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Croatia votes in key referendum on EU membership

Reuters/ Davor Kovacevic

Croatia votes on Sunday in a nationwide referendum on joining the European Union, a vote that political leaders see as key for the future of the Balkan country 20 years after independence. Ahead of the vote, surveys showed around 60 per cent of Croatians back entry into the European Union, paving the way for the former Yugoslav republic to formally join the bloc in 2013.

President Ivo Josipovic has described the vote as "one of the most important decisions in Croatia's history".

Croatia's leaders say that entering the bloc has been a strategic goal since Zagreb won its hard-fought independence following the 1991-95 war with rebel Serbs and will confirm a break from the volatile Balkans region.

The importance of EU membership is one of the few issues on which all major Croatian political parties agree.

Of the six former Yugoslav republics Slovenia is the only EU member, although Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia all want to join.

In a surprise move late Saturday former general Ante Gotovina, whose flight from the UN tribunal hampered Croatia's EU bid, urged citizens to cast a 'yes' vote.

Gotovina, still seen as a national hero by many, is held in the prison of The Hague-based court that sentenced him to 24 years. His conviction in 2011 sparked a surge of anti-European sentiment in Croatia.

The current economic crisis within the bloc has further eroded EU support.

Apart from clearing the referendum in Croatia, the treaty will also have to be ratified by all current member states of the EU.

Croatian politicians have repeatedly warned that EU membership would not automatically resolve all economic woes but stress it would give the country new opportunities.

Key dates in enlargement of the European Union
  • January 1973: Britain, Denmark and Ireland become members of the European Economic Community, EC, joining founding members Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
  • January 1981: Greece joins.January 1986: Spain and Portugal become members.
  • April 1987: Turkey formally applies to join the EC.
  • November 1993: The Treaty of Maastricht comes into force, transforming the EC into the European Union.
  • January 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden become members of the EU.
  • May 1, 2004: Ten new countries join the EU - Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
  • October 2005: Turkey and Croatia start EU membership talks.
  • January, 2007: Bulgaria and Romania join.
  • June 2011: Iceland begins membership talks.
  • December 9, 2011: Croatia signs an EU accession treaty.