Capital Zagreb
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 385
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .hr
Currency Kuna (1EUR = 7.26HRK)
Land Area 56,594 sq km
Population 4.5 million
Language Croatian
Major Religion Roman Catholicism

From Zagreb with Love: On the Bounded Rationality of Euroskepticism and Europhilia in Croatia

By Maja Šoštarić

When asked whether they trust European Union institutions, only 7% of Croats respond that they have a lot of confidence, while a meager 35% would admit that they trust the EU to some extent, reported the Gallup Balkan Monitor 2010. By the same token, as the Eurobarometer 74 reveals, only 9% of Croats would answer positively if asked whether they trust their own government. Moreover, only 9% have confidence in the national parliament, only one-fifth trust the judiciary, and a miserly 5% find the political parties in Croatia trustworthy.

Is something wrong with the Croats? After six strenuous years of negotiations, Croatia has just closed all the negotiation chapters with the EU and has been granted an actual accession date: July 1, 2013. Still, according to the media, except for the political elites, not many people in Croatia are really looking forward to this event, nor do they judge it historic. Europe seems to be watching this with some unease.

“One of Europe’s Stars”

Any Croatian citizen born before the mid-1980s certainly remembers a music video that was broadcast on Croatian national TV an infinite number of times in the early 1990s: a smiling man in a crimson suit playing the piano and singing a song called “Stop the War in Croatia.” It was a song in English, with subtitles in Croatian, displaying panoramas of Croatian landmarks, videos of politicians at summits as well as the picture of the Grand Palace and the EU gold-starred flag in Brussels, calling for the EU to act and put an end to atrocities in Croatia.

One of the strophes clearly summed up the commitment of a newborn European state: “we want to share the European dream. We want democracy and peace. Let Croatia be one of Europe’s stars. Europe, you can stop the war!” Even small children and people who spoke no word of English knew “Stop the War” by heart.  Tomislav Ivčić, the singer, died in a car accident afterwards. His song significantly marked the first years of Croatian independence, and the wish to join the twelve members of the then-European Community (as of 1992, the European Union) was rather salient in Croatia of the time.

Low Trust Plus Low Support Equals Three Questions

However, things developed quite differently in the 21st century. Following the death of the first president of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, his party (the right-wing HDZ) lost power in 2000. The opposition, led by the left-wing SDP, took over and governed until 2004. Until that time, domestic support for the future EU-membership of Croatia was outspoken and consistently strong: it never fell below 70%, according to the data presented in a paper by Professor Aleksandar Štulhofer, who nevertheless emphasizes that the support was paired with surprisingly low levels of trust in the EU institutions.

Yet after 2004, an opposite proportion between the inclination to join the EU and confidence in EU institutions became a clearly linear one: low trust was now accompanied by equally low support for joining the club. Was there any particular reason for that drop in support? Some observers noted that, while in the Eastern European countries the predominant reason for support of EU membership was doing away with their communist past, what mattered for the people in Croatia during the early 1990s was, rather, to distinguish themselves from the Balkans- a region historically associated with wars, bloodshed and riots.

Nevertheless, in the first decade of the 21st century, something changed dramatically. There are many reasons that scholars and observers offer in order to explain the shift, and some of them find that shift detrimental or even destructive. At the beginning of 2011, the EU Parliament expressed concern in its resolution due to the rising levels of euroskepticism in Croatia. Be it as it may, prior to voicing an individual attitude on whether EU membership is good or bad (on which, per definition, should not be discussed at this point, since the matter is inherent to every citizen separately), every person should in principle ask three basic questions.

These questions would be: is hesitancy to join the EU present in Croatia, and to what extent? Second, if it exists, what is the logic behind it? And finally, what can be done to spark off a sounder debate on the EU in Croatia?

The Existence of Euroskepticism in Croatia

Euroskepticism has become a rather common term in dictionaries. So has its antonym, europhilia, which stands for the concept of wholehearted enthusiasm for everything related to Europe. While euroskepticism in general denotes criticism of the EU, there are still nuanced differences between various standpoints that are often (by mistake) all categorized as euroskepticism. Within the member states, it can be distinguished between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ euroskepticism. ‘Soft’ euroskeptics are not against the existence of the EU, but rather critical of the way it functions. They do not support further integration either. On the other hand, ‘hard’ euroskeptics call the very existence of the EU itself into question.

