Croatia in the EU – a concerned celebration

5. June 2013
Vedran Horvat

Today, Croatia shares much with Spain and Greece – coping with a severe financial crisis and increased youth unemployment – but it also shares much with Hungary and Serbia, including strong nationalism, deeply rooted authoritarianism and significant Church influence. Apart from that, Croatia will be the first member country with recent post-war experience to enter a European political and economic family which, fortunately, has never been affected by war. Yet, and after all, Croatia is the next member country – a decision made at the culmination of an accession path spanning more than a decade. Last summer, officials in Brussels declared that the country’s homework had been completed, and the final ratifications took place this past May. Croatia is coming in, silently, but without the pompous celebration (for reaching this destination) that had been envisioned when the journey began.

EU membership remains a source of ambivalence even now, both in Croatia and in the other member states. Eurosceptics claim that EU membership will destroy the domestic economy, eliminate Croatian traditions, deregulate the labour market or bring more immigrants within ‘our’ borders. Those who voted against membership are usually louder. The winners – confident in their decision and in Croatia’s future in the EU – are waiting patiently for 1 July to arrive, although this is not to say that they do not have their own concerns about the future. At present, it is difficult for Euro-optimists in Croatia to advocate membership, as there are no clear and direct positive impacts of membership to be promoted without a second thought. Unlike the pre-accession situation in other Balkan countries, people in Croatia have been able to move and travel freely throughout the EU for a decade; for a decade, people have been paying interest to major European banks; for a decade, the country’s tourism industry has benefited from European visitors – and all this without EU membership. On the other hand, the country has not developed the capacity to make use of structural funds, its shipbuilding industry is in decline under pressure from the EC, the privatisation of its natural resources is planned, and labour markets in many EU member states will remain closed to Croatian workers – and all this with membership. For Euro-optimists, there are not too many arguments available in favour of the EU, so they have opted to be silent rather than defensive. When people see a lack of solidarity between North and South, when they see the Troika applying pressure on Greece or rising authoritarianism in Hungary, it is no longer sufficient to defend the EU as a community of values; a stronger and more compelling narrative about European unity is needed. As such a narrative has not yet taken shape at the national level (at the EU level there are Jürgen Habermas, Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit), the EU’s opponents seem to have the upper hand at present.

Winners and losers

It is no exaggeration to state that no other country had such a difficult, almost tragic trajectory to EU membership as Croatia’s. As the country approached full membership, the EU was in the midst of a deep political and economic crisis. The revival of nationalism and Europe-wide protests against the neo-liberal reformist agenda and financialisation from different angles cast doubt on the shape of the future European community.

Unlike the big bang in 2004 and the next wave in 2007, Croatia has faced not only ‘enlargement fatigue’ but also a severe financial crisis that has paralysed political integration in the EU. Parallel to this, Croatia has been coping with internal problems – prosecuting war crimes, fighting homophobia, reforming its judiciary – all parts of the necessary homework under the particularly demanding negotiation process designed for Croatia with much greater scrutiny than for previous countries in the wake of the EU’s experience with Bulgaria and Romania. The accession process was launched when the Social Democrat-led coalition under Prime Minister Ivica Račan was in power, but it was Ivo Sanader’s conservative HDZ government which really moved the process forward upon taking power in 2003. Sanader’s reconciliatory role vis-à-vis the Serbian minority and his prosecution of persons accused of war crimes and ethnic cleansing were apparently sufficient to demonstrate to Brussels that Croatia’s path to membership could be accelerated under his leadership. Accordingly, most of the negotiation process was conducted when conservatives were in power in Croatia, with the political configuration in the European Parliament and allies in the EPP also playing a significant and important role in speeding things along. Following Ivo Sanader’s abrupt resignation in 2009, Jadranka Kosor became prime minister. Despite making progress in resolving a bilateral dispute with Slovenia, however, Kosor lost the 2011 general election, and a Social Democrat-led government finalised Croatia’s accession during the past two years.1

Most striking in the course of Croatia’s accession was the fact that none of the governments made a serious effort to involve citizens in the process, which remained merely an exclusivist, elite-driven project. This first opportunity for the democratisation of Croatian society was lost at the very beginning. During the decade-long process, there were plenty of opportunities where governments failed to engage different social strata, interest groups, farmers, students and entrepreneurs in debate on the various repercussions of EU membership. Quite to the contrary, they ran a very hermetic, one-way campaign, allegedly informing citizens about the impacts of membership. Debates and discussions were deemed tantamount to slowing down the process or even challenging the very idea of EU membership, and for this reason they were avoided or merely simulated.2 Likewise, from beginning to end, the negotiation process was calibrated merely as an elite-driven process where citizens would be informed but would not take part. Governments never released their negotiation positions, and citizens were unable to become more deeply involved in any issue of negotiation.3 Debates were therefore substituted with so-called ‘normative stampedo’, with hundreds of laws and legal packages sent to parliament labelled ‘urgent’ to be adjusted into conformity with the acquis communautaire. Such normative optimism had the effect of convincing citizens that Croatia would implement the rule of law and become a modern European country once it gained membership. Citizens were pushed aside, while those representing power distanced themselves from any deliberative form of democracy, and instead established their position as an arbitrative role in deciding what could be discussed.

