ZAGREB, Croatia ― He walks decisively, a neatly-dressed man in his late 40s, at the head of an anti-government march in Croatia’s capital. On the back of his T-shirt: “EU F… U.”
Just as this Balkan country nears the end of its long negotiations to join the European Union, polls show that anti-EU sentiments are on the rise ― and not just among the die-hard nationalists who preach that the country will lose its sovereignty won in a bloody war 20 years ago, but among the younger generations.
“It’s not that I’m against the EU,” said Sasha Durovic, the man at the front of the protest, who runs a successful online sales business. “But people should be told, clearly, what are the benefits, what are the risks, what we’re signing to. We shouldn’t rush into it like a herd.”
In the latest polls, support for EU membership hovers at about 50 percent. An EU-sponsored survey, Eurobarometer, showed in October that only every fourth Croat believes EU entry is good for the country; every third considers it bad and most ― 41 percent ― are not sure. And for the past several months, crowds, young and old, have marched through the capital demanding the conservative government’s ouster and a rethink of the EU membership bid.
Euro-skepticism is also growing fast in Turkey. The secular Muslim country began negotiating its membership together with Croatia, in 2005. But its chances are in limbo as some EU nations ― notably Germany and France ― openly oppose its membership. And Turks don’t exactly feel welcome. One poll shows that just 38 percent of Turks think EU membership would be a good thing, while more than half had an unfavorable view of the EU.
As EU members’ financial troubles keep the bloc in the headlines, has it ceased to be a promised land?
Croatia’s quest ― ever since it gained statehood in 1991 ― has been EU membership. For Croats, membership would brand them as a civilized nation, no longer a backward, Balkan thug.
Even the late President Franjo Tudjman vowed that Croatia would be “returning to where it has always belonged,” even though it was his nationalism and autocratic rule that repelled the West.
Since 2000, when the first pro-Western government took power, the tiny boomerang-shaped nation of 4.4 million, has worked miracles to meet EU criteria for membership.
Ante Gotovina, accused of war crimes against the Serbs ― but praised as national hero here ― ended up behind bars. Shipyards went on sale, as the EU declared that the government’s subsidies breached competition rules, even though it meant ending centuries-old traditions and leaving thousands jobless. A border dispute with Slovenia is in international arbitration, even though that means Croatia will likely lose territory. When the EU wanted more high-level anti-corruption action, popular ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader ended up sitting in an Austrian jail on a Croatian arrest warrant, accused of abuse of power.
The EU response, during six long years of negotiations, is perceived as lukewarm at best.
Officially, Croatia will join “when it meets all the conditions,” a bureaucratic line repeated so often by EU officials that it translates into “we actually don’t want you” in the minds of many Croats.
Vesna Pusic, the chairwoman of the national committee monitoring the Croatia-EU membership negotiations and an opposition party leader, believes that the EU’s “skepticism and aloofness” toward Croatian membership played a role in the raise of Euro-skepticism here.
“But we shouldn’t be caught by the dilemma ‘do they want us or not?’” she said. “We should recognize our chance to gain a significance much bigger than our size” once the country joins the bloc.
Pusic said the current anti-EU sentiments are also driven by opposition to the Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, seen as overly focused on EU membership despite the population’s struggle with record unemployment and soaring prices.
So big is the opposition of Matija Babic, editor of leading news portal index.hr, that she declared the EU “shouldn’t even negotiate with this government. The EU that needs this kind of Croatia is not the EU that Croatia needs.”
In the whole process, Croats tend to forget the pros that EU membership will bring: education and jobs abroad; joint defense; subsidies for infrastructure projects at home.
They could look to neighboring Slovenia, which was the first of ex-Yugoslav countries to join the EU in 2004 and switched euro in 2007. But old stereotypes dissuade them from seeing the Slovenes as an example: As the most prosperous of the Yugoslavs, they are seen as workaholics, so Croats do not attribute their progress to EU membership.
But they are more apt to notice that when the EU gave a hefty loan to Greece to alleviate its debt crisis, Slovenia had to chip in. Croatian newspapers, without exception, cited a Slovenian opposition politician’s claim that “poor Slovenians now have to finance (wealthy) Greeks.” The Croats asked the obvious question: If the country joined the EU, would they end up like the Greeks or the Slovenes?
In Turkey, which has been openly offered a “privileged partnership” instead of membership by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, the government is going out of its way to keep the disheartened masses focused on the EU goal.
Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s top EU negotiator, told the Zaman newspaper recently that, “the problems do not stem from our side. The EU is experiencing serious problems with regard to their decision-making mechanisms due to an economic crisis.”
Back in Zagreb, at a recent protest, a sole demonstrator waved a huge EU flag, surrounded by others carrying banners: “I love Croatia — NO to EU.”
“I want this government to go, but I also want us to join the EU,” said Vojislav Mazzocco, a professor of philosophy. “We’re much better prepared than Romania and Bulgaria were when they joined.”
Even the EU admits that’s true: It’s because of Romania and Bulgaria that Croatia has had such a long haul.