By the time Croatia joins the EU on July 1, 2013, it will have engaged in a nationwide overhaul for over a decade. A mountain of new legislation, stalled negotiations, war crimes scandals and a dispute with neighboring Slovenia have all prolonged the path to membership. But, has the struggle been worth the effort? Croatia is finally getting on board just as other member countries may be considering jumping ship amidst bankruptcies, the questionable future of the euro and ongoing debt crises. Croatians indeed wonder if they have joined just in time to pay the bill for Greece.
Like other candidate countries, Croatia's government needed to meet the Copenhagen Criteria in order to join, a benchmark that is a central concern for the European Commission, which is in charge of representing the EU's interests. The Criteria require that candidate countries establish democracy, rule of law, a market-based economy and a commitment to European political and economic union. Croatia was also required to accept the EU legal framework and incorporate EU law into its national legislation. Croatia met the Criteria as of June 2004, when the European Council made the country an official candidate.
Among Croatia's more difficult reforms was the total revamping of the judiciary, which included addressing an extensive backlog of cases and the tendency to have excessively lengthy proceedings often resulting in cases being brought to the European Court of Human Rights. As a formerly totalitarian society, reformers in Croatia were faced with promoting a novel and foreign culture of rule of law. Biased lower court adjudicative proceedings for war crimes were also problematic as the national origin of defendants and victims frequently influenced case outcomes.
Many of the problems facing Croatia, and the judiciary in particular, stemmed from the 1990s war of independence from the Yugoslav Federation. The EU would not even begin negotiations until the Croatian government helped arrest Ante Gotovina, a former Lieutenant General who had led the bloody Operation Storm against Serb civilians and prisoners of war. Zagreb's perceived half-heartedness in hunting down Gotovina, in addition to other war crimes suspects, delayed Croatia's EU bid. Interethnic animosities related to the bloody struggle persisted into the early 21st century, infecting judicial proceedings.
Croatian sentiments have been deeply divided on the question of EU membership, with support waning in 2012, from its high point several years prior. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic stressed the benefits that would come with joining, such as access to 500 million additional consumers and an additional two billion dollars per year in development aid. All of Croatia's major political parties were also in favor of joining, as well as most of the minority Serb population. However, many citizens were concerned about the dominance of France and Germany, the unlikelihood of the powerful EU heeding any of Croatia's concerns in light of its relatively small size and the expensive changes that would need to be made on the ground.
Europe's recent economic struggles have not gone unnoticed by Croatians. As of the winter of 2012, the most glaring disincentive for Croatia's joining would have been the European debt crisis. Croatians realized that they may have joined just in time to pay the bill for Greece and other debt laden countries, and right when the EU had lost its luster with its debt burdened economies and bickering leaders. Croatia's increased momentum toward membership has seemed to walk in step with the EU's battle to float weak economies since 2009.
According to The New York Times, the EU's crisis "has produced the deepest tensions within the union in memory." The survival of the 17-year-old euro as a multinational currency is uncertain and the entirety of Europe continues to be stifled by an atmosphere of economic stagnation. The crisis quickly bled into politics, causing governmental transitions in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Finland and Romania. Despite two bailouts, Greece continued to teeter on the brink of instability in early 2012, although commentators believe that a March 2012 bond swap may have proven a successful remedy.
On January 22, 2012, a poor turnout of Croatian citizens voted to join the EU. With 66 percent in favor and 33 percent against, the country of four and a half million will become the 28th member next year. In June 2011, the EU had given its final approval to Croatian membership after six years of renewed negotiations. With the vote, Croatia joined the 21st century flood of Balkan nations gaining membership pursuant to the June 2000 Feira European Council determination. In 2004, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU. Romania and Bulgaria also joined in 2007.
Is there a poetic contradiction in the fact that Croatia gained independence a mere 20 years ago only to relinquish aspects of its autonomy to another struggling overseer? Some Croatians certainly think so. Nationalist groups, army veterans and right-wing activists in particular are wary of the loss of Croatia's sovereignty and feel that it demeans the 15,000 lives that were lost in a war for Croatia's national identity.
Other Croatians see it differently. "I would rather be with Germany and France than with Serbia and Bosnia," said one lawyer based in Zagreb. Indeed, as troubled as European economies may be, it is possible that Croatia is not better off without them, with its 13 percent unemployment rate and 61 billion dollar debt.
Now that this somewhat tepid marriage is official, Croatians are going to feel the changes while remaining uncertain of the benefits. Privatization of shipyards, upgrading of farms and the continued overhaul of the legal system are just several among many expensive measures that Croatia will have to make in order to comply with EU standards. These changes will be felt personally by farmers and shipyard workers, many of whom risk losing their jobs. Meanwhile, Croatia will maintain the status of "Active Observer" until it gains full membership, allowing it to watch the unfolding European story for another few months without feeling the direct sting of the crisis.
Ann Eisenberg received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics and French Cultural Studies from Cornell University. At Cornell Law School, Eisenberg was a student advocate in the Advanced International Human Rights Clinic, and was also a research assistant for the Somalia Constitution Making Project.
Suggested citation: Ann Eisenberg, Is EU Membership the Best Option for Croatia?, JURIST - Dateline, Apr. 29, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/04/ann-eisenberg-croatia-eu.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Imbarlina, an assistant editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org