It seems that on July 1, 2013, Croatia will become European Union’s (EU) 28th member-state after all – that is if EU still exists as we know it today. The referendum that determined Croatia’s future with the Union took place on the 22nd of January, 2012, and had an admittedly poor outcome of about 43.5%. This means that most of the eligible voters did not even bother to support or reject their country’s bit for accession into the EU. Of course, the EU welcomed the result of the referendum while Croatia’s Prime Minister thinks of it as a “historic decision”; but the question remains: if the EU is facing its deepest political and economic crisis yet and the ballot results were anything but indicative about what the Croatian public opinion wants, then why is everyone so happy about it?
Although there are some reasons for both the EU and Croatia to be happy about this development, it is a matter of subjectivity whether they could counterbalance the above mentioned negative factors. To unpack this problem we briefly look into the situation in Croatia and the EU.
Inside Croatia and EU
On the day of the referendum the Croatian public opinion was asked to answer, with a “Yes” or “No”, to the question “Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?”. Apart from the low outcome which we have already mentioned, about 66% of the voters said “Yes”, while about 33% voted against. The low outcome, coupled with the relatively small difference between the two opinions (given ballot results in previous referenda for EU accession), illustrate a rather dim picture of what is going on in Croatia.
Further, let us not forget the anti-EU protests that took place prior to the referendum. It is true that matters of national sovereignty are always subject of lively debate and always trigger difference of opinion among public opinion. Some Croats do indeed see an EU accession as giving up their independence for which they fought so hard and for so long. On the other hand it seems that the majority of those who voted “Yes” see the EU as a source of security and stability; qualities they have been longing for. But, what about the 56% of the eligible voters that did not vote? This part of public opinion appears to be indifferent towards its country’s EU accession process and this may be for two main reasons: 1) pessimism and loss of trust in politics in general, or EU politics in particular; and 2) mere indifference about anything political (like parts of society in every other country). However, this otherwise large percentage of public opinion is often the most easily shaped by current realities. It is no coincidence, for example, that there was such an abstention from voting at a time when EU is facing a systemic economic crisis. Moreover, it is important to remember that it is only a matter of time before Croatia enters the Euro-zone and replace its currency with the Euro – that is if the Euro still exists as EU/Euro-zone’s common currency. If the EU does not manage to come out of this crisis by the time Croatia enters the Euro-zone, Croatia could be well affected. This may not be for another few years (during which a lot could happen), but given the current situation the prospects look rather unfavorable.
For the European Union there are again pros and cons. To start with, every enlargement is costly for many reasons ranging from institutional adjustments and financial support to bureaucratic arrangements. Yet, in Croatia’s case the situation is very different and will be much less costly than, say, the last two enlargements (2004, 2007) which brought into the EU a total of 12 new countries. It is also very different from a situation like Turkey’s, which has a population of almost 80 million people whereas Croatia has a population of only about 4.5 million. From that perspective Croatia’s EU accession could help the economic crisis rather than exacerbate it; the prospects are still worse from the perspective of Croatia. In addition, Croatia’s accession to the EU will be another step towards fulfilling a long-pursued goal of the Western bloc, which is the democratic transition of Central and Eastern European post-Soviet countries by ultimately making them part of the European family, thus also preventing a war from breaking out, like in the 90s.
The most likely scenario is that all 27 EU member-states will ratify the accession treaty and Croatia will eventually enter the European bloc in 2013. From what we have briefly seen it is also evident that at low EU’s cost, Croatia’s accession might actually boost the economy. Although this is for the economists and time to decide, I would argue that given the systemic nature of the EU economic crisis, such a scenario is unlikely. However, at least in the short-term, the new political and economic interdependence that will be established between Croatia and the rest of the EU might improve the stability, development, and inter-state relations in the Balkans, although the rising political tensions that the economic crisis has created leave no scenario without flaws.
Essentially, there occurs that Croatia is the one of the two parties that, given the current economic and political situation of the EU, is faced with an uncertain future. If the economic crisis were to get worse then the uncertainty of the Croatian public opinion about its EU accession could grow even stronger, as the accession date comes nearer, and even lead to large scale social turmoil. Conclusively, it seems that the picture is very clear and simple, as we described it in the beginning: the future of the EU is uncertain and no one can guarantee its cohesion or the economic security of its current or future member-states; Croatia has not a clear indication as to what percentage really supports its accession to the EU while the signs of such a support so far have been relatively weak. So, the question, again, remains: why is everyone so happy about Croatia’s EU accession?
Zenonas Tziarras, TheGWPost, 26/01/2012