Croatia will become a European Union member in two years, officials said Friday, making it the first new country to join the bloc since 2007 and offering hope to other nations from the former Yugoslavia seeking to join.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called the decision historic.
"I hope everything will be ready to welcome Croatia as the 28th member of the EU the first of July 2013," Barroso said at the end of a two-day summit of EU heads of government in Brussels.
The integration of the western Balkans into the union has been slowed in recent years by the EU's preoccupation with its own institutional reforms and with the current debt crisis.
The bloc also has been affected by "enlargement fatigue" after accepting 10 new members in 2004 and two more, Bulgaria and Romania, in 2007 _ most of them former communist nations in eastern and central Europe.
"Croatia is finally at the end of a long road of negotiations (with the EU), 20 years after it achieved independence," said Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who attended the meeting.
The success of Croatia may now pave the way toward membership for other countries that used to be part of what was once Yugoslavia before its post-communism break-up.
"This future accession of Croatia brings new momentum to the European vocation of the countries in the Western Balkans," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said.
Croatia, which started membership talks in 2005, will become the second former Yugoslav nation to join, following Slovenia. Although it has completed the negotiations, Croatia will have to wait until 2013 before formally becoming a member because the parliaments of all 27 EU states must ratify its accession treaty.
Other west Balkans states _ Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia _ are all in various stages of the accession process. Leading the way is tiny Montenegro, which gained formal candidate status in December. It is expected to join in the next round of enlargement in 2015 or 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the decision on Croatia was taken without hesitation.
"There are no reservations, as we had with Bulgaria and Romania," she said.
The leaders also welcomed the arrest in Serbia of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, saying it showed that Serbia had taken a new step toward EU membership. Accession talks could start next spring.
Mladic's status was the largest obstacle Serbia faced in achieving closer cooperation with the EU. After his arrest and extradition to the war crimes tribunal earlier this month, President Boris Tadic said the nation would now focus on becoming a free-market democracy where international business can thrive.
Each candidate nation must successfully negotiate 35 negotiating "chapters" _ areas in which they must enact EU rules and legislation _ before they can be cleared for membership. Most chapters deal with economic issues linked to the bloc's complex set of internal market rules, which form the basis of EU economic policies, but others cover areas such as human rights, the independence of the judiciary and anti-corruption measures.
Don Melvin contributed to this report.