Tens of thousands of Croatians cheered the country's entry into the European Union, almost two decades after the former Yugoslav republic's bloody independence war ended.

"Welcome to the European Union," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Croatian on Sunday to 20,000 people gathered in the Zagreb square hosting the main celebration.

Moments later, the EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", marked Croatia's entry into the bloc as its 28th member and fireworks lit up the sky above the capital.

Croatia is 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.

Heads of state from all six ex-Yugoslav republics were among the guests, but the leaders of many EU member states including Britain, France and Germany were 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".

Source: AFP