Monday 23 January 2012

Croatia Waves Goodbye to the Balkans

Elliott Menter

Croatia will join the EU in 2013.

"Goodbye Balkans!" read Monday morning's headline on the Vecernji List, the largest circulating Croatian newspaper.

The weekend previous saw two-thirds of Croatian voters head to the polls and endorse their country's EU entry.

However, there are signs that the recent Eurozone crisis has dampened enthusiasm, which is evidenced by the 44 percent participation rate of the electorate in the referendum, the lowest of any of the new EU member states.

The increased pessimism for the European project has not only been felt by Croatians as they approach full membership in July 2013, but also the peoples of current member states. 

The political posturing of European leaders has been a continual source of disappointment, as they have sought a solution to the Eurozone debt crisis that now enters its third year. 
The most symbolic sign of disunity took place in December when the UK refused to a new EU wide fiscal integration treaty. Claiming it was not in the national interest, the UK was frustrated further by the refusal of the Franco-German axis to make concessions on a proposed Tobin tax on financial transactions. 

With all the high drama of disagreements, sovereign debt danger zones and technocratic coups sweeping through the continent, it is easy to overlook the fact that despite all its faults and relative inability at times, the EU remains a highly coveted club. 
A long road to Brussels...

In its quest for membership Croatia has faced a number of hurdles along the way, including that of a maritime border dispute with neighbouring Slovenia in the Adriatic Sea. The issue proved a stumbling block for some time, since Slovenia, the only ex-Yugoslav nation to have joined the EU, effectively wielded a veto until the issue had been resolved.

The second, higher profile issue was that of Croatia's progress in handing over remaining war crimes suspects for their part in the Balkans conflict. 

In 2005, the UK led the EU in calls for the capture of the Croat General Ante Gotovina, stating that his successful capture was a pre-condition for accession talks to begin. Reluctance to comply fully with the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) was driven in large part by Croatia public opinion. Despite accusations of war crimes, many Croatians viewed the Gotovina as a national hero for his part in facing off the Serbian threat during the Balkans conflict. 

A watershed moment occurred on December 7 with his successful arrest, a move that likely cost Zagreb significant public goodwill, but one seen as a necessary sacrifice in exchange for the eventual prize of EU membership.
Accession negotiations between Croatia and the EU have since rapidly gathered pace, and by extension the development has seen an improvement ties between the UK and Croatia. With the two countries signing a strategic partnership in 2007, the UK's support for Croatia's bids into both the EU and NATO was affirmed.
High hopes 

The past two decades have seen Croatia painstakingly and successfully rebuild its economy to recover from the crippling effects of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. 

The ruling elite have thus pinned their hopes on EU membership as a stimulus to break out of the sluggishness of the Croatian economy in recent years. 

Bets on growth are largely in expectation of an incoming influx of infrastructure and development funding, with promises of €1.6bn in EU development funding over the next 3 years alone. Not to mention the vitally important access to the huge EU market, and all the trade and investment opportunities that come with it.

The bailout club

Some argue that just as Croatia struggles get back on its feet after the shocks of the global economic downturn in 2008, it will inevitably be pulled into the financial woes of the Eurozone and have to contribute to a bailout of its troubled Southern European neighbours, Greece or Italy. 

However, this has been ruled out by Andrej Plenkovic, secretary of state for European Affairs for the outgoing Croatian Union of Democrats, stating "there is no immediate fear that we would have to contribute to the bail-out." He adds that the earliest Croatia would expect to join the Eurozone itself would be 2016.  

The European Union have agreed to create a permanent bailout fund. Toonpool. TWR Cartoons.
Despite such concerns public debate has been relatively limited. The newly elected Social Democratic Party and the opposition are united and are in complete agreement as to the current trajectory of the country towards accession to the EU in mid-2013. 
The role of the UK in the democratisation of the Balkans 
Here, the EU along with the UK as an its integral part, has an important role to play in encouraging the continued democratisation of Europe., writes “...We are approaching the centenary of the gunshot in Sarajevo that triggered the World War I. Ever since then and, indeed, for years before, the Balkans has been a byword for division, conflict and brutality,” wrote Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in The Guardian.

Indeed, the desire of the reformist government in Belgrade to be seen by EU monitors as engaging with Pristina, despite the fallout of the recent unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo, is evidence of the changes taking place in the region. 

The strengths of the UK in solidifying such positive engagement lie in its ability to harness the soft power of commerce and co-operation so characterised by the EU. Now is the time to make every effort to demonstrate the benefits of regional co-operation and positive engagement.

The Potential for Success

Nestled between the island speckled coastline of the Adriatic and the fertile plains of the Danube, Croatia possesses a number of strengths that the UK is well placed to tap into.

Croatia has a highly educated and literate population. Furthermore, it has a geographical location that offers huge advantages to trade, by possessing both the shortest and fastest route between Western Europe and Asia and also between Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the judgement on the resulting successes both perceived and real will be immensely fierce in the eyes of the Croatian people and the peoples of the wider region.