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Croatia Votes 2 to 1 to Join European Union

From The New York Times By STEPHEN CASTLE

BRUSSELS — Croats voted by a two-to-one margin on Sunday to join the European Union, signaling that the bloc retains its allure despite the debt crisis engulfing the euro currency that many of its members use.

The state referendum commission said that with almost all the votes counted, about 66 percent in Croatia supported membership, while 33 percent were opposed and 1 percent of the ballots were invalid. The commission put the turnout at about 44 percent of eligible voters.

Once seen as a sure route to prosperity, membership in the union has been tarnished lately by the bloc’s struggle to come to grips with debt crises in several of the 17 member nations that use the euro. Even so, nearly all leading politicians and members of the Croatian Parliament came out in support of a “yes” vote in the referendum.

If Croatia is admitted to the European Union as scheduled on July 1, 2013, it would be obliged to adopt the euro as well, though not immediately — that would not occur until the nation of 4.5 million people could meet the economic criteria for joining. The Croatian prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, has said that that would not happen before 2015 or 2016.

Because of its legacy of nationalist politics, Croatia was not included in the last two waves of union expansion, in 2004 and 2007. Of the states that, with Croatia, formerly made up Yugoslavia, only Slovenia has been admitted so far, in 2004.

The European Union did not agree to begin membership talks with Croatia until after the Croatian intelligence service helped track down a former general in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Ante Gotovina, who was eventually arrested in Spain. The United Nations tribunal in The Hague convicted him of war crimes

“This is a big day for Croatia, and 2013 will be a turning point in our history,” President Ivo Josipovic said after voting, Reuters reported.

In a joint statement, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, called the outcome “good news for Croatia, good news for the region and good news for Europe.”

Opponents of membership contended that the country would surrender independence that it only recently won, and that Croatian businesses and farms will be undercut and unable to compete when barriers to competitors from other member nations are removed.

Through seven years of negotiations with the union, Croatia had to meet tougher criteria than previous applicants, particularly regarding its judicial system, because of worries about corruption and other problems that arose after Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007. A former prime minister of Croatia, Ivo Sanader, is being tried now on corruption allegations.

Croatia’s membership treaty must still be ratified by the parliaments of the 27 existing members. Once that is done, Croatia is likely to be the last new nation to join for many years. Iceland and Turkey are candidates, but talks with Turkey are largely stalled and public support for membership in Iceland is far from assured.