When on 22 January Croatian voters were asked whether they supported the Republic of Croatia’s membership to the European Union, 66 per cent of them voted in favor of the membership, while around 33 per cent were against proving that the western Balkans region did not entirely lose its interest in the EU despite the ongoing Europe’s debt crisis.
In addition, many Croats hope the accession will help the country’s weak economy and strengthen it through EU funds and full access to the EU’s common and job market as the country’s economy has been struggling in the past three years and has been burdened by recession, a $61-billion foreign debt and a 17 per cent unemployment rate.
Croatia’s EU accession treaty now must be ratified by all 27 EU members states, before the country officially becomes 28th member on 1 July 2013.
Low Turnout Even though Croatian officials were all satisfied with the outcome, many of them could not hide their disappointment with the low turnout of only about 44 per cent. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who only took office a month ago, attributed low turnout to “general disillusionment with politicians and the country’s economic difficulties.”
Furthermore, many observers commenting on the low turnout have explained that it also reflected a widespread uncertainty over what the EU membership would actually mean for Croatia.
In addition, one of the spokesmen for the anti-EU camp threatened legal moves, saying that the low turnout invalidated the referendum. However, according to the law, that was changed in June 2010 precisely to remove the minimum turnout requirement, a simple majority was required for membership to be approved and there was no minimum threshold in order for the poll to be valid.
Croatia to Loose its Sovereignty One day prior to referendum several people were injured and arrested in clashes between police and about 1,000 anti-EU protesters, who included non-parliamentary, nationalist and war veteran groups. They expressed their fears and warned that “yes” vote would mean loss of sovereignty only two decades after Croatia became an independent state.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic stressed that “Croatia will not lose its sovereignty or natural resources, nor will it be ruled by the EU,” and added: “Europe will not solve all our problems, but it’s a great opportunity.”
“Yes” Vote Positive Message for Rest of Balkans The EU officials welcomed Croatian referendum results and said that it “was good news for the Balkan region.” The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz stated: “The positive result of the referendum is a clear indicator of the continuing attractiveness of the EU. Membership is the right reward for the remarkable progress achieved by Croatia in its path to reforms in the recent years. The Croatian example also sends a positive signal and an encouragement to the whole South East Europe that when reforms are pursued, the EU responds accordingly, even if in the immediate future we need a phase of internal stabilization.”
Slovenia is currently the only EU member among the six former Yugoslav republics which joined in 2004. Nonetheless, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia all have aspirations to join even though all of them are still miles away from the membership. In December, EU members voted against starting accession talks with Serbia, Bosnia is even further away as the country is politically divided while Montenegro, considered by many to be a relatively success story, is still several years from joining the bloc as is Macedonia whose talks have been stalled by Greece due to a dispute over the country’s name.