Croatia’s joined the EU. Now what?


For obvious reasons, both the EU and the Croatian government tried to make a big PR event and success story out of Croatian accession on 1 July, but the truth is that most Croatians felt little reason to celebrate.

Most people feel they deserved to become EU citizens a long time ago. At the same time, Croatia still isn’t showing signs of economic recovery, especially in terms of job growth, while the EU is faced with serious problems of its own.

Hopes that membership would bring instant economic benefits may have been true when Croatia first applied to join the EU ten years ago, but they are now long forgotten.

This is not to say that membership is not a good thing for Croatia. But the euro-optimism and euro-pessimism that dominated public discourse throughout the accession period, have now been replaced with euro-realism.

Croatia’s citizens, and hopefully its political elites too, are increasingly aware that the final outcomes of the road to Europe will depend on Croatia itself, on its ability to use the opportunities gained with membership, and to cope with the threats it also brings.

As for the Croatian workers, it is still hard to say what accession will bring them in the short or even medium term.

The labour law, and especially its enforcement in practice, should theoretically be strengthened by the process of harmonisation with European standards. But the reality is that workers’ rights – from collective bargaining to the right to decent and quality jobs – are currently under attack, both at a European and national level.

This is not only because of the flexibilisation of employment relations, which is being offered as panacea for high unemployment, but also the liberalisation and privatisation of public services and goods, which is high on the agenda of Croatia’s social-democratic government.

Last week, as Croatia became the EU’s newest member state, it also became the EU country with the third highest rate of youth unemployment, after Greece and Spain.

The government is eager to be one of the first member states to fully implement the European Youth Guarantee, but the measures presented are far from well-designed, evidence-based or balanced.

Rushing its implementation could easily result in a missed opportunity to use this tool. However insufficient it might be at tackling the huge problem of youth unemployment, it still offers a possibility to improve the position of young people on the labour market with support of EU funds.

Nine countries, including traditional destinations for Croatian migrant workers such as Germany and Austria, have temporarily closed the labour market for Croatians, but the brain drain of young workers – already a significant problem – is likely to increase.

The main problem facing Croatia in the coming years is that in spite of common European standards and policies, the responsibility of using EU membership to achieve balanced economic development for the benefit of all citizens, will fall increasingly on Croatia. The days of pressure from the European Commission, with its strict demands and requirements for membership, are over.

We can only hope that Croatia is mature enough to start implementing reforms itself, and not just because of the ultimate goal of joining the EU.

During the previous decade, we spent too little time discussing why we want to join, and what we want to achieve with our membership.

Now is the time for us to start thinking about what kind of society we want to build, and what kind of European member state we want to become.