Croatia voted in favor of European Union membership in Sunday’s referendum, showing that for most Croats, membership in the economically troubled union still offers hope of economic and political progress for the Balkan nation.
With almost all the ballots counted, the electoral commission announced that 67 percent had voted in favor of joining the bloc, with about 33 percent against. The result confounded recent surveys suggesting that the referendum would be very close. But an approximate turnout of 45 percent suggests that only three in ten Croatian voters are enthusiastic enough about EU membership to have gone to the polling stations to express their support.
On the eve of the referendum, an anti-EU demonstration in Zagreb attended by activists including war veterans turned violent, as demonstrators clashed with police, leading to several arrests.
Croatia is now expected to join the EU on July 1, 2013, subject to the approval of all existing member states.
Most of Croatia’s political class and the mainstream parties have strongly backed membership, which President Ivo Josipovic has called “a turning point in our history.” Accession is expected to bring a range of benefits, including increased access to generous EU funding and improved freedom of movement and employment opportunities for Croatians within and beyond the member states.
Prior to the referendum, campaigners in favor of EU membership argued that a "no" vote would cost Croatia some €1.8 billion ($2.3 billion) in EU funding over the next three years – cash that the country sorely needs to revive its economy, flagging like much of the EU.
Accession is also of great symbolic importance to Croatia, bringing to a close its painful post-Communist era, during which it suffered economic collapse, fought a bloody war for independence from Yugoslavia, and became embroiled in the Bosnian conflict.
Croatia is only the second former Yugoslav state to join the EU, after Slovenia, which joined in 2004. Slovenia and Croatia were the two most affluent nations in Yugoslavia, but the former only suffered a brief ten-day war of independence in 1992.
While Croatia prepares to join the EU club of liberal democratic nations, most of its neighbors remain stuck in the slow lane towards membership. In December, EU members voted against starting accession talks with Serbia, which now looks unlikely to join this decade. Bosnia, hopelessly politically divided, is even further from membership, as is Albania. Even tiny Montenegro, a relative success story, is several years from joining.
Given the practical and symbolic benefits of entry to the EU, Croats' lack of enthusiasm for membership – and the existence of a sizable, vocal minority that is vehemently opposed – may seem strange.
One reason is the political and economic malaise afflicting the EU and the euro. Many Croats feel uncertain about the EU’s direction and its future. Accession will put Croatia on track to adopt the troubled euro, although not until 2015 or later.
However, some of the most ardent opposition is unrelated to the EU’s present funk. Nationalists, some of them veterans who fought for independence, fear a loss of sovereignty and identity. Fishermen are concerned about opening Croatia’s waters to Italian competitors and small business owners worry about greater regulation from Brussels.
The experience of other post-Communist EU member states, such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary has not been entirely positive. The three have clashed with Brussels over economic policy, reform, and corruption. Hungary in particular has butted heads with Brussels in recent weeks over new laws governing the country's media, courts, and central bank, which prompted the EU to threaten to withhold a loan.
“Croatia joining is certainly positive for the EU, but people see that the benefits of membership may have been overstated,” says Pawel Swidlicki, an analyst at London-based think tank Open Europe, which favors a more economically liberal, decentralized EU.
“They see the current situation with the eurozone crisis and the fiscal pact and worry that they may lose out. After the war, they are reluctant to give up sovereignty. The fisheries policy has been a disaster, and Croatia is a maritime nation, while the EU places a heavy burden on SMEs [small and medium enterprises] in particular. But overall, people in Croatia do see the benefits of membership.”
While the consensus is that both the EU and Croatia will benefit from the Balkan country's accession, conventional wisdom also says that the process is unlikely to be painless.