enlargement among some Member States, create a rather dangerous mix. This article argues that following recent enhancements to the pre-accession policy, further improvements are necessary to make future expansions of the European  Union  possible. If only  from  the  geopolitical  perspective, this is in the joint interest of the European Union, its Member States and the countries of the Western Balkans.