Daily Archives: January 23, 2012

Croatia EU membership referendum 2012

A referendum on the EU accession of Croatia was held on January 22 in Croatia. On December 9, Croatia signed a Treaty of Accession but a referendum on the matter is constitutionally mandated. If all 27 member states ratify Croatia’s accession, the country should become the EU’s 28th member state on July 1, 2013.

Croatia’s accession process formally began in June 2004 when it became an official candidate country and negotiations between Zagreb and Brussels were launched in October 2005 and lasted until June 2011. Croatia faced two main challenges in the accession process: full cooperation by Zagreb with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and a border dispute with Slovenia. In June 2001, the ICTY charged Croatian general Ante Gotovina – a Croatian hero because of his role in the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s – with crimes against humanity, but Gotovina fled into hiding for four years day before an arrest warrant was handed down. He was arrested in Spain in 2005 and convicted to 24 years in jail in April 2011. While Croatian governments post-2001 have been willing to cooperate with the ICTY, public opinion has proven to be far more nationalist on the issue as Gotovina is still well regarded by most Croats as an hero of the country’s war of independence against the Serbs. There was an ephemeral surge in Eurosceptic nationalist sentiment in Croatia in April following Gotovina’s conviction. Until 2010, finally, Slovenia, an EU member, had blocked Croatia’s accession process because of a territorial dispute between the two countries (explained in full on Wikipedia) which was resolved in 2009 and ratified by referendum in Slovenia in 2010. Corruption and foreign land ownership (notably by Italians in Istria, which was Italian until the end of World War II) also proved to be contentious issues.

All major parties in Croatia are supportive of European integration. The conservative HDZ, in power until late last year, moved away from the authoritarian nationalism of the Tuđman era to traditional pro-European modern conservatism, especially under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader. Following Tuđman’s death, the election in 2000 of a Social Democratic government led by Ivica Račan and a liberal President, Stjepan Mesić, kicked off the accession process by transforming Croatia into a modern liberal democratic society. These policies were continued, enthusiastically, by the conservative governments of Ivo Sanader and Jadranska Kosor. No parliamentary party seems to have clearly said it is against EU membership – only far-right movements such as the Croatian Party of Rights have done so – but Dragutin Lesar’s Labour Party and the conservative-regionalist HDSSB both called for delaying the vote to allow for what they claim would be a fairer campaign by both sides.

The results were as follows:

Do you support membership of Croatia in the EU?
YES 66.27%
NO 33.13%

It is a fairly resounding victory for European integration, with two thirds of voters in support, but it is tarred a bit by the low turnout: only 43.51% of voters turned out to vote, which has led the far-right to say that 71% of voters either did not vote or rejected membership. I don’t know what to attribute low turnout to, but it is likely motivated by the sense that the resounding victory of the yes was an inevitability and that voting would not change much to what seems to be a fait accompli. The campaign – which was very short – did not seem particularly active or interesting. Besides, the opponents surely did not have the mobilization and financial resources of the yes side and could not really mount a major campaign of opposition. The government also warned that popular rejection of EU accession would cost Croatia 1.6 billion € of lost European funding.

Despite the low turnout, it is fairly clear that Croatian public opinion remains favourable to the EU. It seems a bit crazy for any country to be rushing to join the European Union in the midst of the European debt crisis in which the EU as an institution has fared pretty poorly. Enthusiasm has perhaps been diminished a bit by the debt crisis, but European integration probably retains much support because Croatia is due to receive 3.5 billion € in European funds over two years once it joins in 2013.

The map of the vote is quite interesting. I had expected opposition to be highest in the conservative and nationalist areas bordering Bosnia in Slavonia and Lika – basically the old war zones covering the territory of the old breakaway republic of Serbian Krajina in the 1990s. Nationalist parties and candidates have always performed best in that poor and rural region, but in the referendum there was little discernible difference between the vote in those regions and the national average. In some cases, such as in Slavonia, support was even higher than the national average. Opposition was highest in the counties of Split (40.7%) and Dubrovnik (42%). Politically, these two counties tend to be conservative, but they act less nationalistic as they lie outside the war zones. Dubrovnik especially and Split to a lesser extent are important tourist destinations, which makes the low support for European integration kind of puzzling. My only uneducated theory about the low support for European integration in Split and Dubrovnbik is that these two counties – which border the heavily Croatian counties of Bosnia – have closer economic ties with Bosnia. Dubrovnik county itself is split in two by Bosnia’s 20km-long seacoast in Neum, and the economic implications of this might have something to do with the level of support for EU membership. The northern inland county of Koprivnica-Križevci also saw pretty high opposition, just below 40%. I was a bit surprised support was just 68% in Istria, which has a reputation for being a liberal, tolerant and internationally-oriented place. Perhaps the issue of foreign land ownership by Italians played a role? At any rate, the map is rather interesting and I do hope somebody, someday, will do more research on the topic.