|Croatia is set to become the EU's newest member after its accession was approved in Brussels [Reuters]
Croatia has been approved to become the newest member of the European Union, offering hope to other nations from the former Yugoslavia seeking to join the economic and political bloc.
EU leaders gave the go-ahead for Croatia at a meeting in Brussels on Friday, following six years of preparations marred by slow democratic reforms in Zagreb and the EU's reluctance to expand.
Croatia, which is expected to join the EU in 2013, will be the first new admission since Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007.
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 the two-day summit of EU heads of government.
The former Yugoslav state of 4.4 million people should be able to wrap up accession negotiations next week, but the country was told that it must continue to fight widespread corruption with "vigour".
The recommendation marks a turnaround for Croatia, which struggled for years to convince the EU's 27 governments that its judiciary reforms would produce genuine results and prove it had recognised its role in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
"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.
Croatia started membership talks in 2005 and will become the second former Yugoslav nation to join, following Slovenia, the richest country within the former Yugoslavia and a member since 2004.
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.
The success of Croatia could now pave the way to membership for other Balkan countries.
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all at various stages of the accession process.
Furthest along that road is Montenegro, which gained formal candidate status in December. It is expected to join in the next round of enlargement in 2015 or 2016. Other candidate countries are Turkey and Iceland.