EU welcomes Croatia's 'historic moment' on eve of entry

Croatia's Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic was warmly welcomed into the European Union fold by the bloc's 27 heads of state and government Friday, 48 hours before becoming the 28th EU state.

"It is truly a historic moment for Croatia," said EU president Herman Van Rompuy to a round of applause for the new kid on the EU block, who was presented with an autographed photo of his new colleagues on the second and final day of a summit in Brussels.

"You've always been European. You are now a full member of our European Union."

"Your country has worked hard to achieve" EU membership, Van Rompuy said. "This means new opportunities but also new responsibilities. This means a common future."

Saying Croatia's Monday's accession would be the seventh time the EU has ushered in new members in its 60 years of existence, Van Rompuy said that this "reminds all of us around this table of Europe's fundamental purpose: living together in peace, living together in prosperity."

The EU is poised to set a date later Friday for Serbia to begin accession talks and Milanovic said "we will do everything and anything to help and assist" Belgrade in its bid to bring its legislation in line with EU standards -- the condition to joining.

"We think that the process should start as soon as possible, last reasonably long but not too long and have the whole process wrapped up," Milanovic added.

"It turns out time and again that life is a journey and not a destination. And it's the bridge that matters not a goal.

"This bridge has been quite long for us," he said, referring to the country's 10-year efforts to join the European club.

Croatia will be the first new member of the club since Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 but only the second member after Slovenia of the former Yugoslavia since its bloody breakup in the 1990s.

More than 100 European dignitaries -- among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Van Rompuy -- will fly into Zagreb to join top Croatian officials and thousands of citizens attending celebrations at the capital's main square.

Symbolically, at midnight on Sunday, the "Customs" sign will be removed at a border crossing with Slovenia.

At the same time, the "EU" sign will be put up on the land border with Serbia, the former Yugoslav republic struggling to get a date to start membership negotiations with the bloc.