Later that day, several of Croatia's top leaders spoke to the broadcasters of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service about the news from Brussels and the road ahead.
President Stipe Mesic said that "membership in the European Union is the most important strategic goal of the Republic of Croatia...[and of] all of us, all citizens regardless of their political allegiance. The [EU's decision] is clearly recognition of all that we have achieved so far in order to make ourselves acceptable to a united Europe."
But the president stressed that there is still much to do, adding that "what we have done so far...was not always easy" because some people did not understand what was at stake and others did not want to understand. "What we have before us will not be easier than what we have already done," Mesic noted.
Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was particularly happy because his Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) had managed to convince the EU in less than six months that it was indeed a reformed party and not the narrowly nationalistic one led for a decade by the late President Franjo Tudjman (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). Sanader told RFE/RL that "if we speak in the language of the stock market, then [Croatia's] stocks rose appreciably today. Croatia received its [recognition] as a stable country, a country that has a stable democracy and a stable market economy. This, in turn, will strengthen our economy. At the same time, I think that this was a big success for my government."
Zlatko Tomcic, whose Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) supports the government in the parliament, said that it is not important whether Croatia joins the EU in 2007, 2008, or 2009. He stressed that the country will not only become part of a huge market but will also join with those countries with which it truly shares common values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
"What we have before us will not be easier than what we have already done." -- President Mesic
Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat Miomir Zuzul noted that the membership negotiations might last a long time, or at least as long as it takes to find the right compromises. "It is not in the interest of either the EU or the European Commission to talk for 10 years because that would be expensive" and a waste of time, he added. But once the talks begin, Croatia's goal should not be to obtain membership as quickly as possible but to do so on the best terms it can get in keeping with its own interests.
Zuzul's predecessor as foreign minister, Tonino Picula, stressed that Croatia has a tough time ahead of it because it has to deal with an expanded EU of 25 members, including its sometimes problematic neighbors, Italy and Slovenia. Picula added that Rome and Ljubljana can be expected to defend their own national interests while presenting their cases in "European" terms. Croatian diplomacy will require skill and perseverance to succeed, he concluded.