At the stroke of midnight on Sunday (1 July), thousands lined the streets of Zagreb to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and to fireworks, as Croatia officially joined the EU as its 28th member.
After seven years of tough negotiations with Brussels, the second of seven independent countries to emerge from the former Yugoslavia joined the bloc of European nations, following Slovenia which joined in the 2004 round of EU enlargement with the Central and Eastern European countries. Initially, Slovenia blocked the accession talks, given a border dispute with Croatia. Progress on the negotiations was also hinged on Croatia’s cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Croatia faces many challenges today. The country is in its fifth year of recession, and unemployment is slated to hit over 20% this year. There has also been a brain drain as about half a million people have emigrated from the country since the civil war of the early 1990s, most of them being ethnic minorities.
In January 2012 a national referendum on the issue of EU membership was held, in which 66% voted ‘yes’, albeit on a low voter turnout. Today the public opinion seems more mixed as to the effect that EU membership on the country. Some believe endemic corruption in Croatia is being fixed, given the impact of the EU on its legal system. Croatian citizens can now travel and find work overseas more easily.
But ordinary Croatians also worry that the cost of living will rise, and the obligations that would be placed on the country. The euro zone debt crises played out in the media has not painted a rosy picture of the EU for Croatians.
Questions about the competitiveness of Croatia’s economy are also being raised. Sandra Svaljek, an analyst with the Zagreb-based Economy Institute, says that Croatia is already having a ‘hard time’ competing in the EU market. Croatia’s accession to the EU will also mean that its borders with Bosnia-Herzegovina will be subjected to much stricter controls under EU regulations. This may have the effect of disrupting trade and tourism with its neighbour.
The symbolism of Croatia’s accession to the EU would surely be the most important aspect. Just 20 years ago, a bloody civil war and a war with the Yugoslav army engulfed the country, as the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia disintegrated. Croatia’s EU membership has been hailed as an example for the other states in the Western Balkans. In reference to Croatia’s EU accession, US Vice-President Joe Biden wrote this week that ‘every country that binds itself to [the EU] advances the cause of peace’. Currently, Serbia, Montenegro and FYR Macedonia are EU candidate countries, while Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania are known as ‘potential candidates’.
Fact sheet: Republic of Croatia
Population: 4.28 million (2011 census)
Land area: 56,594 km2
Official language: Croatian
Ethnic groups: 90.4% Croats, 4.4% Serbs, 5.2% others
Predominant religion: Roman Catholicism (86.3%)
Capital city: Zagreb
GDP (PPP) per capita: $18,191 (IMF, 2012)
Year of independence: 1991 (from Yugoslavia)
Foreign relations: Member of NATO, EU