Croatia has begun the countdown to its entry into the European Union as the bloc's 28th member, with celebrations planned to mark the historic step despite worries over the parlous state of the economy.

On Monday, the nation will become only the second former Yugoslav republic to join the bloc, after Slovenia.

"July 1... opens up a completely new perspective, a new world for us," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told parliament on Saturday, denying Croatia would be a burden on the EU.

In a symbolic gesture to celebrate membership, Croatia will remove the "Customs" sign at a border crossing with Slovenia at midnight on Sunday.

At the same time, the "EU" sign will be erected at the land border with Serbia, another ex-Yugoslav republic with which the bloc agreed on Friday to open membership talks by January 2014.

The two events will be broadcast live in a Zagreb square, the main site for celebrations expected to be attended by more than 100 European dignitaries.

Heads of state from all six ex-Yugoslav republics will be among the guests, but the leaders of many EU member states including Britain, France and Germany will not be present.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited a full workload to excuse herself from the event, but both Croatian media and the opposition labelled her decision a "diplomatic slap".

On Sunday evening, 700 artists including singers, musicians and dancers will stage performances.

The EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", will be played, and then several dignitaries, notably European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, will address an expected crowd of thousands.

Source: AFP