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Croatia's flagging support to join EU to be tested by vote

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Not so long ago, Croatia was ebullient at the prospect of becoming the EU's newest member in July this year.

Now, with the European Union ailing and Croatia's own economy in recession, that enthusiasm has dimmed -- as a vote this Sunday to elect the country's first deputies to the European Parliament is certain to show.

Officials in the former Yugoslav republic are still insisting the vote to select 12 lawmakers is "historic" and a key milestone on a path marked by years of difficult reforms.

But ordinary Croatians are concerned more by a tourism-dependent economy that contracted two percent last year and which has stagnated since 2009.

Unemployment is a staggering 22 percent and the cost of living far outstrips the average monthly salary, worth some 730 euros ($950).

"We already have prices at European levels, but our wages and pensions aren't," said one pensioner, Goranka Tokic.

A teacher sceptical at Croatia's accession to the EU on July 1, Mirjana Donkovic, said her country "should first bring order to our own house and make the society and economy healthy -- only then we should consider whether to enter the EU, if it still exists."

Indeed, the travails of the EU's eurozone, and specifically those of small member Cyprus, which last month barely obtained a bailout to stave off financial collapse, have given many Croatians pause.

"'Big guys' will make decisions favourable only to them. Also, why rush into something that is falling apart?" asked Ivan Jonkovic, a 35-year-old clerk.

Croatia, population 4.2 million, was "too small to have any influence" within the European Union, he said.

Croatian officials who have worked hard over a decade to make their country what will be the EU's 28th member state hope membership will unlock 13 billion euros ($17 billion) in aid to help their economy recover.

But the campaigns for the European Parliament deputies have been lacklustre, lacking in debates on EU-related issues.

There is also the fact that the deputies' mandate will be for one year only, until Europe-wide elections in 2014 to choose a new European Parliament for the following five years.

Pre-vote polling suggests the ruling Social Democrats party and its two junior coalition partners will take six of the 12 seats. The others would probably go to the opposition conservative HDZ party and the Labour Party, the survey showed.

A low turnout was likely in Sunday's vote, analysts said, with surveys showing growing euroscepticism.

In January last year, a referendum on EU entry passed with 66 percent of the vote.

Now, according to a recent survey, 56 percent of Croatians back EU membership and the better job and education opportunities it represents -- a still-solid number, but a significant dip.

"Support (for EU membership) is fading because of a difficult economic situation in the country, general dissatisfaction and mistrust of politicians... as well as problems the EU is facing within itself," an expert in international relations, Radovan Vukadinovic, told AFP.

An economic analyst, Damir Novotny, insisted however that when Croatia joins the EU it would not be bringing the same financial problems as some other existing members.

"Croatia won't be a burden for the EU" because it has a stable banking sector and solid tourist industry, he said.

He admitted, though, that problems could surface "if negative trends continue."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130410/croatias-flagging-support-join-eu-be-tested-vote