This resulted in the emergence of a clear dividing line in society over the decision to join the EU – between the winners and the losers of the accession question. There were many opportunities to reduce the number of losers. Although a contrasted picture provides only part of the answer, the winners are usually portrayed as those who are close to elitist, clientelistic networks of a party’s nomenclature (any party), while the losers are the ordinary citizens whose lives will be shaped from Brussels. Looking back into the past, one can state that all political parties agreed that EU membership was their common goal, from which Croatia (or they alone?) would benefit. At the same time, however, they failed to obtain the consent of the citizens or to explain how citizens’ lives would profit from membership. Thus, the consensus among the parties has actually blocked a broader debate that would have bolstered ownership of the EU membership process and enhanced its legitimacy. This was the second disillusionment – that coming closer to the EU does not necessarily mean more democracy.

Democratising potential – an opportunity lost

It is not the intention of this article to portray the political caste as primarily responsible for the lack of a deeper public discussion on EU membership. Demand for such a discussion was scant, and when it existed at all it was superficial or suffered from reductionism. Serious debates did take place in elite circles of politicians, diplomats, international organisations, academics and civil society representatives, but it was extremely difficult to transfer these to the broader public during the mid-2000s. Therefore, although some innovative ideas were implemented in order to step out of the relationship between the government and the European Commission (such as the National Parliamentary Body for Monitoring of Accession Negotiations), these debates still held a marginal position or were instrumentalised politically by the opposition to stay involved in the process. Involvement by civil society representatives, activists and experts was minimal, however, and was reduced to a decorative role at best. On the other hand, civil society did do great work on the internal level, generating pressure to change laws and conditions in order to prevent discrimination and violations of human rights – in order to actually prepare the country for EU membership. Occupied primarily with applying pressure on institutions not providing equity for all and violating human rights, the EU accession process was perceived as something that was not sufficiently relevant for people to become involved with, while many other more important issues remain unresolved.

One of the moments – although not precisely the decisive one – which motivated civil society to take on a more active role occurred in the mid-2000s when a visible change took place in the relationship between the European Commission and civil society organisations. While the Commission initially proved to be an ally of CSOs, overnight it became clear that it had joined the political parties’ consensus (and executive power), and that now CSOs were on the other side with their demands for more information, transparency and inclusion. This was one of the first alarms, but it was a few more years before the establishment of Platform 112, a coalition of NGOs which has taken on a watchdog role over EU negotiations in the very last phase (and symptomatically during the SDP government). This NGO coalition has become a very important entity which needs to be taken into account during the final phase of negotiations, and it has demonstrated that influence can still be exercised, even in the very last stage, and even with a severe delay in effectively holding government accountable.

Now, Platform 112 serves as a successful model for how other countries in the region can be significantly involved in the EU accession process and in a timely manner. Croatia’s lessons can certainly serve as a lighthouse for other Western Balkan countries aspiring to join the EU in order to design their accession processes in a more inclusive and democratic manner, involving citizens, movements and initiatives, and minimising the gap between losers and winners – combining confrontation with cooperation.

The author is the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation´s office in Croatia.


For more articles on current developments in Croatia and on Croatia's forthcoming accession to the EU, see:

DOSSIER: From homework to housework

DOSSIER: Spotlight on Croatia


1 Without going into a detailed review of the Croatian accession process and the institutional structure for negotiations with the EU, it is important to remember that the entire process has taken almost a full decade – from Croatia’s submission of its application for membership in February 2003, to the granting of candidacy status in June 2004 and the actual opening of negotiations in October 2005, until their conclusion in June 2011 followed by the signing of the Accession Treaty in December 2011 and the referendum held in January 2012, with the current course of ratifications in EU member states accompanied by the last phase of the EC’s monitoring of the fulfilment of Croatia’s remaining obligations in order to achieve full preparedness by 1 July 2013, which has been declared as the expected date of accession. The Greens/EFA, Discussion paper, ‘Transparency in retrospect: preliminary lessons from Croatia’s EU accession process’, Marina Škrabalo, GONG, 2012.

2 The key challenge here was the discrepancy between the stated political commitments to transparency and inclusiveness on the one hand, and the actual negotiation and policy-making practices on the other. These were driven by a sense of urgency and even fear that public disclosure of negotiation documents, public consultations on acquis-related legislation and extensive public debate might stifle the process, weaken Croatia’s position and create political resistance.


3 It is precisely the outreach to citizens on the part of the political and administrative elite which has turned out to be the weakest aspect of the accession process. The Greens/EFA, Discussion paper, ‘Transparency in retrospect: preliminary lessons from Croatia’s EU accession process’, Marina Škrabalo, GONG, 2012.