Moreover, according to a 2005 journal paper by Flood and Usherwood entitled Positions, Dispositions, Transitions: A Model of Group Alignment on EU Integration, there are as many as six different groups of attitudes related to the EU: eurorejectionists, who are generally opposed to the EU; revisionists, demanding revision of EU policies and returning to the status before important EU treaties were signed; minimalists, who accept the EU but reject any form of further integration; gradualists, who see EU integration as a gradual and long-lasting process; reformists, who lobby for a constructive dialogue for reforms; and maximalists, who are the EU-friendliest group, supporting rapid further integration.

Skeptical, hence Irrational?

Observing the trends of skepticism in Croatia, Aleksandar Štulhofer notes that there are three types: rational, irrational and combined. Rational euroskepticism is based on cost-benefit analyses and takes into account material advantages and disadvantages of EU accession. On the contrary, irrational euroskepticism is designated as laying on the foundation of symbolical values and pure nationalism. As a synthesis of the two approaches, combined euroskepticism signifies an identification of EU institutions with national institutions and, given the low trust in the latter, a necessary and sufficient cause for skepticism.

Is an inclination or disinclination towards the EU really a matter of ratio, however? In a recently conducted survey, one of the most prominent Croatian NGOs, GONG, asked about 30 intellectuals, professionals, farmers, students, pensioners and activists, who had previously declared themselves to be critical of the EU, about their concrete reasons and arguments for such a position.

The survey project was sponsored by the EU office in Zagreb. What came out of the discussions is, in the first place, that these people disliked being dubbed ‘euroskeptics,’ because according to them this term in Croatia has come to denote a person who is “closed, conservative, xenophobic, ethnocentric and anti-democratic.” One can also add “provincial” to the list, as europhiles in Croatia sometimes brand their adversaries. The theory behind this is that euroskeptics do not perceive the benefits of the EU-integration, because they are simply not cosmopolitan enough to understand them.

Until Labels Do Us Part

There are plenty of such speculative and doubtful explanations that do not really contribute to a democratic debate. Neither does the conclusion that, because there is not one single explanation of it, euroskepticism in Croatia is automatically irrational. Sometimes this reasoning is also called ‘bounded rationality’, implying rationality under limited conditions. In other words, a person with limited access to information can draw conclusions as rational as their knowledge and their intellectual capabilities permit them to. This, too, is a rather unconstructive contribution to the debate around euroscepticism. One could argue just the other way round: europhiles too make their decisions under the condition of bounded rationality – as human beings all do, in the end.

And yet, if the referendum were today, Croatia would actually join the EU, unlike two years ago, at the peak of the global economic and financial crisis. According to the newest polls (end of July 2011) conducted by the Ipsos-Puls agency, 82% of Croatian citizens would vote at the referendum, with 60% voting in favor of the EU, 31% against and only 6% of those undecided.

The lowest level of support expressed was from those among the ages of 18-24, as well as among people who have only a high school education. Moreover, the lowest level of support is among the residents of the regions previously affected by the war: Lika, Banovina and Slavonia. The most supportive of the EU are persons between 55 and 64 years, followed by the young between 25 and 34. Also, those who have university education largely support joining the EU (63%).

So, to provide an answer to the question from the beginning: yes, critical sentiments towards the EU are indeed present in Croatia, as pretty much everywhere else (both in the present member states, such as the UK, Latvia, Hungary or Austria, as well as in candidate countries). Whether the term ‘euroskeptic’ is actually the correct one, however, would probably require a separate study. It is, however, sufficient to establish that a different standpoint on rationality does not automatically imply irrationality. Croatian euroskepticism can, due to a number of motivations linked to it and the lack of general information about the accession process, rather be referred to as a set of many dispersed, individual doubts that are difficult to address according to unique propaganda.

Behind Euroskepticism in Croatia

Which arguments are most often cited against joining the EU in Croatia? A simplified categorization would be the following: right-wing partisans fear the loss of national identity for which Croatia fought so much; the leftists quote the EU as a dangerous core of liberal capitalism; many citizens perceive the EU institutions as proxies for national institutions, which they distrust, while another large group of citizens will argue that the EU itself is in bad shape today, and that the vulnerable Croatian economy does not need additional shocks from the financially wobbly Union.

But simplified categorizations should be avoided as much as possible. A number of very concrete reservations against the EU were quoted in the GONG survey mentioned above. Participants complained of an information deficit in the Croatian media (for instance, the important EU treaties such as the Maastricht or Lisbon treaties have still not been officially translated into Croatian), insufficient media coverage as well as the absolute lack of debates on the relevant issues.

