Dobrodošli na Hrvatska/A warm EU welcome to Croatia

It took six years of negotiations, but Croatia’s entry into the European Union is now officially a formality.

In a mad dash to the finish line, the Hungarian presidency managed to squeeze in one last mini-summit to consecrate the deal before the clock runs out on their six-month stint at the EU Council’s helm Thursday evening.

Now comes the behind-the-scenes work of translating that political agreement into an accession treaty which can be signed and ratified by the existing 27 EU members – and the Croats, of course. The drafting and translating into 23 languages should be done by the end of the year; the actual accession date is set for 1 July 2013.

The celebratory champagne will have a slightly bitter taste for Croatia and its Hungarian backers, however. National leaders at last week’s EU summit agreed a strict monitoring regime to ensure Zagreb doesn’t renege on the promises it made during the accession talks.

National capitals rather liked being able to wield the promise of EU accession to prod Croatia towards reforms, and want to make sure they don’t lose their power as soon as the treaty is signed.

The Dutch in particular have been pushing for a monitoring system “with teeth”, which in practice means the ability to delay Croatia’s 2013 accession date, or shelve it altogether. The biggest dossier, as always, is the area around justice and home affairs, which includes the fight against corruption as well as cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

How a delay would be agreed isn’t explicitly mentioned in the final agreement, but the Croatians “will have heard the message loud and clear that they can’t drop the ball”, one diplomat says.

It’s a fudged agreement, but it’s an agreement nonetheless. To give credit to the Hungarian presidency, few if any thought the dossier would be anywhere near completion by the end of their stint. It will partly make up for the lack of progress on Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen passport-free travel area, another priority that they had to abandon after it ran into huge political resistance.

It’s worth flagging a couple of potholes that could still derail the Croatian accession juggernaut.

One is that Croatia’s pro-EU political establishment has to win a referendum on membership. That will be held after the formal invitation to join is extended later this year. Informed observers say this is probably an easy pass.

Second is that the accession treaty needs to be ratified by 27 national parliaments, some of whom could use the occasion to make a populist anti-EU point.

All the more because the treaty will be bundled with a few housekeeping points that could stir some passions.

Many of these points are unfinished business from the Lisbon treaty, the last update to the EU’s rules which came into force in 2009. Ireland and the Czech Republic both have “protocols” to Lisbon, giving them exemptions from EU law around such sensitive issues as abortion or wartime behaviour. Granted to them to facilitate Lisbon’s entry into force, those now need to be approved by all 27 legislatures and the European parliament – the most likely troublemaker in this instance.

More contentiously, a portion of the eurozone bail-out mechanism will also have to pass 27 parliamentary votes (remember that German insistence for treaty change?). Exactly what that will be will depend on the final treaty language. Some of the European Stability Mechanism will be up for vote, though not all of it.

In other words, there’s a good chance someone will try to turn the Croatian accession treaty into a parliamentary referendum on eurozone bail-outs.

Watch out for early signs of trouble, and how the incoming Polish presidency attempts to deal with them.