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Croatia enters final sprint in EU membership talks

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(BRUSSELS) - Croatia took a big step towards joining the European Union on Wednesday as the two sides opened the final chapter in the former communist country's membership negotiations.

Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic said his country could sign the EU accession treaty in the first quarter of 2011, and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said Croatia could then become the bloc's 28th member by 2012.

"Croatia is running its final 100 metres towards EU membership," Jandrokovic told reporters in Brussels after talks with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele.

The two sides have reached agreement on 20 of the 35 chapters that must be negotiated for EU membership.

Thirteen chapters are still under discussion, while two others are mere formalities that will automatically close at the end of the accession negotiations.

In Zagreb Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor warned that the last phase of EU talks would be "really difficult and demanding" but stressed she believed they would be concluded by the end of the year.

In that scenario Zagreb could be ready to become join the EU by 2012.

"I believe that within the next six months we will reach a goal that we have set almost two decades ago, to conclude (membership) talks and enter EU," she said in a reference to Croatia's proclamation of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

The last three chapters that were opened on Wednesday are related to competition, justice and fundamental rights, and foreign and defence policy.

"We have taken an irreversible step on the path toward the accession of Croatia in the European Union," said Moratinos, whose country's holds the EU rotating presidency until Wednesday at midnight, when Belgium takes over.

EU member Slovenia had blocked the opening of the defence chapter over a border dispute with Croatia.

But the obstacle was removed earlier in June after Slovenians voted in a referendum in favour of resolving the row through international arbitration.

Ljubljana and Zagreb have been squabbling since the break up of Yugoslavia nearly two decades ago over 13 square kilometres (five square miles) of largely uninhabited land and a wedge of territorial water in and around Piran Bay.

Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003 and the negotiations began in October 2005.

The discussions on the justice chapter are the trickiest hurdle remaining.

They will depend on the conclusions of report on Croatia's level of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In February, Kosor said her country would step up efforts to cooperate with the ICTY, key for its bid to conclude EU entry talks by the end of the year.

Two months later Croatian President Ivo Josipovic made an unprecedented move, expressing before the Bosnian parliament his "regrets" for the role his country had played in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.

Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic to have joined the EU so far.

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