EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Divisions exist between EU member states over the timing of Croatia's accession to the bloc, with some capitals pushing for a new monitoring mechanism to ensure Zagreb follows through with pledged reforms.
EU foreign ministers discussed the issue in Brussels on Monday evening (23 May), with France leading a group of states who favour a system of additional checks between the end of accession negotiations and eventual EU membership, a period which can last between one to two years.
"We are for the quick conclusion of negotiations, but also for an effective control that the commitments are respected," French Foreign Ministers Alain Juppe told reporters.
Croatia has currently concluded 30 of the 35 policy chapters that aspiring EU members must negotiate, but problems remain in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption and the processing of war crimes relating to the 1990s war in the Balkans.
Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International issued a warning last week ahead of the foreign ministers' meeting, indicating its "concern that a clear political will to fight corruption in certain key areas is still lacking."
A group of EU states including France, the Netherlands and the UK are keen not to repeat past mistakes, with Romanian and Bulgarian reform efforts perceived as grinding to a halt after the two countries joined the EU in 2007.
Any monitoring system for Croatia is likely to involve a system of quarterly reports, with bad scores allowing EU governments, after a majority vote, to potentially postpone Croatia's membership for a year and slow the transfer of EU funds.
"It is a constructive way forward," a senior British official said, reports The Telegraph. "It is better to have a monitoring mechanism between the close of negotiations than after the ribbon is cut."
For its part, Croatia wants to finish EU accession negotiations this June, a date which coincides with the 20th anniversary of the country's independence.
Neighbouring state and current holders of the EU's rotating presidency, Hungary, have repeatedly supported this view, with Italy also indicating its approval on Monday.
"Croatia is ready," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on arriving at the meeting. "My opinion is that it is within reach, Croatia closing all the remaining chapters before the end of the Hungarian presidency [in June]," he said, adding that an accession treaty could then be signed as early as this autumn.
France appears to favour a slower approach however, with diplomats pointing to national politics as a factor behind this.
Centre-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to face a strong challenge in presidential elections next year from the leader for the far-right anti-immigration National Front party, Marine Le Pen.
"France would prefer it to end in July, when everybody's at the beach, rather than the end of June because this way it wouldn't be noticed as much," an EU official told AFP.