Wednesday, 02 November 2011 01:52

"In or Out?" The Croatian case and the EU

Written by Adrian Lungu

When I first went to Croatia, nine years ago, I was struck by how many Croatian flags I saw in Zagreb. On my trip to the Croatian capital in October 2011, I was already expecting lots of chequered flags all over the place, as Croatians seem particularly patriotic. On my way from the airport, I counted 13 Croatian flags - five of them accompanied by the blue twelve starred flag of the European Union.

Photo: Adrian Lungu
EU and Croatian flags share protagonism on governmental buildings.

Croatia is not yet a member of the Union but has finished the lengthy negotiation process, during which it adapted its legislation and internal rules under 33 key chapters. In early December, under the first Polish presidency of the EU, Croatia is due to sign its Accession Treaty to the EU. After that, the Croatian Parliament is widely expected to call for a referendum in which Croatians would be able to decide whether they want their country to become the 28th member of the EU in July 2013 or not. But do Croatians really want to join the Union? Some EU flags fly on governmental buildings, but others burn in the hands of disaffected citizens.

Seeing EU flags in a non-EU country was not new to me. I had seen plenty of them in my own country, Romania, hanging from government buildings long before Romania's accession, in 2007. In Croatia's case, apparently it was former PM Ivo Sanader who gave an informal order to have all institutions display the blue flag. But on my last visit to Zagreb, for the first time I saw people resenting the presence of the EU flag on their official institutions. At Ban Jelačić square there is an EU flag, paired with a Croatian one, each on one side of the statue of the revolutionary leader of 1848, Ban Jelačić. The Ban (local ruler) holds a sword, like all the statues of European kings who fought their neighbours at some point in history. The blue flag is no older than six months, as it replaces one that was torn down in April, when protesters were infuriated by the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to condemn general Ante Gotovina to 24 years in prison. Gotovina is widely regarded as a hero by Croatian society, but he was condemned by the UN tribunal in Hague for "persecution, deportation, murder and inhumane acts" in the war that led to Croatia’s independence - a war that Croatians feel they did not provoke but had to defend themselves from.

Another EU flag burnt in Zagreb in March. The police pressed criminal charges against a 25-year-old who burnt the flag during an anti-government protest. The flags of the two biggest parties, both in power and opposition, were also burnt.


Ban Jelačić square

Ban Jelačić square, the heart of Zagreb, is crowded at just about any hour, with people crossing it on their way to work, people waiting for a blue tram or groups getting together before heading for a beer in one of the nearby pubs. Very few of them think about joining the EU or not, and they seem surprised when I approach the topic.

Photo: Adrian Lungu

Ban Jelačić square, the heart of Zagreb.

"For some things it will be good and for some not," Mario, a 28-year-old IT professional, explains. "The experience from the smaller countries that are inside the Union is not so good, and for us... it will eat us. We will lose our national identity and we will need to do whatever Europe is saying. But now it is almost like that already, so I think we could get better prosperity for ourselves. I haven't decided yet how to vote," he says.

Where he does think the EU is doing a good job is in terms of transparency - as Greece, for instance, can no longer hide its problems. "We [too] are near bankruptcy or already there but they are still hiding it. It will be better inside the European Union when all the dirty things come out and we will start from the beginning. But generally our country can do better with tourism and everything without the European Union, because they have laws that allow us to buy land in other countries allowing them to do the same. But we are too small and our land by the sea is too valuable. No one would go to Sweden and buy, but guys from Sweden will come and buy here. So I'm afraid we will sell everything." He, and others like him, do have a positive view of the freedom of movement brought by the EU, as they might find jobs abroad.

Vanja Majetić seems well informed. He has several newspapers that he discusses with his girlfriend on the top floor of a McDonald's. It turns out that he is a journalist and one of the papers on the table is the one he works for. "There is no education about the EU," he says with a tired evening smile, although "our media is on the EU's side. It's trying to educate us and is promoting the EU." He doesn’t think people pay attention to EU related issues, as many people lost their jobs and many work without salaries. Still, "many people think that when we enter the Union, everything will get better overnight."

