A New Star in the European Sky: Croatia
WASHINGTON-- Strange as it may seem to some, there are those who wish to join the European Union, in spite of all its current flaws. Croatian voters gave a resounding yes to becoming the 28th member state of the European Union in a referendum held last Sunday. The country is slated to join as a full member on July 1, 2013, after the parliaments of all 27 current member states ratify the treaty of accession to the EU that Croatia signed in December 2011. The European model of interstate cooperation, the successful European peace project, the single market, and the principle of solidarity and mutual support: all these continue to exert the power of attraction to outsiders wanting to join.
The European Union, founded in 1957, is currently fighting one of its deepest crises: It is struggling to salvage the joint currency of 17 of its 27 member states. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and other EU leaders have equated saving the euro with saving the Union itself. There is a growing renationalization of politics in European countries, and fear of “others” is on the rise. Despite all this, a European country, Croatia, has decided through a democratic procedure that it wishes to join this European Union. Croatian leaders have hailed this victory as “a great day for Croatia,” “a new day and a new chapter,” “a decision of such importance that we have made ourselves for the first time,” and “finding a haven guaranteeing security and peace.” But they also underlined that the dilemmas and concerns of those who voted against entry or abstained from voting have to be given due consideration.
The low turnout and the third of voters voting against entry were disappointing for many in Croatia, but also to a degree understandable. The crisis of the European Union, the fear that sovereignty is being taken away — after what has been perceived as a hard-fought war for national independence — the worry that now Croatia might also have to help bail out countries such as Greece, and the deep concern that a country that represents 0.8% of the population of the EU and 1.6% of EU parliamentarians will have no effective say in the affairs of the EU — all this created a relevant Eurosceptic movement and led more than half of the eligible voters to abstain. In an electorate composed of 4.5 million voters, the turnout was 43.5%. This was, to date, the lowest turnout in an EU accession referendum. Of those who voted, 66.27% were for entry, 33.12% against. Until now, 15 countries of the EU have asked their citizens to approve accession in referenda.
The lowest turnout in a referendum for EU entry before Croatia was in Hungary in 2003, when 45.62% turned out, but 83% voted for joining the Union. Relatively low turnouts were registered in 2003 in the Czech Republic and Poland (55% and 58%) but with 77% majorities for entry. The highest turnout was in Malta with 90%, but “only” 53% voted for entry. Swedish voters in 1995 voted with the lowest majority for entry (52.8%). The biggest majority for entry was in Slovakia with 92.5%, with a 52% turnout. Denmark in 1973 and Finland in 1995 returned less than two-third majorities for entry. Meanwhile, Norway rejected entry twice, in 1973 and 1995, with majorities of 53.3% and 52.2%. Why did Croatian voters decide to enter the EU? And, why did they do it with somewhat less conviction than their predecessors? The common wisdom of the Croatian and other Western Balkan publics, where there are majorities for accession, is that it is better, as small and economically weak countries, to join a still very prosperous Union of 500 million people and 27 member states, than to stay outside of it. A Europe that has seen 67 years of post-war peace makes for an inviting haven for the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, who went through a harrowing conflict in the 1990s. For them, entry into the EU is still, above all, a guarantee of security, stability, and peace. In this stricken corner of Europe, the EU’s soft power is very real. Enlargement of the EU, one of its greatest successes, continues despite “fatigue” — and despite long waiting times. (Croatia handed in its formal application for EU membership in 2003.)
The next members in line, apart from Iceland, which is on a fast track, will probably do so at the earliest toward the end of this decade. Montenegro is a formal candidate for EU accession, with a date set for talks; Macedonia is a candidate; Serbia is awaiting candidacy in March. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement. Kosovo’s case is the most complicated, since it remains unrecognized as a state by Serbia, BiH, and five EU member states, and has as yet no formal relationship with the EU. And then, of course, there is Turkey. The “Yes” of Croatia’s citizens is a historical watershed: for the country itself, for a formerly war-torn region, and for the EU. It is another step towards the completion of an integrated Europe, free, democratic, and at peace.
Ivan Vejvoda is the German Marshal Fund’s Vice President for Programs
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.