Zagreb and the EU—Five Years after the Accession

The Croatian foreign policy path turns from the Brussels-Berlin-Belgrade line to the Three Seas Initiative and position in the Central Europe.

In July this year, Croatia will celebrate its ve years as a full member of the European Union. And while this is a cause for celebration and overeager boosting of the politicians’ ratings, Croatia fares among the poorest and least developed European countries. After a notable start, marked by unpleasant situations such as the dispute over the implementation of the European arrest warrant, the poor use of EU funds, the opening of an excessive de cit procedure, and the unclear situation within the European Union, during the last year things improved for Croatia, and great bene ts from membership did emerge.

In four and half years of EU membership, Croatia had one presidential election (2013), two parliamentary elections (2015 and 2016), two European elections (2013 and 2014), two local elections (2013 and 2017), and one referendum (2013). Considering this, 2018 is first annual cycle without elections in the last six years. The political scene is continually represented by the Croatian Democratic Union [Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ] and the Social Democratic Party [Socijaldemokratska partija, SDP], with important coalition partners in various spectrums of conservative, liberal, populist, regionalist, agrarian, and single-issue parties. All these parties are primarily concerned with domestic issues and the foreign policy is mostly reserved for the disputes with the neighboring countries, primarily Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Slovenia.

Croatia Is at the EU’s Bottom Line by the GDP per Capita

These domestic political parties, however, have not been very successful in two pressing domestic issues connected to the Croatian EU membership: the use of EU funds and emigration. When it comes to Europe, the focus in Croatia remains on the funds, which are a means rather than a goal. Next couple of years will be very important for many, both for Croatia and for Europe, because the whole continent is in the middle of a debate about our future. Croatia is now in an equal and substantive capacity to contribute to the creation of a common future. However, no one should be satisfied with the results so far.

The Croatian government is working to increase the withdrawal of financial means from the EU funds. So far, 23 percent of the EUR 10.7 billion of funds allocated to Croatia has been contracted in the financial perspective by 2020. It is necessary to focus on rural development and less developed areas as well as strategic projects of national importance. The complainant points out that significant simplification of the bidding procedure is expected soon, which will hopefully increase the number of application entries. In Croatia, young people have to be in focus, as it is in the EU. Dialogue and understanding are needed, but not out of sight of national goals.

Croatia is now in an equal and substantive capacity to contribute to the creation of a common future. However, no one should be satisfied with the results so far.

Despite all the benefits of membership, Croatia is at the EU’s bottom line by the gross domestic product per capita. Romania has also come to this end, Bulgaria is behind it. Unemployment in Croatia is still large, far higher than the EU average, although it is steadily falling. However, this decline in unemployment is not only due to the creation of new jobs but also to the negative demographic trends. The aging of the population, the departure of young people into work in other EU countries, and the reduction of the workforce have had a good share in reducing unemployment, not just investment in solving this problem.

How to Stop the Negative Demographic Trends

Because of the extreme negative demographic parameters and trends, Croatia is today among the ve demographically most endangered countries of the European Union. By the end of 2016, Croatia had no positive demographic indicator and population issue became crucial national question. It is estimated that it in the period 2011 to 2021 over 450,000 less people will live in Croatia. Also, it is expected that in the next ve years Croatia could enter the society type with extremely old population. Thus, strong measures are needed in order to stop the negative demographic trends.

In 2017, several new measures were introduced, such as the increase of the parental bene t and subsidizing housing loans for young families. However, considering the weight of the condition, additional and more powerful measures will be required to set demographic revitalization as the key issue to the economic foundation and the overall development of Croatia. Only in 2016 did 36,436 Croatian citizens emigrate to the more prosperous EU countries, and 56 percent of them were between ages of 20 and 44! Croatia is now approaching Latvia and Lithuania in losing more than 10 percent of its population, especially after its fifth year of membership, when several work and living moratoriums will cease to exist.

Croatia Deepens Its Relations with the Visegrad Group

Although there is more and more action against Croatia in relation to EU institutions or with other members, there are not many problems that would be the result of political conflicts—if the question of demarcation with Slovenia is solved bilaterally. Some of our MEPs have a prominent role in the European Parliament. Until 2015, Andrej Plenković, the current Croatian Prime Minister, was the head of the European Parliament delegation for Ukraine and the vice-chair of the Foreign Policy Committee.

Despite all the benefits of membership, Croatia is at the EU’s bottom line by the gross domestic product per capita. Romania has also come to this end, Bulgaria is behind it.

The vice president of this important board was received by Dubravka Šuica. Social Democratic Representative Tonino Picula is chairing a delegation for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and other members have notable roles.

At the end of 2016, Maja Bakran, then an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European A airs, became Deputy Director of the General Directorate of the European Commission, which is the highest-ranking official of the Croatian Commission since the position of the Commissioner is considered political. Two Croatian diplomats succeeded in becoming Ambassadors of the European Union: Romana Vlahutin in Albania and Hido Biščević in Tajikistan.

