There were about a hundred people gathered in Zagreb’s central square, placards waving, slogans being chanted. Suddenly the crowd started surging around a point of commotion, baying with indignation. As I rushed forward with the other journalists I saw around a dozen police officers in riot gear hauling a struggling man into the back of police van.
These were Croatian nationalists intent on stopping their country joining the EU. The next day, the 22nd of January 2012, a referendum was due to be held to vote on accession to the 27 member bloc in July 2013. These people screamed into the cameras and at the police that this was giving away Croatian sovereignty to Brussels, and shame on Croatia’s leaders for doing so. The police remained steely faced and carted away about a dozen of the most intransigent demonstrators.
Before the referendum there was a marked divide between Croatia’s political class, who were almost unanimously in favour of EU accession, and the populace where opinion polls done only a week before had put the split as low as 50:50. People, I was told, were under-informed, misinformed and frightened. Fishermen on Croatia’s Adriatic coast thought, not without justification, that fleets of Italian trawlers would come and hoover up all their fish while their small family boats would be relegated under EU rules to mere pleasure craft for personal use. Farmers along the same coast, this time without justification, thought they would have to tear up their olive groves if Croatia joined. People said that the southern tourist towns would be bought up by foreigners and that Croatia would be made to bail out the likes of Greece, ruining its industry.
But once you talked to pro-EU Croatians, who were not in short supply, you heard a different story. “The economy is f****d,” one taxi driver put it bluntly, “destroy our industry? We have no industry left! We already sold it all. Our coast owned by foreigners? It’s already owned by rich Russians!” He has a point. Croatia’s credit rating is hovering just above junk status. It desperately needs investment.
“Without the confidence to investors of joining,” says Croatia’s cosmopolitan Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, “our budget is in serious trouble.” She’s out on the streets trying to explain to people the benefits of joining. Croatians aren’t used to seeing their politicians out on the street. As one local puts it, “we’re used to having our leaders up there on the hill (the parliament is perched above the rest of Zagreb) for us to either adore or hate. We’ve not actually had to meet them.”
Both the pro and anti EU Croatian public share a general distrust of politicians. Perhaps it’s healthy. Both Vesna Pusic and her opponent, nationalist party leader Ruzhia Tomasic share their own general feeling too. They both say the debate has been held in an atmosphere of general ignorance. Both though seem resigned to the vote taking place now. In fact the more I thought about it, the strident pro and anti EU voices were perhaps even a distraction. The vast majority of people seemed to have better things to do.
In the end 66% of the Croatians who voted chose join the EU, 33% were against. The turnout was just 43%. After all the hubbub the nationalists didn’t even show up on the square on the day of the vote. Neither did the pro-camp celebrate. You would hardly have noticed it.
On the way out of the hotel I thanked the receptionist with an unconventional, “welcome.”
“Welcome?” she cocked her head.
“Welcome to the EU.”
“Oh that! Thankyou,” she replied, then pausing for thought, “I didn’t much bother with it. Well at least it’ll be easier for you to come back.”
It was pretty easy to get into Croatia anyway, but I’m sure the nationalists and europhiles who care so much, and the rest who don’t, will still be there when I do return.