Sunday, 7 July 2013

Croatia and the EU: more questions than answers

Post for ShiftingGrounds

As preparations gathered pace in Split for Sunday’s celebrations, marking Croatia’s membership of the EU, the city’s local radio stations provided a fitting soundtrack. ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys seemed to play almost on loop throughout the day, filtering out of nearly every restaurant or coffee shop you walked by.
The country’s newspapers had been counting down the days. Despite public scepticism, there is a sense at least that Croatia has taken up its rightful place. The journalist Jenine di Giovanni wrote in her 2004 book on the Balkans:
“…this colourful image [of the Balkans] was exactly the sort that the Croats did not want to promote. They were not really Balkan people; they often told you they were Southern Austrians. The Croat denial fostered a sense of mixed identity in Zagreb. The people dressed in Armani but lived in apartments without central heating. They carried the latest Nokia phones but had no money in their bank account…
Their biggest grievance was belonging to a Balkan group they did not want to be part of. They saw themselves as a Western democracy.”
Yet identity and pride aside, it’s hard not to wonder what question the country’s EU membership is the answer to – not least when considering the way its political class has prioritised it over the last ten years (hence much grievance from them, too, on the extensive vetting the European Commission subjected Croatia to).
True, it – or rather the prospect of it – has been good for the region’s fragile peace, helping to hold the Dayton settlement in place. The scale and horror of Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina often obscure Croatia’s own crimes in the same country just two decades ago. It was the Zagreb government, after all, who connived with Bosnian-Croat forces to turn brutally on their Bosniak allies, aiming to tear off parts of Bosnia for their own, in pursuit of a lesser but still stark Croatian imitation of Milosovic’s expansionism.
Here Brussels has dangled EU membership effectively. It has used it to ensure Croatia properly complies with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes during the 90′s. The same incentive has also played a role in dissuading Zagreb from resuming support for still restless Bosnian-Croat secessionists.
But even still, in the long term it’s far from clear that the Bosnian question is totally settled. Leaders in Bosnia’s Republic Srpska – the Serb state within a state created at Daytan – have made obvious their own desire to secede. One of the main barriers to this at present is the lack of support they’re likely to enjoy from Belgrade, who are also on their best behaviour under promise of EU membership.
However, once this promise becomes a reality and the incentive disappears, that could easily change. In the ensuing melee, who knows how the Croats – now a member not a prospective one – would react. They may again see a opportunity to claim what isn’t theirs, especially given Bosnian-Croats have a (not insignificant) vote in Croatian elections. This is unlikely under the current SDP government, who don’t rely on those votes, but could be feasible if the centre-right HDZ returned. Certainly far right Croatian nationalism hasn’t totally gone away, as the uncomfortable amount of fascist graffiti scrawled across Split can attest to.
More immediately, however, there’s the prospects for the Croatian economy. Croatia’s bid for EU membership was kick started 12 years ago, when Western free-market capitalism – which post-Maastricht the EU has become the standard bearer for – was in its pomp. Entry to the EU represents in many ways the completion of long efforts by Croatia’s political elites to ‘harmonise’ the country’s economy with European orthodoxy.
Croatia’s economy today is thus completely deindustrialised (albeit this was aided by war damage); it is in large part a service sector economy, dependent on tourism and retail – which struggles to provide adequately for a lot of the country. Most of its growth in the early 2000′s was driven by consumer credit.
Sadly, between Croatia’s application and accession, the flaws of that model have been horribly exposed across Europe. Its economy is consequently stuck in our recession; at 20%, Croatian unemployment is worse only in Greece and Spain in EU terms (youth unemployment is over 50%). Its banks, largely foreign owned and piled high with European debt, are vulnerable. Household debt has shot up, as has government debt.
The dichotomy that di Giovanni wrote about has seemingly continued – though new shopping complexes have continued popping up across Croatia’s cities, absolute poverty has almost doubled over the last decade.
Despite the vague hopes of Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipović, it is hard to see how formal acceptance into the European club helps all this. Indeed in at least one sense it’s made it worse: one of the ugliest components of Croatia’s EU ‘preparations’ was the sight of Brussels forcing the privatisation of the country’s shipyards, which still make up a sizeable chunk of Croatia’s exports. In Split alone – across town from the palm-treed, tourist friendly promenade that hosted Sunday’s celebrations – this has seen over 1,000 people lose their jobs. The jobs of the remaining 2,000 workers hang in the balance, but if the private company which now owns the yard do take them back on, many will be on a part time or temporary contracts.
All of which leaves you with the feeling that a great country has been rather led astray. Croatia stumbles into the EU mired in recession, with falling living standards, and in desperate need of a new model of economic growth. The Commission needn’t have worried; it will fit in all too well.