Editor's note: We reprint this article as it perfectly captures the climate of debate that preceded Croatia's referendum on joining the EU. The vote, held January 22nd 2012, passed in favour of EU accession with 66.27%, but Adrian Lungu's journey to Zagreb shows the thoughts, concerns, anger and joy that were felt among many Croatian voters at that time. This article was originally published as "In or Out?" The Croatian case and the EU" on the 15th November 2011 as part of E&M's collaboration with the Körber Foundation on the Debating Europe project. It is reprinted here in full, but with additional pull quotes and section breaks.

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.

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.

Another EU flag burnt in Zagreb in March. The police pressed criminal charges against a 25-year-old.

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, 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.

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