1. 10 years ago, Croatia was the last country to join the EU – how has the country advanced on catching up with EU since then?
Croatia has successfully integrated into the EU, as evidenced by its recent accession to the Schengen Area and the Eurozone simultaneously this year. The country's accelerated trade with the EU, continuous economic growth, and significant reduction in unemployment rate since 2013 (from around 17% in 2013 to 7% in 2022) helped to narrow the gap in economic performance between Croatia and other EU member states and further demonstrates the positive effects of EU membership.
However, it is important to note that joining the EU should not be seen as a cure-all for all internal challenges faced by candidate or acceding member states. Working on democratic reforms, strengthening the rule of law, and improving internal governance are key factors for the success of all EU member states, and these efforts must be undertaken internally. The same applies to economic growth—while full access to the EU's single market offers significant potential for increased welfare, it is ultimately up to the country itself to fully reap the benefits of the full integration into the EU’s single market.
In this regard, Croatia serves as a success story, but continuous work in these areas is necessary to sustain and build upon this success.
2. During most of the last decade the EU was rather hesitant to further expand – has this approach changed?
The EU's lack of a clear vision for its neighbourhood and enlargement policies had negative consequences, such as the stagnation of the enlargement process with Western Balkan countries and the loss of allies in the Eastern Neighbourhood, such as Armenia and Belarus, along with the absence of a comprehensive agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU after years of negotiations.
However, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine compelled the EU to reassess its geopolitical role and enlargement policy. The applications for EU membership from Ukraine, followed by Moldova and Georgia, have revitalized the process at an unprecedented speed, something that was previously unimaginable. The Trio's swift progress in terms of their accession prospects offers an opportunity for the EU to reconsider and reform its enlargement policy, which is currently not functioning properly, as seen with the stalled enlargement process in the Western Balkans. Therefore, the accelerated advancement of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia underscores the need for the EU to rethink and improve its enlargement policy, making it a functioning and efficient process. One potential approach for such transformation could be adopting the Staged Accession process proposed in the CEPS study.
3. As of July our ILO Office for Central and Eastern Europe will also serve Georgia – how can we best support Georgia concerning its plans to become a EU member focusing on world of work issues which is our core mandate?
Georgia currently faces a challenging task of fulfilling the 12 priorities set by the European Commission as a condition for receiving candidacy. While the Georgian population shows unwavering support for their European choice (85% of Georgians support joining the EU), the reforms will take time, and in this regard, the help of international organizations will be greatly needed. The ILO, in particular, by addressing social and labour policies, will contribute significantly to the ongoing and necessary reforms in these areas. It's important to note that Georgia's social and labour policies are not fully meeting the targets set by the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA), highlighting the need for further reforms in these areas. Public polls indicate that poverty and unemployment remain the primary concerns for the majority (58%) of population, and Georgia cannot move closer to the EU without narrowing the gap in economic development and implementing better social and labour policies. Our latest study reveals that while progress has been made in adopting legislation, the implementation still poses challenges. This is where the ILO can make valuable contributions by sharing best practices and providing essential consultations, leveraging its presence in the country.