Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Here is a comment I wrote for Balkan Insight on the recent referendum in Croatia. I have added two tables that compare support for EU membership and support for the constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.


Last Sunday Croatia held its third referendum in the last 23 years. In 1991 Croatian citizens voted whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman. Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two third majority. The referendum was in fact a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, all be it not in the constitution. Furthermore, there is no effort to move towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages. As a result the initiators of the referendum—a previously unknown ultra-conservative group “In the name of the family” (with support of the Catholic Church)—achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside decried the result as evidence of a conservative, backward looking Croatia. This is, however, is one-sided reading of the referendum.  Firstly, only ten European countries open marriage to same-sex couples, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Thus, Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states ban same-sex marriage, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA the main European group lobbying for equal rights of LGBT communities—measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes—Croatia ranked 13th among 49 countries in Europe, at similar levels to Austria, Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries of Central Europe except Hungary. Second, attitudes in Croatia are no particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians and opposition to opening marriage to homosexual is not particularly pronounced. There are few recent Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening marriage to homosexual couples, but Eurobarometer numbers from 2006 indicate that the levels of the referendum outcome are do not make Croatia a conservative outlier. A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) did find that Croatia ranks as the country with high level of LGBTs who experienced discrimination and harassment (60% experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year), only Latvia has a higher level. The levels are similar in Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the countries of the EU that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but largely reflected Central and Southern European patterns.  Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, only 37.9% voted, thus with support for the initiative at 65.87% only a quarter of all Croatian voters endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. (below is added to the Balkan Insight Comment). Here it is worthwhile looking the 2012 referendum joining the EU. (added to the Balkan Insight Comment). As the table below shows, the support for limiting marriage is not inversely related to support for EU across counties in Croatia. In most counties citizens supported both. The only places where we can identify a clear discrepancy are Istria and the region around Rijeka where a majority voted again the prohibition of same-sex marriage, but for the EU.

Croatian ref percent

If we look at absolute numbers, see table below, a similar pattern emerges that support for accession to the EU was not lower where support for the recent referendum was high. The only region that is striking here is Split, where in fact more people voted in favor of the ban than voted in favor of joining the EU.

Croatian ref numbers

Thus, while there is a clear regional pattern of support and rejection of the ban on same-sex marriage (with more liberal regions in Istria,around Rijeka, and to a lesser degree in Zagreb and Medjumurje and more conservative regions in Dalmatia), it would be wrong to assume a straightforward liberal-conservative divide that translates to Euroskepticism. A second point of comparison is turnout (continued from the Balkan Insight comment). Turn out at the referendum is not as low as it would seem. Turnout in 2012 on joining the EU was less than 7 percent higher, 946.433 voted in favor of the ban, some 1.299.008 voted for joining the EU. Referenda often have low turn outs as they are usually able only to mobilize voters who are concerned with the issue at stake. It would be thus a mistake to consider the turn out a failure for the church and the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia were able to gain main-stream support for a social issue, rather than a national issue. While popular support for “homeland war” can be more easily generated, Croatian society, as other post-Yugoslav societies, have been overall unresponsive to social conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past). The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or to gain a majority, but it can dictate the debate. Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning Cyrillic, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to by-pass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or their threat). Slovenia has had some similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that among others blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher (10% of all registered voters), but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less the evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia, but of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

The show will go on: EU enlargement and the new German government

Signing of the coalition agreement, 27.11.2013 (author:CDUCSU)

Last week the German SPD and CDU/CSU signed the agreement for forming a grand coalition. This 185 page long document sets out the agenda for the new government has been negotiated now for some 2 months. It also discusses EU enlargement, making it a key document in assessing the perspectives for the EU integration of the Western Balkans in the coming years. German is not just an important member state, but with 75 percent of Germans against enlargement in the coming years, the country with the highest number of enlargement skeptics. The section on enlargement (p. 165) towards the Western Balkans is just one paragraph long (part of one page on EU enlargement and Eastern partnership), here in the German original (it thus did not receive much attention in the German press covering the coalition agreement, see SZ, FAZ  and FR):

