Croatia treads cautiously forward with EU membership

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The people here are born, raised and die a stone’s throw from their home. Tablets and the like are seen as superfluous and detract from the real human connections people make in everyday life. McDonald’s and Starbucks exist, but they are few and far between. In this country, people may eat out perhaps once a month, but it’s an occasion, and most people subsist off of locally sourced food. Despite globalization, Croatians seem to be a people truly rooted in their own communities.

This worldview is reflected in the politics of the people of Croatia. Large-scale projects are viewed with a heavy dose of skepticism. Take for example the recent highway construction projects. Such an initiative provides the infrastructure necessary for further economic development and for fostering a more interconnected Croatia. For most citizens though, the roads’ most obvious accomplishment is in enriching a handful of contractors lucky enough to secure construction funds from the government.

There is little appreciation or patience for government initiatives at the macro level, not when there are much more immediate problems facing the people of Croatia, such as high youth unemployment (50 percent) and skyrocketing healthcare costs, as well as the public debt.

These reasons, as well as many others, help to explain the tepid response to Croatia’s EU accession. It’s not all bad news though. Croatians see a number of ways that EU membership will be in the country’s interest going forward, and many see the ways the EU has already helped Croatia develop from its troubled past.

Politically, the internal reforms and anti-corruption reforms imposed by the EU are credited with helping Croatia accelerate the cleansing process within its political parties and judiciary. The country’s deficit, long over 20 percent, has also been tackled in a robust manner by Croatia’s government as they pursued membership.

As one Croatian I spoke with named Domagoj Nikolic put it, “Economic success does not happen in isolation of policy and thus [sic] our problems are more systemic and political than anything else." The EU can be seen therefore to be providing the political reform that has long been the last thorn preventing Croatia from realizing its full potential. These top-level reforms are a great boon that can be credited to the EU membership process, but how will the nation build on these accomplishments now that they have acceded?