BRUSSELS -- Croatia has edged closer to EU accession by closing "chapters" on regional policy and agriculture in its negotiations with Brussels.
Each of the chapters responds to a specific policy area in which Croatia must harmonize its rules with EU regulations to gain membership. Once agreement is reached, the chapter is closed.
With only four chapters left to close, the country hopes to finish negotiations by the end of June this year, even if tricky issues in the fields of judicial affairs and fundamental rights remain to be solved.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said the talks could be wrapped up by the end of his country's EU presidency.
"The presidency shares the goal, the objective of Croatia to conclude negotiations by the end of June," Martonyi said. "This is a very ambitious but achievable target."
Martonyi's Croatian counterpart, Gordan Jandrokovic, echoed that assessment. "We are well aware of how demanding our goal is but we have confidence that it is achievable in the same time," he said.
'Now For The Hard Part'
Martonyi underlined the significance of closing the chapters on agricultural and regional policy, considering that these two areas make up nearly two-thirds of the EU budget.
The remaining chapters, which include fisheries, competition policy, budgetary issues, and judicial affairs, can prove difficult.
It is in the areas relating to the judiciary and fundamental rights that many expect Croatia to struggle the most and that ultimately might delay the conclusion of the negotiations.
Earlier this year, the European Commission highlighted shortcomings in judicial reform and the fight against corruption and demanded reforms such as an independent judiciary, transparent financing of political parties, and reforms of the public administration.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele praised the efforts of Zagreb in reforming the judiciary but declined to speculate on a timetable.
"We have made, a couple of times, very clear that the issue of timing is very much in the hands of our Croatian partners," Fuele said.
Croatia's Second Thoughts
The final stretch of the negotiations comes at the time when Croatian support for EU membership is at an all-time low, with only 23 percent supporting accession according to a recent poll.
The poll was conducted after the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague sentenced two former Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, to long prison terms for war crimes over a 1995 campaign to drive Serbian rebels from Croatia. The ruling prompted an outcry in Croatia.
Foreign Minister Jandrokovic said his government did not agree with "some findings of the court," but he said Croatia would continue to cooperate with the tribunal.
"Croatia has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with The Hague tribunal and that we as a country which respects of rule law will respect the decision of the court," Jandrokovic said.
Croatia is expected to hold a referendum on EU accession as soon as negotiations are over.
The ratification process, by the parliaments of all 27 EU member states, will take around two years if no controversy arises. This means that Croatia might become the 28th EU member state by 2013 or 2014.