“Die Erweiterung der EU ist aktive europäische Friedenspolitik. Die bisherigen EU-Erweiterungen sind im Interesse Deutschlands und Europas. Wir stehen dazu, dass dieser Prozess unter strikter Beachtung der Beitrittskriterien fortgesetzt wird und die Staaten des Westlichen Balkans eine Beitrittsperspektive haben. Sowohl Serbien als auch Kosovo müssen ihre eingegangenen Verpflichtungen erfüllen. Wir wollen KFOR im Einklang mit der Sicherheitsentwicklung schrittweise reduzieren und zum Ab-schluss führen. Gemeinsam mit unseren Partnern und Verbündeten werden wir die Heranführung der Länder des Westlichen Balkans an EU und NATO aktiv vorantreiben. Für die EU-Erweiterung sind die Anwendung strenger Kriterien und klar überprüfbarer Fortschritte wichtig. Maßgeblich sind sowohl die Beitrittsfähigkeit der Kandidaten als auch die Aufnahmefähigkeit der Europäischen Union.”

In essence, it maintains the German committment to EU enlargement and describes it as a peace project and German and European interest. However, it also points out that the process shall continue “under strict observation of the accession criteria” and later once more “strict criteria and clearly identifiable progress. Essential is both the ability of the candidates to join, as well as the ability of the EU to absorb the countries”. As a result, the coalition agreement suggest that the new German government will pursue the enlargement as in recent years. The multiple references to strict criteria, visible progress and the absorption capacity of the EU all suggest that enlargement will remain difficult and Germany, reflecting the larger tendency of the EU for member states to get invovled in the enlargement process, will assess the readiness of countries seperate from the Commission.

Some change is though likely: the composition of the new government has not been announced yet, as the SPD members have to first vote on the coalition agreement, but traditionally the junior partner in coalitions holds the Foreign Ministry. It is likely that an SPD-led Foreign Ministry will be more supportive of EU enlargement than the previous FDP-led ministry. The coalition agreement, however does note, that all EU policy decisisons will be particularly coordinated by the government under leadership of the chancellor and vice-chancellor, so there will be little room for a different policy of the SPD. In addition, the short mention of enlargement does also serve as a reminder that it is a low priority for the new German government.

Europe’s racism: Blonde angles and closed borders

Two events have made me ashamed of being European in recent weeks. First, more than 300 human die in the waters of the Mediterranean of Lampedusa trying to reach Europe. Poor and persecuted, woman, men and and children drown in the sea. The response of many, including Italian prime minister was  shock and recognition of the tragedy. However, the only policy response was muddled and shameful: it is about strengthening Europe’s borders. The stated goal is to also prevent people smuggling, but it is cynical to respond to the death of migrants with stronger controls.

Just a few days ago, European media, from Greece to Britain reported about a ‘blond angel’ found in a Roma camp in Greece. The immediate assumption of the many media reports was that the child, who was not biologically related to her parents, was abducted and that it must have been from Scandinavia or somewhere north due to the blonde hair and green eyes. The racist imaginary in these reports is striking on many levels. Besides (mostly unconsciously) drawing on old stereotypes about Roma abducting non-Roma children, it assumes that blonds cannot be Roma and the assumption that the child was used by the family. While European media might have been more sensitive if the case had involved Jews, Roma remain fair game for such stereotypes.

Much attention is paid when Front Nationale wins a by-election or the Freedom Party does well in Austria. However, the real worry should be elsewhere, the racism of the media that seem acceptable and the willingness of Europe to let refugees drown off its shore to protect some imaginary splendid isolation. Both events highlight that isolationism and xenophobia are no longer a national concern, but a European one and that just being European (and favoring European integration) is not enough. Europe needs a debate about racism and how we marginalize millions of Roma (and others) in our midst and we need a debate about migration and how Europe has become an immigrant society and how it needs to confront refugees risking their lives and often lots of money to get to Europe not with more border controls, but with more openness and support for those in need.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

The Debate continues: Serbian membership of the EU or EEA?

As a follow up to my comment on Boris Begovićs suggestion that Serbia should join the EEA rather than the EU, NIN has published a series of responses. These include a clarification by Boris Begović, a comment by Boško Mijatović sand Miroslav Jovanović. The latter two I am including below.

photo photo1












I am pleased that NIN is glad to see a debate gowing, so there will be further comments by Suzana Grubišić, the Minister for EU Integration and a representative of the EU delegation.

