Croatians divided over EU accession

Zagreb, Croatia – As Croatia prepares for its accession to the European Union on Monday, many in the capital say they are hopeful the move will revive a moribund economy, but others aren’t optimistic ordinary citizens will benefit.

Croatia’s capital recently hosted a volunteer week to encourage people to get involved with groups that assist those in need.

In Strossmayer Park, a band in colourful traditional dress belted out Croatian songs, cheered on by a crowd of about 200 onlookers. Along the park’s well-maintained walkways were wooden stalls belonging to a raft of volunteer-based organisations, from associations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers, to photography classes for the elderly.

Strossmayer Park, near Zagreb’s centre, is named in honour of Josip Juraj Strossmayer. A prominent 19th century Roman bishop, Strossmayer firmly believed that all the southern Slav nations in Europe should be unified – a dream eventually realised after his death with the creation of Yugoslavia.

I am glad we are joining the European Union, not because I think it is very great, but because I don’t think we have any other options. It would be worse without the European Union.Tajana Stamenkovic, psychology student

In the 1990s, Yugoslavia disintegrated in violence and ethnic conflict, leading to thedeaths of more than 100,000 people, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. The wars also led the the country’s break-up. Now Croatia is set to join once again in a political union, this time not with its Slavic neighbours but its European cousins.

On Monday Croatia becomes the European Union’s 28th member, after two-thirds of Croatians voted “yes” in a referendum on joining the bloc. Among those in Strossmayer Park, opinion was divided on what life in the EU might bring for the Balkan state.

“I am glad we are joining the European Union, not because I think it is very great, but because I don’t think we have any other options. It would be worse without the European Union,” said psychology student Tajana Stamenkovic, a volunteer at an association dedicated to helping young people with behavioural problems.

Young people, many of them jobless graduates for whom volunteering is the only way to gain experience, man most of the stands in Strossmayer Park. In Croatia, unemployment is about 18 percent, according to data released by Eurostat in April. Among the under-25s, more than half are without a job.

Unemployment woes

“You have people with academic degrees, with masters degrees, and they can’t find any work,” said another volunteer, Vanja Pavlovic. “If you want to work you have to volunteer for no money, and after you finish your year of volunteering you have have no job for at least five to 10 years. It’s horrible.”

Like many young Croatians, Pavlovic wants to leave the country to find work abroad.

Dejan Jovic, a lecturer in politics at Zagreb University, described unemployment among the young as “the biggest problem” facing Croatia.

Jovic said he envisages some initial economic challenges as Croatia leaves the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) – a trade bloc with various non-EU states, including former Yugoslav republics Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

But he said he believes membership in the European Union will ultimately lead to increased investment, economic growth, and eventually jobs.

A Croatian war veteran holds a sign with pictures of former generals Ante Gotovina (L) and Mladen Markac [AFP]

“In the long term, we hope to be beneficiaries of the new situation, in which it should be easier to become part of a large European market. The main Croatian companies have already prepared themselves for leaving CEFTA. So we expect some initial set-backs in terms of export to these countries, but on the whole the impact will be positive,”Jovic said.

Europe ‘slowing down’

Not everyone is as hopeful about Croatia’s future in the European Union. Mihelin Ninoslav is a former drug addict now volunteering at an outreach programme for people with substance abuse issues. He said he sees little value in Croatian EU membership.

“I am a sceptic,” said Ninoslav. “Young people want a better life in Europe, but Europe is slowing down. It’s not like a couple of years ago. Before I was in favour [of Europe], but not now.”

The ongoing economic crisis in the eurozone is a concern, as is a fear that Croatia, which only became independent in 1991, could lose some of its identity. “It is not for me, Croatia is Croatia, it is not Europe,” said Ninoslav.

But professor Jovic said worries about the country losing its cultural identity are misplaced. “This has not happened to others, and thus it will not to Croatia either. These fears are part of conservative view on what makes ‘national identity’. Basically, this is fear for tradition.”

Croatian support for joining the EU remains reasonably strong. An opinion poll conducted this month found 61 percent in favour of membership. Most people “accept that membership in EU is good for Croatia, since it will mean more freedom, more security, and the end of a complicated transition from the 1990s”, Jovic said.

But he also noted it remains to be seen how the transition will benefit people here. “Research on Euro scepticism in Croatia shows that they are not sure whether they will personally live better or worse, since there is uncertainty over prices and increased competition for jobs. This is the biggest fear some people have.”

Healing the past?

European Union membership could also provide an opportunity to heal some of the festering wounds from the chaos that tore Yugoslavia apart two decades ago. Relations with neighbouring Serbia, with whom Croatia fought a brutal war, remain strained. Ethnic Serbs make up about four percent of Croatia’s population of 4.4 million.

“Croatian accession to the EU will improve the position of Serbs,” said Nataša Kandi, a human rights activist and the founder of the Humanitarian Law Center, an organisation campaigning for reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia.

Minorities will have more mechanisms to exercise their rights, the Serbs to return the property, and Roma will have more access to the public good.Nataša Kandi, founder of the Humanitarian Law Center

The European Union’s legal frameworks will make it easier for the 200,000 ethnic Serbs who were forced to leave their homes in Croatia during the conflict to reclaim property, said Kandi. It will also improve the situation for other minorities who regularly face discrimination, such as the Roma.

“Minorities will have more mechanisms to exercise their rights, the Serbs to return the property, and Roma will have more access to the public good,” said Kandi.

Joining the European Union has been portrayed as a pivotal moment in Croatia’s post-Yugoslav history marking the country’s transition from war and ethnic strife to peace and stability.

