Dejan Jović, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Zagreb and Balkans expert, analyses the record of Croatia's membership in the EU, marked in his view by the intensification of nationalist rhetoric and the absence of a clear foreign policy.
How has Croatian foreign policy changed over these five years?
Croatia's EU accession process was relatively long and, in many respects, more challenging than it was for other candidate countries, now EU members. This has caused various frustrations. Until 2013, there was a widespread perception in Croatia that the country had no control over its international position, or that this position depended on others. The EU membership ended this situation of wait and uncertainty that had long characterised Croatian politics. However, some frustrations have never been overcome, among other things because the dominant political narrative has continued to feed them even after joining the EU.
A part of Croatian citizens considered it unjust that the EU had placed some additional conditions for membership of Croatia, tightening the Copenhagen criteria and putting pressure on Zagreb on cooperating with the Hague Tribunal and resolving some specific issues linked to the wars of the 1990s. To be honest, these pressures were neither unsustainable nor excessive, and with regard to some issues – such as confrontation with the past and the return of the Serbs who fled during the conflict – there was no pressure from the EU.
It is also interesting to note that, after joining the EU, issues related to Europe and the European Union have disappeared from the Croatian political agenda. EU membership has been Croatia's strategic goal, but today's question is: does Croatia have a strategy to turn its membership in the EU into a device to pursue both national and EU interests? I think that Croatia does not have any vision on the future of the EU, nor an idea of how it could contribute to its development. But this should not be surprising, since it is a small country, which has only recently become part of the EU and thinks that it has achieved its objectives.
Can one speak of a Croatian foreign policy pursued at the European level?
Croatia has tried a few times to promote initiatives at European level. One of these initiatives dates back to November 2016, when Prime Minister Andrej Plenković offered Croatia's help in the process of peaceful reintegration of the occupied Ukrainian territories. However, this initiative proved to be too big a mouthful for a small country that had just joined the Union.
Another initiative, led by President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, is only partly linked to the objectives pursued by the EU. This is the so-called "Three Seas Initiative", or the attempt to create an economic, political, and security union between the countries located in the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Sea basins. Since the launch of this initiative, which involves only the EU member countries, speculations have suggested that this was an attempt to create a union within the European Union, so this initiative has not led to great results either. The fact that US president Donald Trump took part in the last summit of the Three Seas initiative, held last year in Warsaw, has certainly not helped its popularity within the EU. In addition, the Croatian president has neither the political power nor the operational resources necessary to carry out such an initiative, because the executive power is in the hands of the government, and the latter has taken a rather "cold" attitude towards the initiative.
So, Croatia has nothing left to do but dealing with the same matters it used to deal with before joining the EU, that is the Western Balkans, even if the Croatian political leadership argued that joining the EU would mean "leaving the Balkans". Croatia is now in the paradoxical situation of wanting to be influential in a region that it claimed to have abandoned. Croatia has lost much of its influence in the Western Balkans precisely because it formally no longer belongs to this group of countries, so it should develop a new strategy – coordinated with that of the EU – towards the countries of the region. However, Croatia often acts on its own, compromising its relations with both other EU member states and Western Balkan countries. Sometimes these are attempts to teach lessons to other countries, other times – as in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina – to favour a certain ethnic group (the Bosnian Croats) to the detriment of others, and this type of behaviour is not welcome.
If we look at the issues dealt with by Croatian MEPs, we see that they are particularly active on issues affecting Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of their political affiliation. Their actions often appear as attempts to exploit their function not only to ensure the achievement of the objectives of Croatian politics towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also to help Bosnian Croats to achieve their particular goals.
Regarding relations with Serbia, Croatia has already taken advantage of the right to veto the opening of new negotiating chapters in Serbia's EU accession process. The resolution of bilateral issues will probably be postponed until the last moment, that is until Serbia finds itself a step away from joining the EU, which cannot happen without Zagreb's consent. The same strategy is also used against Montenegro, in particular with regard to the dispute on the Prevlaka peninsula.
Croatia is using its EU membership to influence the accession process of its neighbours. To be clear, this is a legitimate strategy, but not a very constructive one. Croatia was also subject to similar pressure from Slovenia, when Slovenia had already become a full member of the EU, while Croatia was still in the accession negotiations. Only once it became part of the EU was Croatia able to react to the unfavourable decision to resolve the question of the Gulf of Piran via international arbitration.
Summing up, I would say that Croatia's attitude towards the Western Balkan countries was much more cooperative and constructive before its entry into the EU than it is today. Prior to joining the EU, Croatian policy was guided by the idea "across the Balkans to Brussels", which implied that cooperation with other Balkan countries was crucial for joining the EU. Today, on the other hand, it is guided by the idea "through Brussels to the Balkans", which means that Croatia is exploiting its EU membership to achieve its goals in the Balkans.
When we talk about attempts to use EU membership to put pressure on the candidate countries to achieve certain goals, can we expect Croatia to be able to influence the accession of other countries to the same extent that Slovenia was?