Majetić's newspaper, Vjesnik, has an article about the report the European Commission has just issued the day before on the Western Balkans. "EC: Croatia is an example of the transformational power of the EU," reads the headline, reminding me that his newspaper was 'pro-government' and is therefore playing the pro-Union card. Croatia, Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland and, most recently, Montenegro, are the official candidates for EU accession. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania are considered "potential candidates" by Brussels. Croatia has the clearest accession perspective, as it could join ten years after first applying for membership. Iceland might follow, but there are lots of ifs in its case. The rest of the Western Balkans, with Macedonia and Montenegro in the forefront, regard Croatia as a road opener.

Majetić also tells me that the war left scars in Croatian minds and this makes me think of the right wing extremism and nationalist nostalgia. Gotovina's supporters tearing apart the EU flag earlier this year certainly felt betrayed by the international community – EU included – when the hero that defended them and brought their independence was punished.


Ante Martić works for the government, in the department for relations with NGOs, after a period of working in Brussels. I meet him in the pub of the 'Europa' cinema, a loud place full of young people, with a symbolic name to match Martić's favourable opinion about the EU. He is all in black and his head is shaved, just like those he so much disapproves of, the extreme right-wingers. "Yugoslavia tired us out. We are suspicious of unions now," he says, trying to illustrate the reasons behind the feelings of many of his compatriots. He thinks that besides the right wing extremists, who are not necessarily enlisted in a party, the biggest opposition to entering the EU comes from those "who like to do things half way and make up the grey economy." But as EU funds require lots of work to design projects and learning new skills and procedures, he says people need to learn how to make their lives better on their own. But not all of them are willing to learn: while up to 99% of the pre-accession funds for NGOs are used, only a quarter of those aimed at agriculture are absorbed. "We have to do things for ourselves. The EU will not solve our problems," he says, suggesting that not all Croatians are ready to become Union citizens. Martić adds that Croatians fear state bankruptcy because "we are doing the same as the Greeks but they have been doing it longer."  To confirm that, he quotes an old Yugoslav saying: "We have as many debts as Greece."

At the Student Centre, a place where students gather and can find a discounted meal, I meet four law students in their junior year. Two of them say they are going to vote against joining the EU and two will vote for accession. Jure, 19, tells me he will vote 'no' because there is not enough information on the EU. "And we are not that concerned about it, believe it or not. Maybe some are, but we, the students, really aren't." His colleague, Antonio, 20, believes it's better to be inside the Union than outside, alone. Yet, "we will always be outsiders because we are small."

The EU delegation

Apart from at the official institutions, EU flags are not that common in Zagreb. That's why you can easily recognise the EU delegation offices when you see them. There are no less than 10 EU flags outside the building. One of the ladies running the EU information centre tells me that about 20 people come there each day. About 10 of them are regulars and they come in to read the newspapers, use the internet and browse the information materials.

On one shelf I find the 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor, showing that the number of Croatians who see EU membership as something positive slowly but steadily decreased over the 2006-2010 period, from 35% to 25%. Everywhere in the region support for the EU is higher than in Croatia: 44% in Serbia, 60% in Macedonia, 73% in Montenegro 75% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 81% in Albania and 87% in Kosovo.

Photo: Adrian Lungu
Croatians think of their future, but they're not sure the EU is in it.

Another poll conducted by Eurobarometer, with data from the spring of 2011, found that "opinion on membership is polarised: support remains in the minority but has increased slightly since autumn 2010 (30%, +3 points), while the feeling that membership would be a ‘bad thing’ has also increased significantly (34%, +5 points)." An even stronger polarisation is found around the question whether Croatia would benefit from EU membership or not.

In the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, Director General for Support to EU Accession Process Zvonimir Frka-Petešić shows me another type of data, directly related to the referendum. The referendum will probably take place in early 2012, after being scheduled by the new Parliament, elected in December.

"We have three thirds: one says the EU is good, one says the EU is bad and the other one says the EU is neither good nor bad," says the director. But he adds that when only those who would vote are taken into consideration, the polls show a clear result: "58% would vote yes, 31% no and 11% are still undecided."

"I'm confident that the Croatian people will say yes because all the analysis, all the polls conducted in the last 5-6 years show the support," says Frka-Petešić. When I tell him that I've found opinions saying that accession is already a done deal and the referendum will only be a formality, he replies: "It's very important to pass the referendum, because if the Croatian people say no, we won't become the 28th member of the EU. It's clear."

