Is there a pragmatic reason for Croatians to vote ‘yes’ to the European Union?

Sunday sees the EU referendum in Croatia. Although opinions polls suggest a majority in favour of joining, there is still considerable euro-scepticism in Croatia, as reflected in recent reports in the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times.  Certainly at CBR we rarely come across any Croat who has a good word for the EU. However, there is a pragmatic reason for Croatia to join the EU that may well be on the minds of those voting yes: membership is a way of moving away from the Balkan/ex-Yugoslav mess that some would like Croatia to be part of.

There are many valid arguments that Euro-sceptics in Croatia are using. Firstly, there is the Eurozone crisis – what benefit is there in joining that, let alone possibly helping pay for bail-outs?

Further, there are historical grievances. In 1991, the EU were none too keen on recognising Croatia and Slovenia, and preferred to deal with Slobodan Milosevic. Germany had to use its influence to get Croatia recognised – which it was, but only after Vukovar had fallen.

Even giving Croatia candidate status came with initial strings. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement was a thinly veiled attempt to re-create some form of Balkan Federation, requiring various agreements with ex-Yugoslav states, minus Slovenia plus Albania. Reality intervened with events such as conflict in Macedonia and the assassination of Zoran Djindic, which effectively derailed the policy.

The Gotovina case is something that Croats rightly were annoyed with the EU about – the EU had delayed Croatia’s accession over the issue. It turned out he wasn’t in Croatia at all, contrary to claims that he was. Further, the EU were then not helpful in handing over documents to his defence team.

Certainly Croatia will have no say in the major policies in the EU – it is disingenuous to say otherwise. Germany is in charge at the moment – not unreasonably given its expected to pay up to save the Eurozone. Although it must be said that German dominance in the EU is obviously not to liking of many in say, the UK, but fortunately for Croatia, Germany is a friend and will not likely do anything to damage the country – although its interest will always come first.

Joining the failing Euro currency is not in Croatia’s interest, and regardless of any commitments to join it should be avoided.

There are plenty more arguments against Croatia joining the EU, and need not be repeated here.

However, despite all these very valid issues there is one good, pragmatic reason to join. Historically, the idea of joining the EU was to get out of the ex-Yugoslav ‘region’ and the Balkans and join with it natural partners such as Italy, Germany and Austria and so on. There are still many pressure on Croatia to be involved in ‘regional cooperation’, the ‘Balkans’, ‘the region’, ‘Yugosphere’ etc. Those pressures would lessen – if not just yet completely go away – with the reality of Croatia being in the EU.   This is probably in the minds of many Croats who are going to vote ‘yes’, and indeed some homeland veterans associations are supporting entry for this reason.

Those worried about the authoritarian mentality of the EU – which recently forced government changes in Italy and Greece – should consider that the EU is clearly in trouble and could yet change into something far looser in a few years time.

Joining the EU, even if it is falling apart, at least puts Croatia into the European political mainstream, rather than being regarded as part of the impoverished and unstable Balkans – an image problem that could cost investment and tourism.  Incidentally, Zagreb needs to carefully consider that issue when it talks of regional cooperation – do they really want to be wrongly associated with problems such as the violence in North Kosovo?

Joining the EU would certainly help place Croatia back to where culturally, economically and historically it already belongs –in Europe and not in the ‘Balkans’.

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