CROATIA: Joining the European Union

Bill Fisher, Pitt Law '10, files from Croatia:

In a place of such amazing beauty, culture, and history, it is heartbreaking to see the remnants of the war and witness just how fresh the wounds still are. Croatia is in a state of change and conflict, both politically and culturally. I came here to learn about Croatia's accession to the European Union, but I've learned much more already, and mostly outside of the classroom.

I don't speak Croatian, so I can't understand the news or read the papers. While Croatians are generally very friendly, politics is a particularly touchy subject here, so it's not often brought up in any form. However, all of my professors here are Croatian, we've had Croatian speakers come to the class, and there are a few Croatian students in the class, so there is an opportunity to get somewhat of a feel for the state of things. From the standpoint of the academics, it seems only a formality that Croatia is not yet a member of the EU. To them, the process has gone a bit slower than expected but is still marching along nicely towards accession. The academics, like government officials, see the benefits of membership — free trade; a single market for the free movement of people, goods, and capital; common representation at the WTO, G8, and United Nations; and a common currency. The people, however, have a slightly different opinion.

Membership in the EU means membership in an open European community and adopting a policy of more open borders. However, the memories of the war are still vivid in the minds of many here, and the idea that the nations of the former Yugoslavia may eventually also join the EU - thereby allowing for free movement of their citizens across Croatian borders - is a hard pill to swallow for some. An example I can give comes from a day trip we made recently. Only a few hours from Dubrovnik is a town in Bosnia called Mostar. While Dubrovnik mostly represents a Roman influence, Mostar is where the Turkish influence comes into play. We Americans, like many other tourists, see this as an interesting experience and so we planned a trip to visit the Old Bridge and Medugorje. One student that came along, however, was born in Bosnia and lived there until he was about 13 or 14. At his age, that puts his emigration around 1997 or 1998…meaning he was there for the fighting and the bombing and all the horrors that came with the war. All throughout the region, there still stand buildings, here and there, with blast and bullet holes as a reminder of what happened. As we approached Mostar, they became much more prevalent. And my friend became a bit quieter. There was graffiti in many places, but one symbol in particular stood out — my friend explains to us that it means "insurgent." Generally all is fine though, as we find a café near the Old Bridge to get a beer and watch the divers. Then we decide to explore the Muslim side of town. We oblivious Americans are captivated by the Turkish-esque experience, the cheap shopping, and the call to prayer playing from the speakers of the minaret. My friend however, is tacit and nervous. He has lived in America for about 10 years, and the fighting, for the most part, has been over for many years as well. But he is afraid of what may happen if someone hears his name or catches what bit of an accent he still has when speaking English. It's just a small example of the fear, distrust and animosity that still lingers in the area and poses a real threat to the successful integration of the Croatia people into the EU. Though Slovenia is already a member, Croatia seems to be the gateway, the bridge between the EU and the former Yugoslavia. It has the strongest economy among the Yugoslav nations and its legal system is most in line with the requirements of the EU. But should they become a member state, the door will be open for the remaining nations to join as well, and the tensions between the peoples of the area may very well heighten to dangerous levels again.

There is optimism, though. A speaker came to our class who had not only been a prominent member of the Croatian government, but a very successful businessman as well. In talking about his position in the government, he mentioned that a particular problem in Croatia involved trade law and his reason for getting out of government was that nothing was being done to "clean up the mess." He said that since Croatia liberated itself from Yugoslavia, the government has not really exercised any form of self-restraint. For many years, there have been problems with things like kickbacks, "squeeze-outs," and insider trading. This was part of the reason why initial negotiations with the EU were stalled and why the process is still ongoing. I asked him if he thought about getting back into politics to try to clean up the mess that he had once attempted to take on and what he thought the possible accession into the EU might do to aid that process. He said frankly that he would not be going back into politics, because in all his time there he felt like he was unable to accomplish a single thing. He also said, however, that the EU was like a carrot to Croatia, and that Croatia needed a carrot much more than the stick. The possibility of membership should light a fire under the government to fix many of the problems in Croatian law, many of which were inherited from Yugoslavia or created in sort of a rush to establish the independent nation.

It seems there is a perpetual conflict in this stunningly beautiful county in one form or another. While the bombings have ceased, there is still the internal conflict between the desires of some — particularly the government and the academics — to join the EU, and the reluctance of the people to open themselves up not only potentially to the peoples of Serbia and Bosnia in time, but also to the possibility of what some see as another Yugoslavia…only on a much grander scale. As a tourist who spends much of his time on the beach among Germans, Italians, and Australians, it's hard to see beyond the tourist bureau's idea of Croatia. But as a law student, it's easier (and somewhat more painful) to see the other side — the side of fear and doubt and even a degree of jingoism among some. But that seems to be the nature of this place, a constant balancing act. One can only hope that as time goes on and the wounds start to heal, those wounds will not be aggravated by policies of a supranational government. A place of such natural splendor, filled with such wonderful people, deserves peace. Peace as opposed to war. Peace as opposed to internal conflicts and problems. Peace of mind for its citizens.

As a final note, it appears that the opposition to the European Union does not only lie in potential member states, but in some long-time member states as well. I was at dinner a few nights ago and happened to overhear bits and pieces of a conversation at a table near mine. In that I'm here to learn about the EU, it caught my attention to hear the words "European Union" being spoken in English. It turns out it was an older British couple on vacation speaking with a Croatian couple sitting at the next table. In the lulls in my own conversation, and while trying NOT to eavesdrop, I only heard a few words and phrases, but I caught a very specific "do not join" and a recurring utterance of the phrase "bleed you dry." So it seems that for all of the supporters the EU has, there appears to be dissatisfaction in even some of the more well-off countries. The potential developments of passing comments like those certainly make my current studies a bit more interesting.

 

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