BRUSSELS European Union governments said on Monday it was too early to decide whether Croatia is ready to join the EU, but accession talks with the Balkan candidate should be finalised in the coming months at the latest.
Croatia hopes to convince the EU it can wrap up negotiations next month, in time to join the 27-member bloc in 2013. But some EU capitals want more proof its anti-corruption reforms have gone far enough to combat pervasive abuse.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London awaited an EU executive report on the issue, expected in the coming weeks.
"We're strong supporters of Croatian membership of the EU. But it's also important of course that we go through all the necessary procedures," Hague told reporters in Brussels.
A senior British official praised a proposal by France that the EU should monitor Croatian anti-corruption efforts after accession talks are finalised, and before Zagreb joins.
"We think it's a constructive way forward," he said, adding that the details of any such monitoring plan were still needed.
Foreign ministers will hold preliminary talks on Monday on whether to finalise accession talks and set an entry date.
Croatia says it is doing all it can to reform its judciary and ensure graft is prosecuted.
"We wait for the final result (of EU discussions) without nervousness and with a lot of self-confidence," Croat foreign minister Gordan Jandrokovic said in Brussels.
EU states are wary about sounding too lax about justice reforms, having been stung by the accession experience of Romania and Bulgaria, whose anti-corruption efforts dwindled significantly after the two Balkan states joined the EU in 2007.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindlegger said an end of EU accession talks was in sight for Croatia.
"They have taken a lot of steps forward so I think we should end negotiations very soon and start the ratification process," he said, adding that Vienna was reluctant to agree to any monitoring of anti-corruption progress.
Some EU governments oppose any monitoring of reform progress after accession because of concerns that setting up such a mechanism may suggest a candidate was not fully ready to join.
Italy's Franco Frattini was more optimistic.
"Croatia is ready. It is within reach for Croatia to close (talks) before the end of the Hungarian presidency," he said. "The idea that Croatia is ready is gaining ground (in the EU)."
Hungary, which shares a border with Croatia, has pushed strongly to wrap up talks with Zagreb by the end of its six-month presidency of the EU in June.
Croatia still faces other obstacles on its path towards the EU, and an important signal about its prospects could come in early June, when a United Nations prosecutor issues his regular report on Croatia's cooperation with a war crimes tribunal investigating former Yugoslavia. A negative assessment could brake progress.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)