Abstract and Keywords
Croatia’s accession to the European Union (EU) meant, in political terms, the recognition of its political and normative-institutional achievements in the establishment of a nation state and the democracy. At the same time, for the vast majority of Croatian citizens EU membership also had a symbolic meaning: a departure from the troubled past and a return to the Western, European cultural circle, which they have always felt they belong to. This feeling is the source for the strong pro-European orientation, which, as state independence was being achieved, and democracy established—as an expression of the strong political will of Croatian citizens for freedom and autonomy—helped achieve those historical and political goals. The EU was perceived as a framework that would enable those goals to be realized, so there was a general political consensus about joining it among all relevant political actors, and the vast majority of Croatian citizens granted their consent.
The path to full EU membership was long and arduous, primarily because of the specific conditions that marked the process of establishing a Croatian state and a democratic order. On the one hand, these are endogenous structural and socio-cultural factors: the structure and activity of political actors and the functioning of institutions, which were significantly marked by their authoritarian political and historical legacy. On the other hand, was a war of aggression and a struggle for freedom and independence with long-lasting and difficult social and political consequences. These specific conditions—which none of the other acceding countries had—slowed down the process of democratization and, consequently, hampered the EU accession process.
All these reasons are why Croatia had the most comprehensive and longest accession negotiations, including the most extensive body of pre-accession conditions. Although the extent and duration of negotiations, as well as the lack of expected support from the EU (especially during the war) have led to an increase in Euroskepticism and criticism of the EU—and consequently to the low turnout in the referendum for accession—the pro-European orientation remained dominant in Croatia. In general, public support for EU accession in Croatia was based on a set of mutually connected factors: identity-based (cultural affiliation), institutional-political (democracy), and utilitarian (socioeconomic benefits).
In the period after joining the EU, due to insufficient preparation, Croatia has relatively slowly used the opportunities (especially economic) provided by EU. Nevertheless, EU membership has accelerated the increase in institutional capacity and better use of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). At the same time, the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services, and the opportunities brought by the open EU market, had a double impact: strengthening the economy due to greater orientation toward the EU market, but also slower economic growth, due to structural problems (the lingering power of the state, and regulations to the economy and the market) and increased emigration of the highly educated younger population (chronic labor-force deficit).
Nonetheless, through Croatia’s participation in the EU institutions, the real benefits of full membership are becoming increasingly visible, and the sense of integration in the EU’s social, political, cultural, and economic space is growing stronger. At the same time, EU membership affects further improvement of the normative-institutional framework of Croatia.
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