Ode to Joy: Croatia’s accession to the European Union

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There were fireworks and fanfares in Zagreb when Croatia became the 28th member state of the European Union (EU) on 1 July. The economic and cultural issues surrounding the accession are nuanced and this was reflected in the way both the European and International-based media reported the story.

The intertwined elements of public support, political rhetoric and media sentiment show that the Croatian government and the EU successfully promoted the socio-economic benefits of becoming a member state. EU expansion was reported as a key strength for the institution, countering less favourable macro-economic news.

Here are four main reasons for the Croatian government and the EU to be cheerful:

  1. Accession had public support
  2. Croatia will gain large-scale investment
  3. The EU’s commitment to expansion is the correct strategy
  4. Croatia is leading the Balkans towards a more stable future 

Prelude: the backdrop of an economic cloud

Before the positives, let’s start with the key area of concern – unsurprisingly, the timing of Croatia’s EU entry at a period of continental economic decline. The Sydney Morning Herald headlined how “Croatia joins the EU amid crisis” (2 July). Similarly, The Gulf Times reported that “Croatia wakes up as an EU member under an economic cloud” (1 July). Croatian news agency HINA reviewed what its contemporary agencies across Europe focused reports on and concluded that  Croatia’s accession to the European Union was cited as an historic event for the country against a backdrop of the economic crisis both in Croatia and in the European Union (1 July). These sentiments were available to other readers of the European-based press, but the focus in Europe was generally more about the celebrations.

 

1.       Accession had public support

Some of these headlines suggest a certain amount of fear but it’s worth noting that despite economic concerns the Croatian public has not abandoned its support towards EU membership.  Croatian accession to the EU was largely supported 10 years ago, with polls showing that over 80% of the public agree with their government’s policy. Since 2008, polls conducted by CRO Demoskop, Ipsos Puls and Mediana Fides agencies have shown that public support for the accession has wavered but not dissipated to such a degree that people are anti-EU integration. Membership has attracted between 55% and 63% support despite the continent suffering epoch-defining economic troubles in the last 5 years and Croatia itself being in a fifth year of recession, with 21% unemployment.

 

2.       Croatia will gain large-scale investment

The Croatian government has realistic expectations that it will receive billions of euros investment in the coming years, modernising its economy and infrastructure. Indeed, the EU will need to invest in Croatia to make the enlargement of the union work.

 

3.       The EU’s commitment to expansion is the correct strategy

The most supportive media attention identified how the accession represented a strengthening of the EU. There are several reasons why a successful Croatian membership is important for the EU. Here are the three main recurring themes reported across the European and international media.

  • Expansion equals strength. The accession shows that the EU still has a desire to expand at a time when many member countries are embroiled in a sovereign debt crisis. The importance of an expanding EU was most frequently mentioned in the German media. Verica Spasovska welcomed Croatia into the EU in her piece for Deutsche Welle (30 June). Spasovska explained that EU enlargement brings more benefit than harm to Germany. The Economist’s Charlemagne (29 June)  wrote that EU enlargement will become harder from now on, but that it would be a mistake for Croatia to be the last new member. The Wall Street Journal (2 July) offered Estonia as a successful example of the kind of free-market path a country like Croatia can follow.
  • Expanding trade links. Croatian membership opens its borders to a large number of EU neighbours, simplifying population movement and opening up its trade markets. Indeed, new free trade opportunities have been a recurrent positive theme in news of the accession overseas where the story otherwise received less prominence. Media in the Middle East focused on the free-trade negotiations currently being held between the EU, including for the first time Croatia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • Bringing stability to the Balkan states. Bringing Balkan states into the union is a central element of the EU’s plan to stabilise peace and security in the region after the conflicts of the 1990s.

 

 4.       Croatia is leading the Balkans to a more stable future

Balkaninsight.com reported that Croatia is vowing to bring the Balkans closer to the EU, as eight heads of Balkan states meet in Zagreb for the first of a regular series of meetings aimed at helping the entire region move towards EU membership (2 July). Following Croatia, regional neighbour Serbia was given the green light to begin EU accession talks in January 2014, and Kosovo is soon to begin talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

The importance of Croatia taking the lead is the central theme in both the government promoting the EU and the EU showing the positive influence it can have in the region.  It was no coincidence that soon before accession day, the EU brokered a new agreement between Croatia and Serbia with EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy stating that the deal helps “put an end to a period of conflict that erupted in the heart of Europe two decades ago”.

 

In conclusion

Throughout the accession period of the last 10 years, the Croatian government and the EU have been able to persuade the Croatian public that becoming an EU member will have more socio-economic benefits than pitfalls. The media attention given to Croatia’s accession being an indication of EU strength was key to counter-balancing macro-economic commentary. It will have been welcomed by the hierarchies in both Zagreb and Brussels.

 

Supplemental Case Study

 

How 5 years of austerity has influenced political rhetoric and public opinion towards the EU: a comparative study of Croatia and Spain

Croatian accession came at a time when feature articles were written across Europe about the Spanish falling out of love with the EU. When Spain became an EU member in 1986 it was widely viewed as a positive move by a population enduring economic and cultural difficulties in the years following the end of dictatorial rule. Over the last 30 years Spain secured large–scale investment as an EU member country, visible along the country’s tourist coastline, transport infrastructure, agricultural land and schools.

The Spanish government had to force through austerity measures since 2008 to secure its position as both an EU member state and a member of the Eurozone. In that time public opinion towards the EU has fallen dramatically. During the same period, the Croatian government was forced into austerity measures to secure its accession before it formally became an EU member. Both countries have endured five years of EU-driven austerity, but Croatians see light at the end of the gloom while it seems many Spanish people do not.

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In the past year the four most frequent phrases associated with Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s Prime Minister, and the EU have been:

save money’

‘double dip recession’

‘economic growth’

‘unemployment rate’

In contrast, Ivo Josipovic, Croatia’s President, has been able to use the accession to look forward and paint the EU in a positive light, especially in terms of it playing a crucial role in stabilising the region. He most frequently used the following phrases when discussing the EU. Not a euro in sight:

Balkans’

‘membership’

move closer’

‘regional ties’

The most common words used in all online media coverage of Spain in connection with the EU in the last six months include ‘tax’, ‘jobs’ and ‘years’. This shows why Mariano Rajoy is unable to promote a more positive EU message to his electorate.

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Online reports of Croatia in connection with the EU in the last six months  show that ‘economic crisis’ is very prominent, but it is placed within a context that the Croatian public find more digestible; ‘(end of) war’, ‘peace’, ‘border’ and importantly ‘Balkans’ are to the fore.

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