Quiet interestingly, this debate is going on in parallel with the debate of the UK-exit/referendum. Here, similar arguments have been made about the Norwegian model. Here, a comment published on Open Democracy is instructive, as it makes some similar arguments I am making for Serbia. Below is my response for NIN in a slightly longer version than the Serbian text that will be published shortly.

I am glad that my response to Boris Begović’s article has triggered a number of responses and is leading to a useful exchange. However, I regret that sometimes the tone of the responses descends to insinuations that is neither helpful not appropriate. I used the term “shortcut” for membership in the EEA, not because of some kind of Balkan stereotype, but simply because EU membership and the negotiations require profound reforms that are crucially important for Serbia. The alternative proposed by Boris Begović is to me neither realistic nor desirable.

Miroslav N. Jovanović suggests that the EU is not very attractive, with foreign debts rising, agriculture destroyed and people migrating. This is a very one-sided view. The foreign debt in new member state did not rise because of EU membership, but due to the global economic crisis. The fact that people migrated is also in part a result of EU membership and not necessary a loss for a country (he should know better, being a UN diplomat in Switzerland) : many have come back with money and new skills, as has been the case with Poles that left for the UK in 2004 and came back.

Of course, the EU and the members have many problems. However, to blame the EU for all of them is simplistic. While many EU citizens are skeptical towards the EU, and despite having undergone a deep crisis, only the Great Britain and Eurosceptic parties on the extreme left or right are playing with the idea of leaving the EU. This is telling that most EU citizens consider it better than any alternative.

Second, let me know outline why I think EEA-EFTA membership is not a likely alternative for Serbia.  Boško Mijatović is right to point out that EFTA has signed a free trade agreement with Serbia. However, this is not evidence for a possible Serbian membership. Some 33 countries around the world have also signed a Free Trade Agreement with EFTA, including Columbia, Ukraine, Mexico and Singapore, hardly plausible candidates for EFTA membership.

The 2012 EU report on relations with Norway, the most important EEA partner, notes that “EEA membership entails either EFTA or EU membership. Until now, the EFTA states have not wanted to enlarge EFTA.”  Thus, unlikely the EU which has a commitment to enlargement, EFTA has none. It is thus hard to see why EEA membership is more likely than EU membership.

In addition, the responses suggest that the EU is setting unfair political conditions that Serbia is unwilling to fulfill (the only concrete example given is Kosovo). It is not clear why the authors believe that the EU member state would not insist on these conditions to join EEA. Consider that membership in the EEA entails freedom of movement: i.e. citizens can take a job anywhere in the EEA, one can expect EU member state setting high criteria, including political demands.

Next, does EEA membership reflect Serbia national interests? Being an EEA member means that much of EU law needs to be implemented, but there is no ability to influence the content. The relationship is not that different than during the accession when future members adopt laws, but don’t sit at the negotiating table. It is no surprise that the EU noted that the “EEA Agreement is best suited to small states, which are accustomed to having to adapt to others and have no particular desire to influence developments in Europe.” I also do not consider the EU to be a ‘humanitarian organisation’, but the EU provides substantial financial support to many member state that, if well used, can have tremendous impact.

Finally, Kosovo. Boško Mijatović suggest that EU is a good trader and demands that Serbia gives up part of its territory for nothing in return. Two points :  The EU  has not demanded Serbia to recognize Kosovo. The EU has asked for the normalization of relations which does not need to entail recognition. While some individual officials from EU member states have asked for Serbia’s full recognition, this is NOT EU policy. Second, some of the polemics and other comments suggest that Serbia has to ‘give up’ Kosovo for the EU. Who is being unrealistic now? Kosovo is not under Serbian control (except 15% in the North), it is recognized by nearly 100 UN members around the world. Kosovo’s independence is a fact and will not go away. It is good advice of the EU to Serbia to come to terms with this reality. It seems a folly to foresake EU membership for the fiction of Kosovo. This brings me to the comment by Miroslav N. Jovanović.  His suggestion that the EU would ask for an independent Vojvodina or “Raška” is totally unfounded and belongs to the horror cabinet of extreme nationalist ideology and merits no further comment.  His argument that there are 1890 possibilities of a veto and thus it is hopeless to even start negotiations is unfounded. First, his math is wrong, because from July 2013, there will be 28 member states, not 27. Croatia had 1890 possible vetoes and it took 5 ½ years (October 2005 to June 2011) to conclude its negotiations. That is long (too long), but not impossible. Yes, Kosovo will make it more difficult for Serbia, but there is no reason to believe that negotiations would take substantially longer.

