EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Croatia can become the EU's 28th member states at the earliest in 2013, if it closes entry talks in June and if the ratification process is not delayed by the Netherlands and Slovenia, the MEP in charge of the dossier told this website.
"If everything goes very well, it could be 2013. All relevant people are working very hard to finalise negotiations in June," Austrian Socialist MEP Hannes Swoboda said in a phone interview with EUobserver on Thursday (27 January).
Talks are likely to be particularly tense in the coming weeks as they concern privatisations and corruption - the last and most difficult of the 35 areas covered in the negotiations with the EU.
Once accession talks are finalised and the European Parliament has given its blessing on the Accession Treaty, Croatia will have to wait at least a year until all 27 member states ratify the document.
"Croatia should however join in 2014 at latest, if it is to participate in the EU elections," the Austrian MEP said, suggesting that member states should not drag out the process for too long.
Enlargement politicking aside, Mr Swoboda stressed that even if accession talks are concluded in June, the government in Zagreb will not be "off the hook," as member states will look "very carefully" at how reforms and anti-corruption cases are being carried out in the next years pending ratification of the Accession Treaty.
With the Dutch government lacking a majority on the issue - the anti-immigrant Geert Wilders party is against Croatia's accession - progress may prove tricky, Mr Swoboda said. Slovenia, another EU state which blocked its neighbour's talks for almost a year due to a border dispute, may also raise objections.
He said it is unlikely that any safeguard clauses or special monitoring mechanisms will be put in place for Croatia, as with Bulgaria and Romania when they joined the EU in 2007: "That's why we are very serious about corruption, we don't want to repeat the experience of a premature membership and backsliding in reforms after joining the club."
Regarding allegations that former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader used black money to lobby EU institutions for a speedy accession of his country, Mr Swoboda said he had "toned down" language in his report on Croatia regarding calls for a fully-fledged investigation by the EU anti-fraud office (Olaf).
Three MEPs last week tried to put a separate paragraph on the issue in Mr Swoboda's report, but the amendment was voted down on Wednesday in the foreign affairs committee.
"I reduced its importance because we don't know. We just read something in the press. We should no blow it out of proportions. If lobbyists have been paid, regardless where the money came from - that is not evil, that is what they do. It would be a problem if money was given to civil servants in the EU commission," Mr Swoboda explained.
According to Croatian media, a former party treasurer, Mladen Barisic, told the Prosecutor's Office that the former premier, arrested in Austria last month and facing extradition on charges of corruption, illegally collected money from firms and parties to "lobby Brussels."
MEPs in the end agreed to call upon Olaf to "co-operate closely with the Croatian authorities in order to shed light on the potential consequences of generating secondary corruption within EU institutions."
A spokesman for the EU body meanwhile said that "Olaf is not investigating the matter," but added that they are "taking seriously" any information on alleged bribes taken by EU officials.
"Olaf is co-operating with the competent national authorities in Croatia ... both on accession negotiations and monitoring of the implementation of the Croat Anti-Fraud Strategy 2010-2012 on the protection of EU's financial interests," Olaf spokesman Johan Wullt told this website.