Croatia treads cautiously forward with EU membership
By Kathy Kemper – 07/10/13 12:54 PM ET
Today I write from Zagreb, Croatia a sparkling testament to Croatia’s status as the crown jewel of the Balkans. As I walk the streets there are several important characteristics of this region that occur to me. The first is the overall cleanliness. Crime and garbage on the streets are practically non-existent. The people proudly remind me at every opportunity that Croatia has the highest density of wi-fi in the world. Hearing things like this would seem to indicate that this is a wired country filled with gadgets like Ipads, Kindles and all the other trappings of the modern Digital Age. To my surprise though, despite the high levels of education thanks to institutions like the University of Zagreb, this is a country clinging to its parochial roots. The people here are born, raised, and die a stone’s throw from their home. Tablets and the like are seen as superfluous and detract from the real human connections people make in everyday life. Mcdonald’s and Starbucks exist but they are few and far between. In this country, people may eat out perhaps once a month but it’s an occasion, most people subsist off of locally sourced food. Despite globalization, Croatians seem to be a people truly rooted in their own communities.
This worldview is reflected in the politics of the people of Croatia. Large-scale projects are viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism. Take for example the recent highway construction projects. Such an initiative provides the infrastructure necessary for further economic development and for fostering a more interconnected Croatia. For most citizens though, the roads’ most obvious accomplishment is in enriching a handful of contractors lucky enough to secure construction funds from the government. There is little appreciation or patience for government initiatives at the macro level, not when there are much more immediate problems facing the people of Croatia, such as high youth unemployment (50%) and skyrocketing health care costs as well as the public debt.
These reasons, as well as many others, help to explain the tepid response to Croatia’s EU accession. It’s not all bad news though, Croatians see a number of ways that EU membership will be in the country’s interest going forward and many see the ways the EU has already helped Croatia develop from its troubled past. Politically, the internal reforms and anti-corruption reforms imposed by the EU are credited with helping Croatia accelerate the cleansing process within its political parties and judiciary. The country’s deficit, long over 20%, has also been tackled in a robust manner by Croatia’s government as they pursued membership.
As one Croatian I spoke with named Domagoj Nikolic put it “economic success does not happen in isolation of policy and thus [sic] our problems are more systemic and political than anything else.“ The EU can be seen therefore to be providing the political reform that has long been the last thorn preventing Croatia from realizing its full potential. These top-level reforms are a great boon that can be credited to the EU membership process, but how will the nation build on these accomplishments now that they have acceded?