According to an opinion poll done at the beginning of October, only 49 per cent of Croatians want their country to become part of the European Union. This is part of a steady trend.
The first poll on the subject was conducted in July 2000, when support for the proposal was 70 per cent. It peaked two years later, in July 2002, at 79.4 per cent and has been going down ever since, reaching 51 per cent in June and sinking below the half mark in the autumn.
Some of this is linked to the ebbing popularity of the rightist government of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader. This year his support rating also sank below the half mark.
However, dissatisfaction with the idea of joining the European Union is not only the result of the usual East European dislike of whatever government happens to be in power. It is generally assumed that, had the poll been conducted a week or so later, the result would have been even worse.
On October 6 the EU announced that, while it intended to negotiate with Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia for membership, it reserved the right to break off those negotiations at any time, if the candidates transgressed the EU’s standards of freedom, democracy and human rights protection. It is felt by many in the Zagreb official circles that these criteria are rather broadly and flexibly defined.
Though some officials and politicians, like Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul, shrug off the problem, pointing out that either side can always break off negotiations, others disagree. One official in the Foreign Ministry said:
“This will create the impression that whenever it feels like it, Brussels can exert pressure on us, and, if we don’t let up, find an excuse to suspend negotiations, so all the sacrifices made so the country could be admitted into the EU could be in vain.”How could he possibly have thought that?
Other factors that drive public support down are the rules about agricultural produce, with the Croatian farmers feeling that they will not be able to compete with cheaper EU produce (and why is it cheaper, one asks oneself) and the inevitable and already omnipresent squabbles about fisheries.
Interestingly, the trend in Croatia has been somewhat different from that in countries that have already joined. There support fell after formal negotiations started; in Croatia that development has pre-empted the official talks. They could, of course, have learnt from others’ mistakes.
It seems, that apart from Turkey, the EU is not managing to sell itself very well. In Iceland, EU membership negotiations were not even mentioned by the Prime Minister in his annual programme speech and in Norway the issue seems to be off the political agenda. But these are rich countries with plenty of resources. They can define their own terms. Croatia and the other Balkan countries are poor and desperately in need of European help and support. The EU does not give those without the one vital condition: negotiate (on our terms) to join or be cast out into the wilderness.