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Croats' EU Enthusiasm Cools

The drive to get to Brussels faces a new obstacle – the fact that most Croats no longer seem interested.
By Drago Hedl

If a referendum on Croatian accession to the European Union were to be held tomorrow, the proposal would be rejected.

That was the stark conclusion drawn from the latest public opinion poll by the Puls Agency, which showed only 49 per cent of Croats now favoured joining the EU.

The result has shocked official Zagreb, which counts its success in pursuing negotiations as one of its greatest political triumphs.

Had the survey been conducted a week later, rather than early in October, the result might have been even more alarming.

The recent announcement from Brussels that negotiations with new candidate states (which Zagreb hopes to launch next year) may be suspended at any time has only strengthened Croatian doubts about the wisdom of seeking a seat in Brussels.

What the EU said was that its negotiations with Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia on joining the 25-member association may be suspended if any of the potential members - Croatia included - violates any of the EU’s standards on freedom, democracy and human rights protection.

This could affect Zagreb, as the criteria under which Brussels can suspend these negotiations are very broadly defined, a foreign ministry official told IWPR.

“This will create the impression that whenever it feels like it, Brussels can exert pressure on us, and, if we don’t let up, find an excuse to suspend negotiations,” the official said, “so all the sacrifices made so the country could be admitted into the EU could be in vain.”

Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul played down the importance of the warning on October 6, when Zagreb received the news.

“One party can always suspend the negotiations if it is dissatisfied with them,” he told Croatian television. “That’s why I see nothing unusual in the clause on the possible suspension of negotiations with the European Union.”

Analysts say that Zuzul wanted to calm public opinion and prevent the growth of a spirit of Euro-scepticism, which has already spread across the country.

Over the past three years, since popular attitudes towards the EU have been measured, the percentage of supporters of membership has constantly decreased.

In July 2000, when the first poll on the issue was conducted, just over 77 per cent supported membership with the EU. Support peaked in July 2002, rising to 79.4 per cent. Since then, it has been downhill all the way. By June this year, only 51 per cent still supported the government’s drive for EU membership. In October, for the first time, it dipped below the vital 50-per-cent threshold.

Marija Pecinovic-Buric, of the ministry of European integration, told IWPR that two main reasons accounted for why backing for EU membership had fallen so sharply.

One was an accession protocol regulating the status of agriculture, and the other was Croatia’s decision not to enforce its declared fishing zone off the Adriatic on its EU member neighbours, Italy and Slovenia.

“A part of the Croatian public saw this as pressure on Zagreb,” she said. “These issues have been politicised and they have resulted in people fearing that, as negotiations progress, there will be more such pressure.”

The farming lobby is especially opposed to the idea of EU membership, as they fear the impact of foreign competition through an influx of cheap agricultural products from Brussels.

“The Croatian farmer still isn’t ready for the European Union,” Antun Laslo, of the Slavonian Farmers’ Association, told IWPR.

Laslo, head of a farming league from Croatia agricultural heartland, said the change was threatening to come too fast for his members to cope.

“In the socialist era, Croatia created large state agricultural conglomerates, so our farmers do not have the same traditions as those in Western Europe,” he said.

“Along with this, the state is impoverished and cannot subsidise agricultural production, which is why our products are expensive. We need at least 10 more years to adjust; joining the EU before this would be a disaster for farmers.”

The country’s rightist prime minister, Ivo Sanader, whose strategic priority is EU accession by 2007, insists the quiet decline in popular enthusiasm is manageable.

“Croatia is merely following in the footsteps of the countries that have already joined the EU,” Sanader said recently.

“Once the accession process begins, the people will have to face the fact that we need to negotiate difficult issues. But the percentage of support is still such that we believe we will manage to explain to people that it’s better to be in the EU than outside.”

But not all politicians agree with this trend. Tonino Picula, former foreign minister in the leftist government of Ivica Racan, which lost power last October, told IWPR that pro-EU enthusiasm in the countries that joined this May dropped only after negotiations had started.

In Croatia, a dramatic fall had occurred much earlier, well before the launch of formal accession talks, he said. Picula went to claim that this was now denting the government’s credibility as a whole.

“Sanader promised lower taxes, a better standard of living, faster creation of jobs, lower foreign debts - yet none of this has happened, even though it’s been a year since he took up office,” he said. “The people who voted for his Croatian Democratic Union are now disappointed and this disappointment reflects on their attitude towards accession to the EU.”

Recent polls suggest Sanader’s popularity is, in fact, ebbing. The Puls survey in early October said 9.7 per cent of respondents fully backed Sanader’s government while another 34.4 “mainly supported” it.

The two figures combined suggest a level of support of in the low 40s, marking the first time since the HDZ came to power that support for its government had fallen below 50 per cent.

Political analysts in Zagreb agree the sharp fall in support for EU membership is linked to disappointment with government policies.

Analysts say many citizens equate the government’s poor economic results - high unemployment, low economic growth and poor exports - with its efforts to lead the country into the EU. If the people felt their standard of living improved, support to the EU would increase, the analysts say.

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