Europe without the Union

Below I am publishing the original text in English by Boris Begović (which he kindly provided) to which I posted a comment yesterday. I will also posted a response to my comment by Boris Begović, both of which will be published in NIN in the coming weeks and I am glad to open my blog to this debate and welcome also further contributions.


Boris Begović

Europe without the Union

Serbia should abandon the path to EU accession, that is has taken, for several reasons. (1) After the accession of Croatia, enlargement of the EU is postponed indefinitely, or at least for a long time. New membership should not be expected until, let’s say, 2023. (2) The question is how the EU will look like in ten years, having in mind increasing political crisis that is happening in the EU, resulted from efforts to resolve the issue of sovereign debt of its member states and structural adjustment of the Eurozone. It is most probable that, in ten years’ time, a completely different community can be expected, for example, a community of concentric circles where the outskirts would be much less integrated than the central countries. The future of British status in EU integrations will have a significant influence to the future structure of the community. (3) These two reasons indicate that EU membership at this point is a „moving target“. Serbia simply does not know what to „aim at“. (4) Our insisting on EU membership, through existing channels for accession creates extraordinary possibilities for EU member states to create political conditions for Serbia and its Government, which has little or nothing to do with the Copenhagen criteria; instead it is mostly formulated through insisting on good neighborly relations, which means, more or less, implicitly or explicitly, the acknowledgement of Kosovo independence.

Instead, Serbia should ask for membership in the European Economic Area (EEA), an institution solution based on full economic integration which is not follow by political integration. It includes four basic freedoms that currently exist in the EU: free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. Basis for EEA membership is access to a unique market, based on a customs union and other institutional solutions that enable full freedom in movement of goods, services and capital. EEA member state takes over the obligation to harmonize its regulations in the area of movement of goods, services and capital with the EU regulations, without having the possibility to influence them. Due to that, this type of arrangement in Norway, which is the largest member state of EEA (only), is called „fax democracy“. Free movement of persons is enabled through accession to the Schengen Agreement, which is not mandatory when joining EEA.

This type of arrangement would provide Serbia with full integration to the European economic area and strong competitive pressures on a unique market, which would create incentives for economic efficiency of companies and institutional certainty regarding free movement of goods essential for export oriented business ventures, which are necessary for Serbian economic growth. In such circumstances, where no one is privileged, business circles would have incentives to strongly influence domestic Government to implement institutional reforms in order to improve business environment in the country thus increasing competitiveness of domestic economy. That kind of influence would be strong and sustainable – which is better than conditions coming from Brussels, that are directed towards the resolution of their own problems, such as the project „Independent Kosovo“, and not ours, such as bad business environment.

Through this type of arrangement, in comparison to full membership (under present conditions), Serbia would lose: (1) donations from the EU Budget and (2) the possibility to influence politics that is being created in Brussels which needs to be applied in Serbia. The first loss is not so big. New EU member states currently get though (net) transfers around 1.1% and 1.8% of their GDP (except in the Baltic States). This is very, very small amount. And it is not even certain that this will exist in the new budget. The second loss practically does not exist. The existence of any possibility for Serbia to influence politics in Brussels is close to zero. The number of people that would represent Serbia in Brussels is not to be confused with their negligible influence, which would not depend on them personally. However, if somewhere in the future it is estimated that this level of integration is not sufficient and full integration is needed, the accomplished economic integration will not represent an obstacle – on the contrary.

In the area of diplomacy, through this proposal Serbia would start having active relationship with its European partners, and not just fulfill their ideas. I believe that some stakeholders in Europe would not like it, but they could do no other thing than to respect this shift.

It just needs to happen!


This text was published in NIN, December 13, 2012

The President of Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies and Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade

No shortcuts to Europe

Here is a small letter I recently sent to NIN, regarding a comment in December, but I am not sure it will be published. It comments an idea Boris Begovic launched namely that Serbia should no join the EU, but instead join the European Economic Area. The original article is behind the NIN paywall, but this idea is also discussed in B92, Vecernjie Novosti and elsewhere.

Cartoon from Novosti, 29.12.2012

In his comment “U Evropu bez unije” on 13 December 2012 Boris Begović makes a tempting suggestion: Serbia should abandon the difficult accession process to the EU with its supposedly changing criteria for membership and instead join the European Economic Area (EEA), Europe’s large zone of economic integration that includes all EU members, Norway, Island, and Liechtenstein.

