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EU's Juncker backs Croatia joining open-border Schengen zone

ZAGREB (Reuters) - The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, gave a boost on Friday to Croatia’s hopes of joining the EU’s “open-border” Schengen zone and also the waiting room for adopting the euro currency.

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Croatia joined the EU in 2013 but to join the passport-free Schengen area it must convince Brussels that it is able to effectively manage the bloc’s external border, a particularly sensitive issue since Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis.

“I would like the European Commission to give a recommendation before the end of our term in office for Croatia’s Schengen zone accession,” Juncker told reporters after talks with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

The current Commission’s mandate expires in October. Once it gives a recommendation, European Union member states usually approve it, meaning that Croatia could join the Schengen area as early as next year.

Plenkovic said he expected the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to confirm in the autumn that Croatia meets all the technical criteria for joining Schengen.

Schengen membership brings closer political and economic integration with the rest of the EU, removing delays to the movement of people and goods.

The Schengen zone comprises 22 of the EU’s 28 member states as well as four non-EU members - Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. As well as Croatia, the other EU members not in Schengen are Britain, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus.

Juncker also said on Friday the Commission would support Croatia’s bid to join the European Exchange Mechanism (ERM-2), a two-year waiting room for euro membership, when a country must prove the stability of its currency.

“I believe Croatia is ready to join the ERM-2”, Juncker said. Its bid will be assessed by the European Central Bank.

Croatia hopes to join both the Schengen area and the ERM-2 in 2020.

Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Gareth Jones