Croatia-EU: Questions Remain

While some see the sunny side of Europe, others see pure propaganda

News | Barbara Matejcic | February 2012

A popular TV series cuts to an ad: A young Croatian family in a car, meandering through the idyllic Tuscan landscape. At a crossroads, they ask two carabinieri for directions. When the police officers realise where the lost travellers are from, one of  them starts gushing about how the Croatian prosciutto is better than the Italian – he should know, he spends his summer holidays in Croatia! – and sets off into an argument with his colleague, who thinks this cannot possibly be true.

This is not an advertisement for Croatian tourism, nor for Croatian prosciutto. It was part of the campaign to inform Croatian citizens about the European Union (EU) ahead of a referendum on their country’s accession to the club. The video ends with a message saying that the EU cherishes the traditions of all its members; this will be the same for Croatia, once it joins this family of nations.

When the referendum came, on Sunday 22 Jan., 66% backed Croatia joining, while 33% were against. As a result, provided that all 27 existing EU states now ratify the deal, Croatia will become the Union’s 28th member in July 2013.

Yet the turnout for Croatia’s referendum was just 44% – remarkably low for a decision of such consequence. The government’s yes-campaign, then, was met with little enthusiasm. The question was why.

Closed Doors

While some Croatians’ idea of the EU is not far removed from the simple verities of the government’s campaign, others viewed it as pure propaganda. "Joining the EU was promoted as a guarantee that all our problems will be solved, without us having to do anything once we join," says Zlatan Krajina, a professor of political science at the University of Zagreb. "We were promised unearned progress, or otherwise threatened with staying in the under-developed Balkans or returning to Yugoslavia."

Vedran Horvat, head of Croatia office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Green think tank, agrees. "There was no willingness to show citizens how their lives would change without using rough stereotypes." Moreover, "the fact that the EU sailed into a real storm in the meantime did not help the citizens of a new member country."

But not only the current government – a centre-left coalition, lead by the Social Democrat Zoran Milanović, that gained power in December – faces accusations of communicating poorly. So does the former conservative government under Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor that negotiated Croatia’s accession.

"While Slovenian negotiators coming back from Brussels gave statements to the press while they were still at the airport, Croatian negotiations were closed to the public for the entire six years. Last summer, some complex legal documents were released, but no interpretation or discussion ensued," says Jelena Berkovic from GONG, a civil society organisation promoting democratic participation in Croatia.

Economic worries

Croatia’s politicians almost unanimously support their country’s accession to the EU. But they have so far failed to engage properly with people’s anxieties about the impending membership.

As much as two thirds of the public believes that joining the EU will result in a lower standard of living, according to a recent survey carried out by the University of Zagreb. A majority fears that both Croatian agriculture and industry will collapse. Only a third of the respondents thinks that the benefits of joining will outweigh potential losses.

"There is a prevailing impression in Croatia that the EU is a destination reserved only for the chosen ones, and that everyone else will be losers in the accession process," says Horvat.

Left or right, and little in-between

As a result, opposition to EU membership has grown in both left-wing and right-wing camps, says TV journalist Ivana Dragicevic Velickovic. "Those on the left criticise neoliberal capitalism, the position of workers, issues of public resources, privatisation and the internationalisation of Croatian companies, as well as the crisis of the eurozone, especially with the example of Greece," Velickovic sums up. "From the right come slogans about the loss of national sovereignty and the selling off of Croatia."

Jelena Milos, a student in Zagreb, voted against Croatia’s accession. Although politicians promise that students will benefit from the EU – highlighting the ease of studying abroad, and the resulting job opportunities – Milos has few illusions. "Sure, the borders will open, but the borders have proved to be much friendlier

to banks and corporations than they have to people," she ventures. "Even if we can cross the border, that wouldn't help us much to get a job in Spain, where the unemployment rate has risen above 22%, or study in the UK, where students have been protesting against the introduction of sky-high tuition fees."

Milos puts deteriorating prospects for young people down to the privatisation of public institutions and assets: "I'm opposed to [the EU’s] profit-driven neoliberal politics that subjects every aspect of society to the market… instead of a social Europe, we have seen the EU driven exclusively by the interests of capital."

Yet Horvat feels the opponents’ claims are overblown, often wrongly blaming the EU for Croatia’s existing problems. The public assets they claim will be lost by joining the EU, "have already been lost in both legal and illegal privatisation," he says.

Horvat advocates an active stance. Rather than fearing foreign dominance, Croatians should welcome the chance to shape the EU at large: "In the EU, Croatia will have the opportunity to be heard at the same table with both large and small member countries, and try to build a more just and solidarity-driven Europe, which could be the only way out of the current situation," he says.

Or, as one Croatian politician deftly summed it all up: "So far we have been on the menu, from now on we will sit at the table."

But for the Croatian public the question remains: Who will really be making the decisions at the table?

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