November 28, 2012

Party in Zagreb, hangover in Brussels

The European Union has been a work in progress since its creation. It has been enlarged 4.5 times in its 60 years of existence. When the EU started to spread to the East at the turn of the century, the enlargements have become a particularly festive affair. People in the new member countries met them with a lot of enthusiasm since they marked the symbolical end of the painful transition process after the fall of Communism. This was manifested in the major ceremonies in Brussels and in the 10 new Eastern members in 2004 and in the New Year’s fireworks over the skies of Sofia and Bucharest in 2007 when Commission president Barroso was crisscrossing the Danube River to take part in both celebrations.

When Croatia becomes the 28th member of the Union in July 2013, the country would also celebrate. After all, the whole accession process took over 12 years to be completed. But they won’t be so many fireworks over Zagreb (and not only because it’s not New Year’s eve). Croatians have always wavered in their support for the EU, from highs of 80% to lows of 25%1 and, in recent surveys, have been more critical to the Union than the Bulgarians, for instance. With the EU mired in the biggest crisis since its creation, the party in Brussels will also be kept smaller.

Still, the Croatians have many reasons to celebrate. With the EU membership in prospect, the country has modernized a great deal in recent years. It has also been able to put a lot of its war-torn history in the past with many war figures sent to the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. As recently as last week, the former prime minister of the country, Ivo Sanader, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison over corruption charges – something still unthinkable for other Eastern European members. Moreover, even still not being a member of the EU, the local economy is competitive and the average Croatian is richer than their counterpart in Poland (measured by GDP per capita). And more is coming – the EU accession really does mean access in terms of a large pool of cohesion funds to which only member countries are entitled.

So, Croatia does have reasons to throw a big party in the summer of next year. The European Union, however, does not since this will probably be the last enlargement for years to come. The euro crisis is not merely a distraction that will slow the further integration process; it has become a crisis of identity, questioning the whole direction of the EU – towards an even closer union (federation and super-state are just some of the words floating around) or towards disintegration and gradual dissolution.

For Croatia, being able to enter just before the door closes is yet another reason to celebrate. For the EU, it is a reason to think about the work in progress.

1http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12111568

Article at Project Firefly

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