Walking around Trg Bana Jelačića, the main market place in Zagreb, one’s eyes are immediately caught by the presence of countless European Union flags: yellow stars on blue backgrounds float in the air alongside tricolour red and white draughtboard flags. Around the whole city hang billboards, posters, and fliers; reminders that Croatia has finally taken the most important step in its history since the declaration of independence. It has been quite a while since the spirit of the EU entered the country; with it finally becoming a member of the EU family on the 1st of July.
In times of economical and political turmoil within the EU, raising awareness on what this enlargement implies for Croatia and the EU itself is more than crucial – especially considering that this enlargement is the first one after the “big bang” of 2004 and 2007, and, probably, the last one, for a very long while.
Since it formally submitted its application for membership in 2003, Croatia has made a lot of efforts to satisfy the membership criteria, the conditional keys to entering the EU. The country has truly experienced the effects of progress in fields such as the fight against corruption, human rights and the protection of minorities. Croatia’s membership process has even been more monitored than that of Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007.
And yet, no blatant enthusiasm can be noted on part of the EU member states and institutions; better said, the EU is both welcoming Croatia, while remaining on guard. The arrival of a new (and quite peculiar) member state reminds everyone of the dangers emanating from the European integration process.
While the mainstream image of Croatia within Europeans’ minds consists of a wealthy country relying on its authentic beaches and clear sea, the state of the Croatian economy is undergoing serious economic issues, which are directly affecting its people. Croatia has suffered the consequences of the crisis with continued recession (6 per cent in 2009 and 1.8 per cent in 2012), a huge commercial deficit, and an unequal development rate among its regions. However, the country’s greatest blight lies in its persistent and massive unemployment (20.4 per cent in 2012), which continues to dishearten the youngest generations of ever being able to find a job. The EU is well aware that the integration of Croatia implies accepting and assuming the economic burden the country is carrying. The EU cannot afford to fail in this matter.
In accepting Croatia as its 28th member state, the EU's legitimacy and credibility is put at stake within a country where the risks of popular dissatisfaction are high. The requested sacrifices may appear disproportionate if the expected benefits of accession are not met; the Croatian agricultural field is both anxious and sceptical about the Common Agricultural Policy and a broader expansion of privatisation is feared in a context of high unemployment. In the Croatian case, the EU’s political credit could be compromised in the entire Balkan region.
Yet, once we abandon those fears, Croatia’s entrance to the EU appears as what it should actually represent for the European community: a reminder of the validity of the initial European project.
In the aftermath of the war, initiatives for the stabilisation and pacification of the Western Balkans were largely due to the EU’s activism, especially through the Stabilisation and Association Agreement of 2000. The EU’s role was to constantly push the Balkan region towards definitive resolution of its conflicts and the establishment of stable and democratic institutions.
European integration has sped up economic development within Croatia (between 1998 and 2008 the GDP per capita doubled), and the process will continue to broaden following the country’s accession. And yet there are still some doubts and concerns about this enlargement; especially among the Croats. The best illustration of the Croatian sentiment is reflected in the words of the Croatian president, Ivo Josipovi, who said: “It has been years since Croats have been talking about this better life awaiting them in the EU. But, now, they have turned into realistic people, quite conscious that the entrance to the EU will not bring a magic formula to economic recovery.”
The emphasis on “economic recovery” is not petty, as people’s main concern is indeed to be found within this field. Going through the Croatian media, one can already see reports on which countries Croats will be able to work without visa documents, including Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Finland, Latvia, Portugal and Sweden. Articles on the upcoming opportunities for students – the increase of mobility, the decrease in university fees, and the recognition of Croatian diplomas in other EU member states – are multiplying.
As a complement to the insight of Croats’ opinion on the EU membership, Ana Mihaljevic, a Croatian student (studying an MA double-degree at University College of London and the Jagiellonian University of Kraków) agreed to be interviewed on Croatia’s membership, providing us with an insightful and realistic perspective.
LANA RAVEL: What is your opinion of Croatia’s entrance to the EU?
ANA MIHALJEVIC: It was both unavoidable and positive, taking into consideration Croatia’s position, size and economic situation. Croatia should benefit from EU funds in the agricultural field, investments through the opening of the market and the ability to decrease food prices.
Do you believe that the Croatian people will truly benefit from the membership?
If anyone is to benefit from membership, it is the younger generation, at least in the long run, thanks to the opening of physical, but also mental, borders. It will entail the proliferation of opportunities that could possibly bring economical prosperity, which is one of the greatest priorities.
Why are Croats sceptical towards the EU? Is it to do with the country’s history or the EU’s current affairs?
I would not speak of a scepticism – which in fact is more reminiscent of marginal nationalistic groups – but rather of an apathy towards the EU, which is the result of the bad situation in Croatia and the “integration fatigue” our country has gone through. As for the second question, the attitude of those marginal groups towards the EU is more the phobia of another federation as Yugoslavia was; the phobia of another federation that could marginalise Croatia. They fear an integration where Croatia would not hold a prominent role, and indeed, Croatia will not hold such a role because of our economic power and size. On the other hand, apathy can be considered a wide phenomenon in the country, which stems from a continuous mental crisis among the Croats, who do not truly believe in the changes and gains that are to be brought by EU membership.
While in the 2000s, when the discourse on the EU emerged with a new government, people believed in the positive effects of the EU. Croatia never had the same acute enthusiasm for EU membership as the countries of Central European had; the concept of returning to Europe never existed within Croatia as we did not see the Soviet Union as a significant other. Furthermore, Croatian identity is not running away from the Western Balkans as the latter has turned into South-East Europe, where Croatia has a part to play, notably in the regional integration as a promoter for its neighbours, just like Poland does for Ukraine.
And finally, what can Croatia bring to the EU?
Croatia will be a bridge for the rest of the region. Croatia is willing to hold this part, in a political sense, and it will be its biggest part. Generally, it will provide some freshness within the EU, and give the impression that something is still going on, amidst all the stagnation.
Lana Ravel is an intern at New Eastern Europe. She received her bachelor degree from a preparatory school at Dijon, France. She is currently studying her MA in European Studies within the Sciences Po Strasbourg-Centre for European Studies (Kraków) Double Degree.