Uncertainty remains over whether Croatia will actually join the EU in July and what it will mean if it does – while local elections will pose the first test of the government’s popularity.
By Boris Pavelic
With the historic date of EU accession approaching next year, Croatia differs from other post-Communist EU member states in awaiting membership with less expectations than they had, and much more uncertainty.
Accession to the EU, planned for July 1, will be the cornerstone event of the year, if it happens, but other important political and economical processes and events are in line for 2013.
Addressing the economic crisis is a no less important a task for the centre-left government than EU accession.
Local elections will also be held in May, and their results will indicate the standing of the coalition a year-and-a-half after it took power in January 2012.
Ever since it proclaimed independence in 1991, Croatia has proclaimed its desire to join the EU.
Croatia’s declared motive for separation from Yugoslavia in 1991 was the democratisation, Westernization and Europeanisation of the country.
Since then, all governments have declared their will to join the EU, though many acted to the contrary.
Brussels opened negotiations with Zagreb in October 2005, closing them in June 2012, the longest negotiations in EU history.
After the Accession Treaty was signed on December 11, 2011, the country was scheduled to become a member on July 1, 2013.
But it is unclear whether that plan will be realised, following unprecedented criticism from some EU member states.
Despite the signing of the Accession Treaty, monitoring has also been continued up until the time of accession.
The government has put a positive spin on this, saying that monitoring will help the country complete the remaining tasks.
But over the last months, important European voices have criticised the government for not undertaking reforms fast enough.
Perhaps the most important objection came from the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who claimed in October 2012 that Croatia “isn’t ready for EU membership”.
Recently, media reports claimed that some European Commissioners who earlier opposed the criticisms from some member states were also unhappy with Croatia’s performance.
Ten specific problems to solve by accession have been outlined by the European Commission, and the government claims it will address all of them by next April.
Among them are some whose results could be hard to assess, such as prosecuting war crimes or enhancing the judiciary.
If Croatia’s achievement in these fields is estimated differently by parliamentarians in various EU member states, problems with the ratification of Croatia’s EU Accession Treaty are possible till the end.
So far, 20 member states have ratified the accession treaty. Among those who did not are Slovenia, Germany, Britain and The Netherlands.
Slovenia has warned that it may block EU ratification if the bilateral dispute over the Ljubljanska banka is not resolved by the first half of 2013.
While the EU accession date remains uncertain, Croatia’s prospects as a member of the EU are also precarious.
After four years of economic crisis, it is not clear whether Croatia has the capacity to make the most of the European market, or whether its weak economy will suffer in the highly competitive European environment, losing more and more jobs in the process.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 jobs have been lost during the last four years, with the trend continuing.
It is also unclear whether EU member states will welcome such an economically poorly performing new member state, still suffering post-war transitional traumas.
Meanwhile, negative economic trends prevail, and the government has shows little decisiveness in pulling the country from its economic quagmire.
After Standard and Poor’s lowered Croatia’s credit rating to “junk” status in December by, the government announced urgent measures to make the labour force more flexible.
The Prime Minister and Finance Minister, on the other hand, also said the government would not cut public spending.
“We respect the rating agencies’ decisions but we perform on our own,” the Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, said.
So, despite promises of reforms, next year’s economic direction remains uncertain.
The government’s failure to stimulate investment in 2012 has worsened perspectives even more.
It remains to be explained how the government plans to initiate the planned investment cycle, and after Finance Minister Slavko Linic quarrelled publicly with private investors over the lack of private investment.
The big test for the government, a year-and-a-half after it took power in January 2012, will be the local elections scheduled for May.
The main ruling Social Democratic Party, SDP, and opposition Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, have already started to search for candidates for local authority posts.
The post of Mayor of Zagreb, home to a quarter of the Croatian population, is the most important of those jobs.
The SDP choice for Zagreb will also test the solidity of ruling coalition at the national level, as the coalition will have underlined its strength if it agrees on a common candidate.
On the other hand, major local elections defeat could mark the beginning of the end of the current government – especially if the coming year reveals as not the year of EU accession, but of continuing EU exclusion.