The government had 50 video clips broadcast on Croatian TV, on the most frequently raised issues on a toll-free phone line which registered a quarter million calls. In the videos I recognise some of the concerns people have talked to me about in the streets of Zagreb. They mentioned the fact that the EU might not let them make their own brandy or roast their lamb the way they do it now. They also seemed worried about the quota system of the EU, in which every country is allowed to produce a certain quantity of olives, for example.

One of the clips also addresses the issue of losing hard-earned sovereignty. "Decisions at EU level will no longer be taken without Croatian participation and against Croatian interests," says the official clip as a response to the popular concern.

"Tu pripadamo"

"Tu pripadamo" is the slogan of the official campaign ("We belong" in English). But the next day at Ban Jelačić square, during a massive 'Occupy Wall Street' protest, I see a few people wearing t-shirts saying, "Tu propadamo", and the EU flag with the word "NE" circled by the stars. I find out it means: "Here we fall."

Photo: Adrian Lungu

Ivan Pernar at the protest.

One of them is a man in his thirties who doesn't want to give me his name, but who has very strong opinions: "I'm not European, I'm Croatian. In my documents it will never say that I'm European. It's only the start of wars."

Another man in the square wearing a blue t-shirt with the EU stars and the word NE in the middle is Ivan Pernar, 25, the president of the 2011-born political party "Alliance for Changes". He tells me he is against the EU because it is "advocating debt doctrine. In that model, money comes into circulation only as credit" and the borrower is never able to repay more than he borrowed from the bank. "And this model necessarily leads to credit crises." He talks without pausing, as if he has said the words many times before: "Everywhere in the EU you have a low growth rate, and high unemployment. The EU is a dungeon of people. It does not make people free. It's a centralised and non-democratic government."

Zrinka Milas, 41, is another person wearing the "NE" t-shirt, but she does not belong to any political party. She is opposing the EU because she is convinced you cannot transfer a part of a state's sovereignty. "Once you transfer a part of it, it's already gone," she says. Milas claims that in the Croatian parliament the majority of the parties are for the EU, whereas the majority of the citizens are against the EU, according to polls organised by small local TV stations and on the internet, revealing overwhelming majorities opposing the EU. But "they" never publish those surveys. She sees the EU accession as the occupation of every country and the resources of every country, a colonisation.

Borko, 25, is a sociology student: "I'm going to vote against the European Union because I'm generally against globalisation. We will lose more sovereignty. We will lose everything. We will not be able to decide on our own. They say we will, but since we are such a small country... the EU will benefit more than us. We are able to live without the EU, we are self-sufficient, but with this kind of politics we are fucked. We don't have to fight against the European Union, we have to fight against our politicians and if we succeed, we don't need the European Union to help us.”

Nikola, 25, and Marko, 21, are Political Science students. They say they came to the protest as they are against neoliberal politics. Unlike other participants, they belong to the Young European Federalists. Nikola thinks the EU is already helping: "For example, we have the fight against corruption and it helps." Marko says "there are so many pros and cons but in the end it's going to be better to join." But the decision of joining or not "is already made. It's decided in the higher level of politics, not by ordinary people. It's true that we'll have a referendum about it and who knows what's going to happen. Maybe Croatia is not ready to join the European Union, but in the end I think it's a good decision. Why should we stay outside? We are not a strong enough country to do it, like Norway or Switzerland."


Coming from Romania, where pro EU attitudes were almost an unquestioned assumption, without any parliamentary party declaring itself against the EU, with record euro-optimism both before and after accession, with people - young and old - from all walks of life embracing European integration, I found that opinions among Zagreb's youth concerning their future inside or outside the Union are very split. What's even more interesting is that there is no clear line between traditionalists and the young generation, as you can sometimes see in other countries. The split goes deep among students, young professionals, state employees and conspiracy theorists. They are polarised and yet very well mixed. And they probably mix very well because the EU does not really keep their attention. In times of economic recession, the Union does not seem to be a problem solver or even much of an inspiration. On the other hand it seems important enough for people to oppose it vigorously: you rarely see people burning EU flags elsewhere in this part of the world.

The next day I leave Zagreb's airport, with its Croatian and EU flags at the entrance, and think about the next time I'll be travelling to this country and about the borders I will have to cross, be they real or imaginary.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2011 14:51

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