Croatia finally joins the EU

By CBR Editor Brian Gallagher

1 July saw the accession of Croatia to the European Union. There are number of aspects to think about: benefits, what the EU expects and the EU’s view of Croatia as some kind of example to the ‘Western Balkans’. There will also be unexpected results of EU membership. Let us consider some of these issues.

Although EU membership been a long-term goal for Croatia, public reaction in Croatia has been bit muted. Although turnout for the referendum was low, the result was a yes for joining the EU. This probably reflects a lack of enthusiasm for the EU in terms its bureaucracy and so on but also a desire to join the European mainstream.

One benefit of joining the EU is that the prospect of membership can no longer be used against Croatia – such as Slovenia’s antics over border issues. There are other benefits such as structural funds and so on. However, in economic terms Croatia membership of the EU does present an opportunity.  It may get some more investment and more tourism. However, surely the best opportunity is for Croatian firms to increase their exports. They will need to put in the effort to do so – the rewards after all could be great.

The EU of course expects things from Croatia. Croatia will need to continue its efforts against corruption – efforts that the EU has recognised. However, as I have often said, whilst corruption is a problem in Croatia it certainly is one in the EU too – moreso in some places.  Recent headlines in the UK , Italy and the Czech Republic  – let alone the problems within EU structure themselves – attest to the problem throughout Europe. Nonetheless, that is no reason for complacency and quite apart from that issue there will be many other EU strictures Zagreb will need to keep to.

One common point from the EU – and within Croatia itself – is that joining the EU will somehow encourage other ex-Yugoslav states. This is not very likely as these countries have quite diverse issues that Zagreb has no real bearing on – Kosovo and Serbia relations for a start.

Is it likely that, for example, Serbia is going to be influenced by Croatia’s behaviour?  It certainly has not in the past. We do not seem to hear much about Slovenia being an example to these states to join – it joined back in 2004.  Why expect it from Croatian membership? Both Croatia and Slovenia have always looked west in a way the other ex- Yugoslav states have not. That is why they are now members. The others will join – or not – on their own merits and whether or not they or the EU wish it.

EU thinking seems like policy based on hope over experience, and Zagreb is going along with it very likely for diplomatic reasons.

It is possible that we will hear less of Croatia being connected with the former Yugoslavia over the next few years, as it integrates itself further into the EU. Could Croatia slowly come to be properly regarded as part of Central Europe rather than the ‘Western Balkans’?

Perhaps this is already happening. The phrase ‘Yugosphere‘,  once much touted by the Economist’s Tim Judah has not really caught on, and is now much less likely to. Of late, Tim Judah himself does not often mention it.  Indeed, in April he effectively said on the BBC website that Croatia is economically integrated with the EU  – not perhaps the impression he was giving when promoting his Yugosphere theory a few years back.

That being said, relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina will be interesting to watch, especially in regard to the Bosnian Croats. Will Zagreb be more assertive on their behalf? Or not?

What of the unexpected?

Most immediately, Croatia has already run into surprise trouble with the SDP led government passing a law a couple of days before the accession that would prevent the application of the European Arrest Warrant for crimes committed prior to 2002. This is widely seen as an attempt to frustrate a German arrest warrant for one Josip Perkovic. Perkovic is a former senior Yugoslav secret service official who is wanted by the German authorities in regard to the murder of Croatian emigrant Stjepan Djurekovic some 30 years ago.

This sudden new law has not gone down well, and even has been blamed for German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s late pulling out of attending the accession celebrations in Zagreb. Whilst Croatia’s EU partners will not be pleased about this law, there may be a domestic cost to the government too. As the SDP emerged from the old Communist party many voters will now wonder if the party have really changed or come to terms with the past.

However, there has also been some unexpected positive news. The notoriously Euro-sceptic United Kingdom, which notoriously helped delay Croatia join the EU it seems has softened towards Croatia. The British government’s pleasure at President Josipovic’s recent visit to London was clear, but a recent You Gov poll amongst the public also shows some positive feeling amongst the public. In a list of countries, only Iceland and Croatia elicited – on balance – positive views of being EU members. Iceland took a positive rating of +24 whilst Croatia took +4.  Serbia came next, but a bit behind with the score of -15.  Other countries such as Turkey and Albania did worse.

37% of Britons supported Croatian membership with 33% against – those in favour were ahead only slightly. However, given the negative public images of war, Eastern European immigration and corruption and so on in the UK, this is a positive  – and surprising – result indeed.

There will no doubt be other unforeseen matters that will emerge from Croatia’s EU membership – both positive and negative. It will be interesting to see what transpires.

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