This depends, of course, on the attitude of the other member states towards further enlargements. If some member states happened to be skeptical about a further enlargement, Croatia could, if it so desired, condition or block the accession process for example of Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alone, it cannot do it. No small EU member state has such power; conditionings of this type are always the expression of a widespread sentiment within the EU.
In the European Union there is the rule: "One like no one", meaning that the difference between one and two is greater than the difference between zero and one. Two countries are already a serious obstacle. So, if Europe were to decide that it is in its interest to accelerate the accession process of all Western Balkan countries – and this, in my opinion, would be the best thing to do, even if the prevailing attitude is different – attempts to block the accession of some countries would not be welcome, indeed they would be regarded as inappropriate.
After Croatia's entry into the EU, there have also been some noticeable changes on the internal level...
One of them is the re-emergence of nationalist rhetoric, and partly political practice, which had been tempered and relegated to the background – although it had never completely disappeared – during the accession process. During the accession negotiations, it would have been too risky to openly express certain nationalist ideas. Croatia had to show willingness to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal, but also on the question of the status of minorities. After all, these obligations derive from the conditions underlying the international recognition of Croatia in 1992. However, after the entry into the EU, all disincentives to nationalism have disappeared.
The intensification of nationalist rhetoric – especially between 2012 and 2016 – is also a consequence of the emergence of similar trends in other member countries located on the EU periphery and similar to Croatia in some respects, such as for example Poland and Hungary. Nationalism, however, is not an exclusive characteristic of the Balkans or of the countries of Central Europe – we have seen it re-emerge in Britain, which has self-marginalised after the victory of the nationalists in the referendum on the exit from the EU.
Also with regard to some of the reforms adopted before 2013, regarded as done and irreversible – in the sense that Croatia was deemed to have successfully reformed the judiciary, the economic system, and the political system – it emerged that the initial forecasts had been a bit too optimistic, or that some of these reforms had been simulated. The accession rule applies: "Reform, or learn to pretend". Two others are: "Increase the number of your best friends and decrease the number of your enemies within the EU" and – this is a message aimed primarily at pro-European politicians in countries where there is a widespread indifference towards the EU – "Ignore public opinion". Croatia is a "Euro-indifferent" country, where most citizens did not vote in the referendum on EU membership. Euro-indifferent countries are not disappointed with what they have achieved by joining the EU, because they did not expect much.
Can you explain what you mean by Euro-indifference?
It is when public opinion is neither enthusiastic nor skeptical, but thinks that entry into the EU is inevitable, because the main European countries say that "there is no alternative". So, a country's entry into the EU will happen when the most powerful member states come to the conclusion that the country is "ready" for membership, therefore the decision does not depend on the progress made by the candidate country, but rather on the political dynamics internal to the EU. The candidate country has no control over the accession process, so it makes no sense to be pro or against Europe.
In the countries of the Western Balkans, there are many people who, as regards the process of EU membership, reason in terms of "whatever will be, will be", so they behave as objects rather than as subjects of that process. This consideration is partly valid because the sovereignty of the Western Balkan countries is conditioned by external factors, so much so that these countries do not have full control even on all matters related to domestic politics.
However, I would say that in the last 7-8 years Euro-indifference has become a widespread phenomenon even in other countries located at the "internal periphery" of the EU. These countries believe they have not benefited sufficiently from EU membership, or that they are not treated equally with other member countries, or even that some decisions taken by the most powerful member states – such as those concerning the refugee crisis or monetary policy – harm them directly.
Divergences within the EU are growing. Today we can look at Europe as an onion. There is a centre; then there is the first circle around the centre – the so-called "inner periphery"; then another circle, or the external periphery of the EU which includes the candidate countries. Finally, there is a third circle, much more active than the first two, which includes external actors able to influence European policies, such as the United States, Russia, and Turkey, which represent a sort of alternative to the EU, advocating illiberal or even anti-liberal ideas. These external actors will soon be joined by Britain, which will seek its place among the countries of the outer periphery and will be increasingly active in the Western Balkans – something that will already emerge at the forthcoming Balkans summit in London.
Thus, Europe is becoming an increasingly complex reality. The promise of "one Europe" today is challenged by the policy of "more Europes". In the countries of the European periphery, the conviction that the centre is the only one to benefit from the EU is increasingly widespread. On the other hand, however, these countries do not show a great desire to leave the EU, because they fear that in this case they would be even more marginalised compared to the centre of Europe, or that they could become targets of Russia, the United States, or Turkey. Some wish for this scenario, but many fear it.
It seems to me that contradictory attitudes towards the EU are emerging in the internal periphery, including Croatia. On the one hand, some say "it is better that we stay inside" because it is the only solution, or the lesser evil, while on the other hand no one shows excessive Euro-enthusiasm, and neither do Croatian citizens. Many think that Croatia cannot do much to strengthen its position within the EU.
