EU-REHN/CROATIA

OCTOBER 11 2007 13:15h

Croatia on Course To Join EU, But No Date Yet-Rehn

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Rehn told the Croatian daily Jutarnji List in an interview that he was satisfied with progress in Zagreb`s membership talks.

Croatia is on course to become the European Union's 28th member, but its entry date will only be set when membership talks are nearly complete, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in remarks published on Thursday.

Rehn told the Croatian daily Jutarnji List in an interview that he was satisfied with progress in Zagreb's membership talks, which it opened together with Turkey two years ago.

Unlike Turkey, for which Rehn said "we knew it would not be a walk in the park", Croatia has opened 12 of a total of 35 chapters comprising the EU's legislation.

"I expect Croatia to become the 28th member state around the end of this decade, if it takes decisive steps in reforming its judiciary and economy," Rehn said. "The only surprise could be Iceland, if they soon apply for membership," he added.

But he said the EU was refraining from setting firm entry dates too early, after Romania and Bulgaria saw their entry date postponed by one year in 2006, due to slow reforms.

"This is a lesson we have learned. We are no longer setting dates until we see a country is ready to conclude accession talks by a certain date".

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, whose conservative HDZ party faces a tough challenge from rebounding Social Democrats at a general election next month, has said he wants Croatia to join in 2009, while analysts say 2010 or 2011 is more realistic.

Analysts and EU officials have also said the toughest reforms -- in the judiciary, public administration, state subsidies and the fight against corruption -- still lay ahead.

This will also be highlighted in the European Commission's progress report, due in early November.

"It will spell out all that still needs to be done in those areas, with lots of constructive criticism that should not be seen as negative," a Commission official in Zagreb told Reuters.

Croatia's stride might be further challenged if it goes ahead with a plan to enforce a protected ecology and fishing zone in the Adriatic next year -- a move opposed by Adriatic neighbours and EU members Italy and Slovenia, who demand that EU states remain exempted from the zone.