Still, the foreign policy is not of Croatian origin. Zagreb mostly follows the European trends, which has become increasingly difficult to comprehend. The Three Seas Initiative stands out as one of the unique policies where Croatia plays a major role. As Poland became increasingly isolated and marginalized in the EU, Croatia has been working intensively to deepen its relations with Warsaw and other members of the Visegrad Group, culminating in the Three Seas Initiative, started by the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Polish President Andrzej Duda. Croatian European People’s Party (EPP) MEPs have voted in the European Parliament against a resolution that has twice condemned Poland. HDZ’s deputies voted against the will of the EPP, together with the Hungarian Fidesz and the Euro-deputies from the right-wing groups, but on the second day, probably after pressure from Zagreb, all but Ivica Tolić’s voice changed to “reserved.” Croatia is still reserved regarding the EU’s pressure against Poland and evoking the Article 7.

Slovenia Is Loud in Attacking the Three Seas Initiative

Poland has a significant voting machine in the European institutions and uses them to expand its anti-Russian campaigns and for economic initiatives that are a threat to the transport corridors of the old member states, especially those in Germany and the Netherlands. This is a well-known backbone of the Gdansk-Rijeka or the Three Seas Initiative, which would bring significant Chinese capital to Central Europe. Therefore, Poland is particularly hit by Western European governments. Warsaw dared, as well as Hungary, to think with its own head and build a political system in which people feel at home.

A country that is loud in attacking the initiative is Slovenia. Prime Minister of Slovenia Miro Cerar issued a harsh threat about the imposition of sanctions on Poland because of the conflict with the European Commission. This unexpected outburst of the Slovenian prime minister comes after threats to Croatia for the lack of compromised arbitration proceedings endorsed by the European Commission and Berlin, although it has undoubtedly been corrupted by the Slovene judge and the Slovenian diplomat. According to Cerar’s words, the members of the Visegrad Group as well as Croatia will find themselves on the opposite sides of the European Union policy, which will contribute to an even greater divide that has started when the German chancellor imposed economic solutions after the world economic crisis ten years ago, in order to prepare for quicker recovery of the European Union. Brexit was the first divide that came up, and after settlements with the migration crisis, it also led to the greatest division within the EU, because the members of the Visegrad Group remained firmly in position of strong protection of the Schengen borders which at one time Angela Merkel practically destroyed.

A Turning from the Brussels-Berlin-Belgrade Line

The Croatian foreign policy path turns from the Brussels-Berlin-Belgrade line to the Three Seas Initiative and position in the Central Europe. Slovenia and its prime minister could ironically help Andrej Plenković and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović to force Croatia into the Visegrad Group and the Three Seas Initiative, from which Slovenia is about to come out soon, opening a political front against three important members of the Initiative: Croatia, Po-land, and Hungary.

Zagreb mostly follows the European trends, which has become increasingly difficult to comprehend. The Three Seas Initiative stands out as one of the unique policies where Croatia plays a major role.

When the prime minister of one small two-million state, Slovenia, points sharp threats at the larger members of the same community, it means that these statements represent a message of something bigger that needs to happen.

In mid-July, the British magazine The Economist, in a text titled “Germany fears Trump will divide Europe,” commented on the support of the US president of the Three Seas Initiative, launched by Croatia and Poland, and about which he talked with the Croatian president during her visit to Warsaw. The initiative is presented as a project of improved transport and energy links between the north and south of this region, but Berlin suspects that behind it are hostile motives. The respected journal stressed that Germany is criticizing Poland for the attacks on the media, judiciary, and non-governmental organizations. Warsaw raises criticisms of its western neighbor for the construction of the “North Stream 2” gas pipeline, which will make Europe more dependent on Russia.

Croatia Did Not Prove Cooperative towards Neighbors as Expected

The regional capitals will have to think hard where their allegiance lies and what economic future they intend for their inhabitants. Croatian foreign policy is essentially in no way different from that of the other members of Central and Eastern Europe. In some segments, it is in line with the “big” member and somewhere connects to other centers of power, above all to the United States. Since there is no common EU foreign policy in practice, it does not have to be too much of a surprise.

Given the common destiny, it would be logical for the EU countries to have a common stand on different issues, but this is not the case in practice. The real question is whether Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, etc. are acting with certain interests or not. And in this case, the answer is multidimensional. Sometimes this approach was successful, sometimes not. As for Brussels’ expectations, Croatia has had a great opportunity to become a model for the rest of the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons it did not prove successful and cooperative towards neighbors as expected. At a time when the main focus of Brussels is on turning a part of the new member states back to the liberal-democratic course (primarily through the sanctions for collapse of common legal standards and the issue of influence of external power centers, such as the US, Russia, and China), Croatia must first have serious economic reforms for itself, without pressure from the outside.

Vedran Obućina

is a Croatian political scientist, specializing in Europe and the Middle East. He works as analyst and guest lecturer at the University of Rijeka, Croatia, and also develops a research interest in religious diplomacy, especially in the region of South-Eastern Europe. He authored a book on the political system of Iran and has written numerous other scientific articles, he attends conferences worldwide.

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