His idea might sound tempting, but is nothing but an illusion.

It is true that the EEA creates freedom of movement, free trade, free movement of capital and services among its members and thus offer a key component of EU integration to non-members. The idea that Serbia could join this agreement without EU membership is, however, rather absurd.

Countries cannot join the European Economic Area directly. The economic area was established in 1994 between the EU and the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) and most their members. There is no possibility foreseen for a country to join that is not either a member of the EU or EFTA. So let’s consider the only option Serbia would have to enter the EEA without joining the EU.

First, it would have to join EFTA. EFTA has only four members, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Of the four members, only three are part of the EEA, Switzerland rejected membership in 1992 in a referendum. Serbia would be an odd partner for some of the richest countries in Europe. Furthermore, no country has joined EFTA since 1991 when Liechtenstein joined. The previous accession was that of Iceland in 1970, all others were founding members in 1960s. Countries left EFTA rather than joined it in recent decades to become EU members (UK, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Portugal were original members). Thus, EFTA is composed of a rather odd and small number of countries. Since no country has joined for such a long period there is no clear accession process, but membership would require agreement among all four member states. At the moment, there is little reason why Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein would be interested in free trade with Serbia. Now for the second obstacle: A country joining EFTA is not automatically member of the EEA.  The EEA agreement states clearly in Art. 128 that “… any European State becoming a member of EFTA may, apply to become a party to this Agreement. .. The terms and conditions for such participation shall be the subject of an agreement between the Contracting Parties and the applicant state. That agreement shall be submitted for ratification or approval by all Contracting Parties in accordance with their own procedures. “

What this means is that a member of EFTA can apply to join the EEA, but there has to be an agreement between that country and the European Union and all its members and needs to be ratified by all of them.

If Serbia abandons EU accession and then would join EFTA in the unlikely case that Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland find Serbia an attractive partner, the EU and its members would have to agree to join the EEA. It does not take a lot of imagination to see that the EU and its members are not going to eager to see Serbia access key EU benefits (such as freedom of movement of workers) by skipping the accession process and the conditions. The only scenario under which it would be imaginable for the EU to accept Serbia as a member would be if it had abandoned offering a membership perspective for the Western Balkans and saw this as a viable alternative. Still, Serbia would not be accepted without fulfilling numerous conditions, in particular in terms of adhering to the acquis communitaire, the EU legislation, that is relevant for the free movement of goods, people, services and capital before the EU and its members would be willing to accept Serbia. In brief, if Serbia decides not to opt for full EU membership and go for the EEA, it will still end up negotiating with the EU.

I am not going to comment in any detail the suggestion that an independent Kosovo is a problem of the EU, as if it had nothing to do with Serbia or the argument that the conditions of EU membership keep changing, or the suggestion that the financial contributions of the EU are “very, very small”. Croatia for example has 687.5 Million Euros set aside for the second half of 2013 alone, which is around 1.45% of the GDP of Croatia or some 4.2% of the Croatian state budget planned for 2013, hardly negligible amounts.

It is true that enthusiasm for enlargement among its member state is decreasing and that individuals members might make sometimes unreasonable demands. However, this is largely linked to the current economic crisis inside the EU. By the time Serbia is close to joining, it is realistic to expect that crisis to have passed and member state taking a more positive view towards enlargement. If Serbia pursues EU membership, it will be have an easier time to join then. Of course, Serbia can decide not to join, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that the EEA is a viable alternative or easy way to get some of the benefits of free trade and movement without joining the EU.

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

Serbia’s candidate status delay: Romania, the Vlachs of Serbia and the EU

After everybody expected a smooth confirmation of Serbia’s EU candidate status today, following the agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina last week and the support for status by Germany that had earlier blocked Serbia’s bid, the decision seems to have hit an unexpdected snag. Romania has blocked a final decision over the treatment of the Vlach minority in Serbia. This blockage is both surprising and worrying, even if it ended after just a few hours:

Romania had not indicated earlier any intention to block the EU candidate status for Serbia. It appears to have been a surprise by many observers . Such last minute efforts to push ones own agenda on such an important issue is clearly worse than a little sneaky. It undermines the already weak credibility in the region and leave the impression that accession countries can fulfill conditions, but member states will come up with their own ecclectic agenda. As a result, legitimate conditions are tainted by such requests. There is a further problem with Romania’s blockage: While the status of Vlachs leaves much to be desired, the treatment of the community certainly does not merit such an intervention. The most recent report of the Advistory Committee for the Framework Convention notes a number of problems, but nothing either that substantial or specific for the community that would merit such a drastic kin state intervention (if Romania is a kin state at all, a role not accepted by all Vlachs in Serbia).

