Croatia: EU on the home stretch amid crisis, indifference

Fear for repercussion on industry. But historic goal for Zagreb

04 June, 14:44

    Croatia set to join the EU as the 28th member [ARCHIVE MATERIAL 20130516 ] Croatia set to join the EU as the 28th member [ARCHIVE MATERIAL 20130516 ]

    (by Franko Dota) (ANSAmed) - ZAGREB - Less than four weeks before becoming a European Union member on July 1, Croatia appears almost indifferent to this historic landmark considered in the past as the peak of an independence and democratization process which started 22 years ago.

    The centre-left government which has been in office since November 2011 has registered a setback in local elections last Sunday, when it lost in the capital Zagreb after a 13-year-long Social Democratic administration, although it won in all other major cities.

    Hefty public spending cuts, including the reduction of state salaries, and the missed target of attracting new foreign investments and start a number of major public infrastructure projects are key to explain decreasing support for the government. However, a more significant social dissatisfaction which could lead this week to the first major wave of strikes in the public sector is due to the serious economic crisis and unemployment levels which have been consistently topped 20 percentage points - and some 40 percentage points for youth unemployment - for a year now. The economy has been in recession for the fifth consecutive year despite austerity policies, foreign debt continues to grow and industrial production keeps dropping. Tourism, which represents almost 20% of GDP in the country, remains the only sector which has not suffered from the crisis. But negative reviews continuing to pour from the eurozone and domestic problems in the EU do not contribute to lift an atmosphere of apathy.

    Not much is expected from the first phase following the adhesion. Countries like Germany and Austria have already announced they will use their right to limit access of Croatian nationals to their labour markets. Although Croatian products will have access to the single market, many fear EU membership could have negative repercussions on the Croatian industry, mostly the food industry, given that European products will have free access to supermarkets in Croatia. Moreover as of July 1 the country will be forced to leave the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), a free trade agreement between non-EU Balkan countries, an area in which ever since the Yugoslav period Croatia carried out a significant part of its commercial exchanges, always with profit.

    On the other hand, Zagreb will be able to benefit from 11.7 billion euros to boost development in the country, as indicated within the EU Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020, and already in the second half of 2013 the country will have access to some 665 million euros of which 450 million in structural and cohesion funds.

    Apart from the economic context, joining the EU has for Croatia a very strong symbolic value and represents the conclusion of a long transition process from the Yugoslav and Socialist experience, which ended with the bloody independence war in the 1990s, till membership to the family of European nations.

    Negotiations leading up to membership were long and stricter than those held with other countries in eastern Europe.

    During the first phase the most significant obstacle to joining the EU was represented by an unsatisfying cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) while in the past few years Brussels insisted on the democratization process concerning the legal system and institutions as well as the fight against organized crime and corruption.

    The most visible example of efforts made by Zagreb are three trials on corruption charges against former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and a first verdict sentencing him to ten years in jail. Ironically, Sanader will be remembered in history books as the Croatian political leader who, as premier from 2004 until 2009, started a number of reforms that led Croatia to join the EU.

    On June 30, Zagreb and other Croatian cities are scheduled to celebrate adhesion and top European leaders, leaders of 20 EU countries including Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Premier Enrico Letta and top officials from neighbouring countries including Serbia and Croatia are expected.

    Not much will change for the EU with Croatia as a member, the second country from ex Yugoslavia to join the Union after Slovenia. The country will in fact represent 0,85% of the overall population, 1,33% of the territory and 0,53% of GDP. On a symbolic level instead the adhesion of Croatia represents the conclusion of the first phase of stabilization and integration of the Balkans after wars in the 1990s and a small confidence boost for a united Europe in the current crisis. (ANSAmed)

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