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Anniversary woes

Christoph Hasselbach / db
July 2, 2014

A year after Croatia joined the European Union as its 28th member state, no one is celebrating. But that very sense of disillusionment might also be useful, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

A woman holds the EU and Croatian flags
Image: Reuters

Croatia, which wasn't enthusiastically pro-European before EU accession, is even less so a year later.

The reasons are obvious: economic, labor and investment upswings have not only failed to materialize - the country is even doing worse in some sectors. Unemployment has more or less reached the same degree as in problematic EU members Greece and Spain, the recession is going on five years and the government hasn't managed to get a handle on its budget deficit.

Unlike the situation in Poland and Slovenia after accession in 2004, foreign investment even decreased significantly after Croatia joined the EU - corruption, bureaucracy and a rigid labor market are obstacles for entrepreneurs. EU membership has shown that it isn't some miracle cure that can make everything better in a single stroke.

In addition, customs exemptions no longer exist for trade with other nations from the former Yugoslavia such as Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina, while imports from other EU member states present strong competition for Croatian products within the country.

Bad timing

But all that doesn't mean Croatia would be in a better position today if it hadn't joined the EU. Mainly to blame for the mood on both sides is the fact that the country joined at a difficult moment in time.

Christoph Hasselbach
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

When 10 countries acceded to the EU In 2004, people in both east and the west were delighted. It seemed as if Europe had finally overcome its decades-old division. So no one looked too closely at whether the acceding countries met all the political and economic criteria for membership.

Looking the other way came back to haunt the EU most recently when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007. Even today, some western governments accuse the two countries of massive corruption and deficits in their legal systems. Croatia was assessed much more harshly as a result.

In addition to that, the debt and financial crisis erupted and states like Greece, Portugal and Ireland had to be saved from bankruptcy. Now that the EU has teetered at the abyss, prosperous and stable northern EU states are no longer interested in saddling themselves with yet another problem child.

No stability without accession prospects

So, the mood has changed in general. Off the record, many have said Croatia was the last addition for the time being. This is something that people in other parts of the former Yugoslavia have taken note of. Yet Croatians who still pine for the "good old days" are clinging to an illusion. Globalization would have forced a painful process of adjustment in any case.

Then again, battening down the hatches and refusing to accept more member states might be the easy way out. The EU may not need states like Serbia, Albania or Macedonia for economic reasons; from an economic point of view they would probably be more of a burden than an asset for some time to come. But from a political point of view, the EU must demonstrate concern for lasting peace and stability in the former Yugoslavia.

The Serbia-Kosovo problem won't be solved without the prospect of EU accession. Although the accession process could take a while, people in these countries must be given concrete hope that their efforts are not in vain.

Balkans are not Turkey or Ukraine

People are certainly welcome to debate the European Union's ultimate geographic borders. The EU has been listlessly and dishonestly negotiating accession with Turkey for years, even though a clear majority in the EU is opposed to its accession, and Turkey has for years been moving away from European values. People may argue whether Turkey belongs to the EU in a cultural sense.

People may also debate whether Ukraine and Georgia should become full members one day - or whether the price of enduring enmity with Russia is too high.

Certainly, however, the Balkans should have clear EU membership prospects. The region is too central to be left to its own devices as a constant powder keg. Of course, this goal must be achieved with the wishes of the people.

In fact, disillusionment on the side of both Croatia and the rest of the EU can be helpful: the states that joined 10 years ago surely view a European perspective more realistically now than they did before. A little more realism wouldn't hurt longtime member states, either.

In effect, the pendulum seems to have already swung from being blindly enthusiastic about new members to categorically refusing them - before it hopefully comes to rest in a reasonable middle position.