18 January 2012

Croatia: Popular Sanction EU Style

Croatia is not, and will not be a member of the European Union until at least July 2013, but that has not stopped it from adopting the worst practices of the EU already. Next Sunday its citizens will vote whether to join the EU, and do so under the understanding that should they pick the wrong option, they will have to vote again.

The referendum scheduled for 22nd January is allegedly binding, meaning that should it pass the national assembly will be obligated to ratify the EU accession treaty. Should the referendum fall, however, the Minister of External and European Affairs has explained it will just be repeated six months, or one year later. A Yes vote then is binding, but seeing July 2013 is still far away, a No vote this Sunday may not even postpone the accession.

Naturally this is having a demoralizing effect on the opponents of Croatia joining the EU, which makes it all the more certain the referendum will pass at the first time of asking. Indeed, opinion polls indicate those who are opposed to EU membership are considerably less likely to turn out than those in favor. With the widespread understanding the government will make sure the country joins one way or the other, many opponents will not bother to engage in a symbolic, but futile act of registering their opposition.

Another factor which is skewing the field is that the campaign against the EU is wholly reliant on voluntary donations to the cause, but the government pro-EU campaign can spend money from the state budget. The latter has therefore been appropriately lavish, mailing a slick propaganda brochure to every private home in the country, setting up a propaganda telephone call center and buying up add space on 17 local television and 80 radio stations (which is to say the majority of TV and radio stations in this country of 4 million people). As large as it is the significance of the immediate pre-referendum campaign, however, pales in comparison to the significance of the sustained pro-EU campaign of the last 15 years on the national public television, which at one point stooped to such depths as to broadcast a series of EU-themed propaganda shows aimed at children (produced in cooperation with the European Commission).

That despite all of this support for EU membership hovers at around only 55% represents something of a failure of Europeanists to definitely sell the public on the idea of joining the flawed supranational proto-state obviously in crisis. Existence of headstrong anti-EU constituency among Croatian voters, however, has not moved a single parliamentary political party to improve its position by catering to this part of the electorate. The situation parallels that in Slovenia before its 2003 NATO referendum when the public was divided on the issue, but the political class was completely unanimous in its endorsement of membership.

Croatian opponents of EU membership ascribe aversion of notable political parties to adopt an anti-membership platform mainly to the politicians' keen sense of knowing which side their bread is buttered on. Indeed, it is unwise to downplay the importance of personal incentives in any situation, and particularly in this case seeing an added layer of bureaucracy the EU brings represents a veritable make-work program for politicians and their friends. The more fundamental reason why no party will step forward, however, has to be a lack of confidence. After all a party that did so and captured some of the sizable anti-EU constituency could do very well for itself and its friends nationally. This, however, would require a bit of boldness and daring — and that is something that is nowhere to be found these days, especially among politicians and then especially in Eastern Europe.


  1. If they do not get 'yes', they reserve a repeat vote, how typical.

    The propaganda aimed at kids is done also in countries that have been part of the EU for a while. I was on a flight with two middle-aged Czech businessmen, and one of them told me that his friend's daughter came back from a Civics class with a homework assignment: 'Ask parents why it is good that we are in the EU!'

    1. And once you do vote 'yes' it is the last time you will ever vote on it. To make repeating votes remotely balanced a 'yes' vote would also have to mean only temporary membership that would have to be renewed every couple of years — subject to passing a popular referendum.