Croatia EU
A woman holds the EU and Croatian flags during the celebration of the accession of Croatia to the European Union in Zagreb on June 30, 2013. Reuters

Celebrations broke out across Croatia on Sunday night to mark the country’s entry into the European Union, two decades after winning independence from Yugoslavia, even as critics remained skeptical of the benefits of such a merger to the recession-stricken nation and the struggling bloc.

Thousands of Croatians flooded Ban Jelacic square, in the capital, Zagreb, waving blue-and-gold EU flags and the Croatian national flag, while bells rang out from Zagreb Cathedral, and two men rappelled down from a nearby building carrying the flag of the EU, news reports said.

“This will change the life of this nation for good. I welcome you wholeheartedly,” Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, told the crowd.

Addressing the accession ceremony, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said: “We don't want Europe to stop at our borders, it must be open to other countries.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not attend the ceremony, which saw 15 heads of state and 13 prime ministers, as well as Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Croatia, which has a population of 4.4 million and attracts 10 million tourists each year, is in the fifth year of recession and faces record unemployment of 21 percent, Reuters reported. Its accession to become the 28th member of the EU comes at a time when the bloc is struggling to overcome its economic woes, which have led to internal divisions and led to questions about the union's very existence.

However, many Croatians remain skeptical of opportunities that the EU accession promises.

“When you hear that some countries want to leave the EU, that they have no money, you can't be optimistic,” Agata Miletic, a mother of seven who attended the ceremony, told Reuters.

The Croatian government's budget deficit exceeds EU limits, and its annual economic output per capita is 61 percent of the EU average, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"There are people who are not so enthusiastic about our accession. Our economy is not splendid, we have a lot of people unemployed and they are afraid workers from other Eastern European countries now will come here," Lada Damiani, a former teacher told the Journal.

Croatia is one of seven countries that were formed following the disintegration of Yugoslavia after a decade of war in the 1990s, which killed more than 120,000 people, including 20,000 Croatians.

And, it is only the second among the seven nations to join the EU, after Slovenia, which joined the bloc in 2004, while other former Yugoslav republics -- Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo -- are years away from achieving EU memberships.