But not everyone agrees with this line of thinking. Sreko Horvat is a Croatian philosopher and the director of the Subversive Forum, an annual anti-globalisation, pro-peace conference held in May in Zagreb.

“From this perspective, Croatia is just a part of the Balkans, the mythical space where neighbours just can’t wait to kill and rape each other, and by joining the EU, Croatia will become a ‘stabilised’ and ‘civilised’ country,” said Horvat.

“The problem is, of course, that the EU is already ‘balkanised’. It is enough to look at Switzerland where the mosques are banned, or to France and its protests against gay marriage. Look at Greece where the public TV was just shut down, or Ireland where you even have drones surveilling protesters against the G8. These are the problems Croatia will face soon as well – not to mention even higher unemployment.”

Horvat also expressed concern about a deepening of Croatia’s already-advanced privatisation process. But he said there could be some unintended benefits with greater European integration.

“Maybe the only good thing with Croatia’s entrance to the EU is precisely the possibility of more cooperation between different progressive movements all around Europe, because we are all in this together,” said Horvat.

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera.

On eve of EU accession, Croatia cautiously optimistic

During the recent local elections in Zagreb, almost every candidate was keen to stress their pro-European Union credentials. In the city’s Cvetni Trg, or Flower Square, some councilors handed out bumper stickers with the EU’s starry logo to passing shoppers. Others appeared on platforms festooned with Croatian and European flags.

Croatia is not yet a member of the European Union but it soon will be. On Monday, the Balkan state of just over 4 million people will become the 28th country to join the EU, and only the second from the former Yugoslavia – Slovenia joined in 2008.

croatia“I am looking forward to joining the European Union. As a young person, I personally think it is the best option for Croatia,” says Danijel Bicanic, a recent psychology graduate working in Zagreb.

Most Croatians agree: Last year, two-thirds voted “yes” to joining the European Union, and a majority still support that decision according to recent surveys.

Europe’s ongoing economic and political difficulties do raise some concerns in Croatia – which is suffering its own economic woes. But many believe that membership in the EU will help reinvigorate Croatia’s economy and tackle its corruption.

“I am not really concerned with the problems that are now in the European Union, because there are also so many internal national problems. I am more concentrated on those,” says Mr. Bicanic.

Tight times in Croatia

Croatia certainly has its fair share of local problems. The economy, which has scarcely grown since 2008, is back in recession and is expected to shrink by 1.5 percent of GDP this year. In March, unemployment stood at 21.6 percent.

Croatian politicians have been keen to stress the benefits of being part of the world’s largest trading bloc, but are playing down expectations that EU membership will bring an overnight reversal in the country’s fortunes.

“We are very aware that the European Union will not solve all our problems,” says Andrea Zlatar-Violic, Croatia’s minister for culture. “But it is very useful for us not to be one closed society, one closed state but to be open and without frontiers.”

Although any expansion of the EU in the Balkans is unlikely in the foreseeable future, Ms. Zlatar-Violic believes Croatia has an important role to play as a standard bearer for the region in Brussels.

“We really don’t want to be a wall between the Balkans and the European Union. We want to be completely open,” she says, “to organize a new Balkan space, a new public space, for all our experiences.”

New markets

EU accession will have a significant effect on the Croatian economy, says Vuk Vukovic, lecturer in political economy at Zagreb School of Economics and Management.

Clustering, where groups of inter-related industries are encouraged to locate close together and collaborative, has been a popular economic strategy in Croatia. But Dr. Vukovic says that businesses that have not adapted to entry into the European Union by forming clusters”will experience great difficulties and most likely go under.”

“On the other hand,” he adds, “there is a possibility that the new increased competition from the EU will encourage new innovative solutions among Croatian entrepreneurs and thus contribute to more wealth creation.”

A number of EU members – including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands – have placed restrictions on Croats traveling to work. Despite this, many in Croatia are worried about rising emigration, especially among young people, in the wake of the increased freedom of movement that EU membership will bring.

Vukovic believes that such a rise in emigration might actually help Croatia’s labor market – at least in the short term. Young people leaving for jobs in the rest of the EU would reduce unemployment in Croatia and lead to an increase in remittances sent back home. However, with an aging and diminishing population, Croatia can ill afford to lose its best and brightest for good.

Still, it might not come to this, says Vukovic. “The poor labor market situation across Europe may after all keep the people at bay.”

Arguably Croatia’s greatest asset is its 1,100-mile Adriatic coastline, peppered with spectacular islands. Hopes are high that EU membership will be a boon for the country’s tourism sector, although there are fears that increased numbers of foreign visitors will put prices – and particularly land values – beyond the reach of most locals.

‘A chance to move on’

Opposition to EU membership has risen since the eurozone crisis, but most Croatians still support joining the EU. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that according to recent surveys, some 60 percent of the population are in favor of entry, though only 49 percent believe that their country will benefit.

Some Croatians cite the EU’s role in strengthening transparency in Croatia and tackling the corruption that flourished after independence.

In 2012, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was convicted of accepting bribes. The onetime head of Croatian Democratic Union is still on trial facing further corruption charges. “Without outside pressure, the people feel this would have never been revealed,” says Vukovic.

Back on the streets of Zagreb, Bicanic typifies the cautious optimism that characterizes many Croatians’ attitudes toward EU membership. “Europe is our chance to move on” from the past, he says.

“It’s a chance to develop our society, to meet new people. I am really trying to look forward and not look back, because there is no sense to doing that.”

This piece originally appeared on the Christian Science Monitor.