Despite the current challenging economic times and the alleged enlargement fatigue, on Monday, July 1st 2013 Croatia became the 28th EU member state. Further Western Balkans countries, such as Montenegro, the Former Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, are waiting to join, while Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo hope to gain official status as candidate countries soon.
Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003. In June 2004 it was granted official EU candidate status, and in October 2005 the negotiation process started. Between 2004 and 2005 the high levels of public enthusiasm in Croatia towards EU integration decreased and opposition to it increased markedly, while the EU itself experienced a slowdown with the double rejection of the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands.
Figure 1. Public support for EU integration in Croatia (2000-2011)
Lower levels of public support are to be expected after the opening of the negotiation process. The post-communist countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 showed similar patterns of attitudes towards the EU. As Figures 2 and 3 illustrate, levels of opposition towards EU integration increased after 1998 in the Czech Republic, where public support has never been high. The same happened in Poland where positive attitudes towards EU integration were high until 1997, when the EU opened the integration process.
Figure 2. Image of the EU in the Czech Republic (1993-2003)
Figure 3. Image of the EU in Poland (1992-2003)
In Croatia, the costs of the integration process and the demands of political conditionality – in particular facing the past, war crimes, and passing through the removal of immunity for its former Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, who opened Croatia to the EU integration process – have affected Croatian attitudes towards the EU. If public opinion is now a measure of the process of European integration and citizens can express their protest and opposition through referenda and European Parliament (EP) elections, Croatia joined the EU when opposition was at its highest since 2000 (see Figure 1).
Although, in 2006, there were growing fears about the implications of EU integration, Croatian political elites were optimistic. The vast majority of Croatian citizens referred to the advantage of open borders (80%), economic development (79%), and general significant progresses (80%). The partial loss of independence was not that relevant at the time (36%), but the necessity for regional cooperation (55%) and negative consequences for the national economy (53%) already concerned more than half of Croatian citizens. The 2004 enlargement of the European Union had shown that the waiting time for EU membership and the perceived lack of relevant information could negatively impact on levels of public support.
In order to avoid rising levels of public Euroscepticism, the Croatian government adopted two communication strategies, in 2001 and 2006. The main aim of these strategies was to inform citizens on the progress toward European integration and enhance the quality of the debates on EU integration, but the two communication strategies and the information campaign did not garner much interest. In 2006, the Croatian public were growing increasingly concerned about the impact of EU membership on the economy (87%), everyday life (84%), and the impact of membership on sovereignty (84%). Unsurprisingly, surveys showed that more and more Croats were willing to vote against EU membership (14% in 2003, 39% in June 2004, and 45% in 2006).
It is also fundamental to note that the case of Croatia can be seen as both typical and different compared to the wider post-communist region. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has had a dominant position in the democratization process, and its role is viewed as a negative factor in the transition. Its focus has been on independence and statehood, less on democratization; with its leader, Franjo Tudjman, representing the Croats more than Croatia.
In comparison with the countries of the post-communist region, Croats assume distinct positions, with a very dissatisfied attitude towards how democracy is developing in the country, but a very high (the highest in the region) positive value on democracy in principle. This resulted in critical attitudes towards the way democracy was developing in Croatia; while the conditions for EU membership were challenging public opinion and were perceived as insulting Croatian national pride.
Further perspective challenges arise from the possible impact of membership on the policy-making process, being a small member state. If, in the 1990s, EU integration could be viewed as a civilizational choice (leaving behind the past and the war), the awareness that Croatia was not just a victim of war crimes and the slowing down of the negotiation process, in particular on the border dispute with Slovenia between 2008 and 2009, affected the early Euroenthusiasm. In January 2012 only one out of three Croats voted ‘Yes’ at the accession referendum on a 43.51% turnout, still valid after a Constitution amendment in 2010, but resulting in a meagre one third of Croats overall supporting EU integration on the EU referendum day.
The Croatian case is also distinctive in the region, as a very low percentage of young voters were mobilized by the referendum. While generally young Europeans were the most in favour of EU integration in the post-communist region ten years before, the benefit of travelling and studying abroad did not make any difference in Croatia. Levels of participation in the country remained at a record low (20.84%) at the first European Parliament elections, held on 14 April 2013. At the domestic level, that was the lowest turnout since Croatia’s independence. Low levels of turnout are common across the post-communist countries and the ‘second-order’ dimension of the European elections can be detected.
The literature distinguishes between ‘first-order’ elections, such as general elections at the national level, where citizens vote on who should govern the country, and ‘second-order’ elections, such as regional or local elections, and European Parliament elections, where citizens do not vote on the executive, but national party politics still affect the outcome. Compared to national elections and depending on the electoral cycle, ‘second-order’ elections are characterized by loss for governing parties, while opposition and protest parties can gain from the lower turnout. Although the model fully applies to western member states, voting can also show a second-order dimension in the new member states. In Croatia, the HDZ and the Social Democratic Party, representing the opposition and ruling coalitions in the country, gained respectively 6 and 5 seats.
The global financial crisis and high levels of unemployment rates (about 22% in Croatia in 2013) have affected the results and turnout at the EU accession referendum and EP elections, and help explain the persisting low levels of enthusiasm. Croatia joins the EU after the entering into force of the European Fiscal Compact, in a difficult domestic economic situation, and while corruption is still rampant. It should benefit from EU accession and the internal market, and it is important for the EU to have a foot in the Western Balkans and more voice to preserve democracy and securitize the region. The enlargement of the EU to Croatia definitely represents a ‘win-win’ situation for the newest member state and the EU itself.