In the spirit of what is sometimes referred to as ‘ethnocentric euroskepticism,’ a portion of respondents fear the loss of national sovereignty, for which many Croats have lost their lives over the centuries. This is also publicly problematized in terms of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Maintaining good relations with the ICTY have always been part of EU membership conditionality, and, as of 1996, they have been part of constitutional law in Croatia. When former General Ante Gotovina was extradited to the Tribunal in 2005, this was quoted as the source of many a Croatian’s resentment against the EU. The verdict against generals Gotovina and Markač in April 2011 did not greatly affect the overall level of support for the EU, though.

Furthermore, concrete problems were identified in the areas of agriculture, fisheries (the fact that protected fishery zones are commonplace in the rest of the world, whereas Croatia had to give up its own zone during the blockade of some of the acquis chapters by Slovenia), the irrational use of land, a lack of administrative capacities, as well as the unpreparedness of small Croatian businesses to keep up with the EU competition.

Another point of concern was found in what the interlocutors have dubbed the ‘political darwinism’ of the EU (the survival of the fittest), the lack of trust in an honest referendum in Croatia, as well as distress over issues of health care reforms, ecology or religion (Croatia being a Catholic country, and Christianity no longer being explicitly recognized in the Lisbon treaty as Europe’s predominant religion). This is just a small portion of arguments mentioned by the survey participants.

Debunking the Myth

Against this background, we can point out some of the peculiarities and hallmarks of the EU-related discussion in Croatia.

First, the public is often served the data that has previously been measured against different benchmarks. As pointed out above, low levels of trust in the EU do not equal low support for actually joining the EU. In fact, these two are separate indicators. Additional questions such as “Do you find the membership of your country in the EU to be a good thing?” is a third possibility, whereby the list is far from exhausted. Croats are often portrayed as euroskeptics on the basis of their distrust in the EU-institutions which is, according to the Gallup Balkan Monitor 2010, equally low in other countries of the Balkans, such as Serbia, Bosnia or Kosovo. In the previous years, the level of EU support was higher in these countries than in Croatia, but the figures are constantly fluctuating. Be it as it may, the fact is that on the day of referendum there will be only two possibilities to choose from: ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’

Second, one of the reasons why euroskepticism is associated with backwardness by the political elites as well as by part of the media is the fact that the EU is cited as synonymous with Europe. Many Croats underline that they do not oppose Europe; in fact, they know that Croatia has been part of European civilization, culture and tradition for centuries. It is the EU they question, for some of the reasons argued above. Some Croatian political leaders use the phrase “we’re going to Europe,” which is a blatant contradiction in terms: it is neither on the map or in the history book of South America or Australia that one can find this little central-European, Mediterranean croissant-shaped country.

Third, a surprising fact is that the Croats support some forms of EU integration even more than the current member states. According to Eurobarometer 74, back in 2009, 67% of the Croats were supportive of the Eurozone (as opposed to 58% of EU citizens), 74% were in favor of the common foreign and security policy (65% of EU citizens), whereas 66% supported further EU-integration (contrary to only 43% of EU citizens). All this implies that the Croats are either not EU-realists, or that Croatia represents a model- EU member state.

Triggering the Debate

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it,” Molière once concluded. Every Croatian government up to the present moment has had this in mind. The challenge is a double one: to convince the EU and to convince the Croatian people. It seems that the government has shown a lot of bravado in doing the first: all negotiation chapters were finally closed in June 2011.  Whether they have achieved the second point will be made clear on the referendum day, this coming winter.

The sound debate prior to the referendum is primordial. As demonstrated above, labeling the opponents of Croatian EU-accession merely as euroskeptics would be erroneous. By the same token, approaching their concerns as ‘fighting euroskepticism’ is a false strategy. What Croatia needs, in the eve of the referendum, is a sound and extensive discussion. Everyone needs to be heard much more than simply persuaded.  Similarly, the media should serve as a source of information, and not of propaganda (the short videos that the national TV has been broadcasting are not sufficient as a source of information). It is not relevant for analysts to argue in favor or against- it is fully up to the voters to decide whether they want to see Croatia in the EU or not; however, generalizations, stereotypes and condescension are in no way helpful.

Too much focus on a certain goal often makes us take for granted the issues that are actually of utmost importance. That must not happen before the Croats decide to enter the EU: as many points as possible should be made clear. A small segment from a literary classic illustrates this vividly. In his fascinating, even flabbergasting novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera describes the following scene: the protagonist of one of his stories, Mirek, is nervously trying to escape the police.

While driving as fast as he can, looking in the rear-view mirror, he suddenly realizes that, when on the road, he has never in his life paid attention to the landscape. His single preoccupation had always been to get to a certain point – the rest, the path leading to that point, was irrelevant, just décor. And yet, quite the contrary is true: nothing on the road is irrelevant. Both Croatia and the EU should keep that in mind.

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