Earlier, you mentioned the Three Seas Initiative. Do you think that Croatia could try to further strengthen ties with countries that are already moving away from the EU?
Considering the current balance of power on the Croatian political scene, I think Croatia will remain a loyal member of the EU. It does not seem likely that Croatia will decide to clash openly with Brussels. Nevertheless, Croatia, like the other European peripheral countries, will be on guard against the possibility of a bipolar or multipolar situation on the EU borders, in which the EU would not be the only protagonist. The involvement of external actors in Croatian domestic politics is stronger than it was in the past, as evidenced by the case of the Agrokor consortium, handed over to Russian banks, or the project to build a GNL terminal strongly supported by the United States.
In terms of foreign policy, the idea of having an alternative to Europe, a "B plan", took shape in the early 1990s, and this alternative was the United States, whose support Croatia sought in periods when Europe showed little effectiveness or inclination to support Croatian politics. Croatia relied on the United States when it was not satisfied with Europe's attitude, such as during the military operations of the Croatian army in 1995 or, more recently, during the deadlock in relations with Slovenia. This policy is also pursued by current Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, albeit without great success.
However, as I have already said, I believe that the dominant trend in Croatian politics will remain oriented towards Brussels, at least as long as Andrej Plenković remains prime minister. Meanwhile, as in other countries, anti-European forces like Živi zid will continue to emerge, insisting that Croatia's entry into the EU has not only had positive, but also negative effects. It should not be forgotten that 25 million people have emigrated from the Eastern European member states since 2004 – the year of the first Eastern enlargement. In addition to the demographic deficit, there is also a large trade deficit in these countries. This has created a space for political manipulation, a fertile ground for the emergence of anti-European and anti-liberal forces that advocate the closure of borders, the abolition of the Schengen Treaty, and other populist ideas.
As regards Croatian domestic politics, can we expect that it will continue to insist on national and identity issues, or could the situation change given the persistence of economic stagnation?
Identity issues remain important, in fact they are at the core of the programmes of Croatia's two main political parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Most Croatian citizens continue to vote for one of these two parties, although – as public opinion polls show – they are not satisfied with their politics. Identity politics is rooted in Croatia's history, marked by moments of great divergences. In other words, it arises from the geographical, regional, and cultural fractures that characterise Croatian society.
These divergences have been temporarily, and only partially, attenuated with the definition of great "national objectives", such as independence, territorial reintegration, and membership of NATO and the EU. Now that these objectives have been achieved, we try to create an artificial division between "us" and "them", so that citizens vote above all on the basis of this logic, rather than on the successes and failures of various public policies. The discourse on the need to unite and mobilise to counteract the negative demographic trend aims to create a new "national policy" that should put a brake on the polarisation and pluralisation of Croatian politics. We'll see how far this rhetoric will go.
As for nationalist ideology, it has so far been used as a weapon against the Serbs and the "Yugoslavs", as well as against the "communists", but today it is more than apparent that these ideas are outdated. The new Croatian nationalism will be increasingly anti-European, anti-liberal, and anti-immigration. It will be linked to right-wing neopopulism, will be inspired by the Orbán policy, and will insist on the reduction of individual rights, partly won during the period of liberal socialism that preceded the beginning of the wars in former Yugoslavia, and partly during the EU accession process in order to demonstrate that Croatia was an open society.
However, although the new Croatian nationalism may resemble that of Poland or Hungary, it has been shown that in Croatia civil society and the independent media are able to counteract some regressive tendencies. I think that the outcome of the clash between liberals and anti-liberals will be crucial for Croatia's future. At present, both sides have the chance to win but, regardless of how it ends, neither option is destined to disappear in the short term. In this sense, I think Croatia will not necessarily end up like Poland or Hungary, because there is still the possibility of taking another path. A road that Plenković's HDZ seems to have already embarked on, adopting a pro-European and surprisingly liberal attitude, which is to a certain extent contrary to the dominant political tendencies in other countries.
For example, the HDZ has never so openly confronted the Catholic Church as it recently did on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. At the same time, the challenges posed by the Catholic Church and right-wing populists today are greater than ever. Some new non-governmental organisations, conservative and right-wing, enjoy strong international support and are part of various international networks. These organisations are trying to radically reinterpret all the achievements of liberal-socialist Europe and those of Croatian humanism and republicanism. It is a very serious attempt, not to be overlooked, just as there are serious tendencies to historical revisionism, present not only in Croatia, but also in many other European countries. In Croatia, the first revisionist tendencies appeared as early as 1991, earlier than in Eastern European countries. Equally worrying is the spread of nationalist ideas among the population, as well as the return of conservatism on the Croatian political scene.
However, there is still hope for Croatia. The younger generations are giving life to new progressive tendencies. Many young people are fed up with nationalist rhetoric and constant reference to the wars of the 1990s. I hope that at least some of these young people decide to stay in Croatia and commit to making it a better place to live.
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