Delaying Serbia’s candidate status is also likely to doubly hurt the Vlach, Romanian and other minorities in Serbia. The use of the kin state to block (even if it will turn out for a few hours) progress towards the EU over minority rights is only going to have a negative impact on minority rights. Of course, the EU accession process is a key tool to improve minority rights, but not like this: Giving Serbia candidate status and beginning negotiations is much more likely to improve the status of minorities than letting Serbia wait. As with other aspects of the accession process, the actual negotiations are the most effective tool to secure change rather than punishing a country. As a result, the Vlack minority will be more likely to benefit from the candidate status for Serbia as soon as possible rather than from Romania’s intervention at this point. Of course, once negotiations start, the minority rights agenda will be driven by the Commission, not by member states. This means that kin states like Romania now might be less interested in genuine minority rights and rather in flexing their smallish muscle and present themselves as the protector of national interests. Considering the large number of cross border minorities and kin states in the region, the Romanian delaying tactic is a worrying signal for the EU enlargement process and unfortunately unlikely to do much good for minority rights.



The surprising-unsurprising “Yes” for the EU in Croatia

The referendum on EU accession of Croatia gave a resounding “Yes” in favor of joining the EU. According to the final results, 66.27% of citizens who turned out voted in favor. The No vote got only  a third of the vote. Striking is that every county of Croatia voted in favor of joining the EU, even the most Eurosceptic region of Dubrovnik-Neretva stilled voted 56.93% in favor. The regional variation is thus not very great and there is no clear regional pattern except for the two southern regions of Split and Dubrovnik being more skeptical. Support was great in towns close to the EU, such as Varazdin and Cakovec, but also in poorer towns and regions like Slavonski Brod or Gospic. This suggests that the reasons for support were multiple. Opponents of the EU did not do well, even in strong-holds of more nationalist parties, such as in Slavonia where the HDSSB did well in parliamentary elections. Ironically, it would seem that the Euroskeptics did best on the Dalmatian islands of Brac and Hvar. For example in the two municipalities of Jelsa and Stari Grad on the Island of Hvar, support for EU accession was just above 50% (51.16% and 51.79% respectively). This would also suggest that rejection of the EU is less based on the nationalist arguments heard in the referendum campaign, but possibly on the sense of some tourist destinations that membership will not bring an tangible benefits. The few Bosnian Croats that voted (just over 6000, or 2.3% of eligible voters) endorsed EU membership with 87.85%.

The turn out in the diaspora was low, but so was it in Croatia itself. This somewhat puts a dent into the referendum results. Only 43.68% of eligible citizens voted. The low turn out is not unique to Croatia: elsewhere similar referenda often had an equally low turn out. Now it could be argued that the result is no surprise. No significant parliamentary party campaign against joining and even Ante Gotovina in custody at the ICTY endorsed the vote, undermining nationalist argument against accession. So no surprise? Well, there might not have been no surprise now, but only a year ago, Euroskepticism was high. Protests last year in Zagreb burnt the EU flag, even if protestors agreed on little else. For years prior, Croatia had become by far the most Euroskeptic country in the region. In 2009, according to the Gallup Balkan Monitor, only 26.2% of Croats thought the EU was a good thing, nearly half of the runner-up Serbia, in 2010 the number dropped to 24.8%. So were the numbers wrong? The referendum suggests two things about support for EU accession in the Western Balkans: First, citizens might be growing weary of the EU as negotiations drag on, once they are concluded, it is easier to warm up to the EU. Second, many citizens might not “love” the EU, but they consider it the least bad option. Thus among many “Yes” voters in Croatia today are surely also those who rather not take any chances, especially as the alternative remained unclear and potentially risky. Thus, even if support for accession is likely drop in the other countries of the region–as it so often dues in the accession process–this does not suggest that citizens will vote against membership at the end.

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