By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders gave the go-ahead on Friday for Croatia to join the EU, after six years of preparations marred by slow democratic reforms in Zagreb and the EU's reluctance to expand.
The former Yugoslav state of 4.4 million people should be able to wrap up accession negotiations next week, they said at a summit in Brussels, but warned the Zagreb government that it has to continue to fight widespread corruption with "vigor."
The recommendation marks a turnaround for Croatia, which struggled for years to convince the EU's 27 governments that its judiciary reforms will produce genuine results and prove it has recognized its role in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
However, its efforts will face more EU scrutiny in the coming months, and its hopes of joining the EU in July 2013 could be jeopardized if reform slip-ups persuade some of the EU's national parliaments to delay ratifying the accession treaty.
"Monitoring up to accession of these reform efforts will give the necessary assurance to Croatia and current member states," EU leaders said in a draft summit statement.
Several EU governments, led by Britain and the Netherlands, pushed for strict monitoring of Croatia during the ratification process and had insisted that the completion of talks remains open-ended.
But others wanted a more clear message. Many EU politicians are hopeful that rewarding Croatia for a last-minute reform push would persuade other governments in the western Balkans that the EU is willing to accept new members if they are ready.
EU enlargement is likely to remain on the backburner in the coming years, with voters around the continent wary of its cost at a time of economic austerity, but policymakers are eager to unlock democratic reforms in the Balkans.
Referring to Croatia's accession progress, the EU leaders said in the draft: "These developments bring a new momentum to the European perspective of the western Balkans, provided these countries continue on the path of reform."
One reason behind Croatia's leap toward accession in recent months, EU diplomats say, was the arrest of former prime minister Ivo Sanader, who had been sought on charge of abuse of power.
Croatia also got a push from the Hungarian government, which lobbied strongly to wrap up negotiations during its six-month presidency of the EU that ends next week.
Hungary and Croatia have shared a joint history for centuries, since Croatia was part of the Hungarian kingdom. Budapest's first freely elected government after the fall of communism actively supported Croatia's efforts to secede from Yugoslavia.
Croatia, the richest of EU hopefuls in the Balkans and which relies heavily on tourism, is hoping that accession will bolster its appeal to foreign funds at a time when Europe's financial woes have slashed direct investment in the region.
"We have worked hard for six years and we deserve this," Croatia's state secretary for European integration, Andrej Plenkovic, told Reuters in an interview.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rex Merrifield)