The Guest Blog

Guest post by Senka Neuman Stanivukovic, a fellow of the international relations department of Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG) in the Netherlands.

What is happening with Croatia? While considerable steps are being taken towards EU accession, one also traces growing euro-skepticism among a wide and diverse range of Croatian citizens. Indeed, the government is facing signs of growing public dissatisfaction with the directions the country is taking in her internal and external affairs. Accordingly, if the goal of accession to the European Union, which most of the political elite and general public has been striving for over ten years, is so near, how come the people are so dissatisfied? Ongoing and ever-growing anti-governmental protests show that the people do not shy away from raising their voices not only against the government of Prime Minister Kosor, but also against the EU in general and Croatian accession to the EU in particular. And even though these activists are often only united in the fact that the current government must go and must go soon, one cannot but notice that many of the banners carry anti-EU slogans. An alarming 40 percent of the population is against Croatia’s accession to the EU. More importantly, euro-skepticism is evidently growing not only among the likely opponents of EU-accession – the farmers, the fishermen, war veterans, and the political right, but also among societal groups, which were traditionally more prone to support EU accession – youngsters, intellectuals, and the political left.

The problem arises from the way how the EU is, or rather is not, communicated to the citizens. Sadly enough, we have failed to learn from the previous enlargement round, with the accession negotiations being as non-transparent and elitist as they were in the case of Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs). Rather than as a public dialogue, EU accession is communicated in a very top-down, state-centered manner, where the government processes information and consequently briefs the public mostly about the events that speak in its favor. As a result, the negative side of accession is often left open to speculation of various media and societal actors. Still, even though the lack of transparency in communicating the pros and cons of EU membership to the electorate is not unique to the Croatian political elite, when it comes to supporting the accession, an average Croat shows a considerably higher degree of skepticism than his Czech, Polish or Hungarian counterpart did in 2003. This article discusses why citizens are not really euphoric about Croatia becoming the 28th EU member state. Rather than outlining obvious explanations that the public is fearful of losing national sovereignty or reacts against negative consequences of economic integration on Croatian traditional industries, I tackle this problematique by asking a more fundamental question – who governs the government of Croatia in the process of EU accession?

Croatia finds herself in a paradoxical situation where the government, whose legitimacy has been severely shaken by Sanader’s resignation in 2009 and was not recovered ever since, feels more accountable to an external supranational body than its own population. Where is the logic in that? And, how should one call this form of governance? Governance by conditionality is a sound mechanism in transforming political and social structures of EU applicants if the broad public supports EU accession and/or reforms linked to EU accession. However, the question of what happens to governance by conditionality if the electorate in candidate countries shows limited or no support for both EU accession and reforms linked to the accession arises. While recognizing that the public sentiment about the Union is a multifaceted and volatile matter and thus deserves more complex elaboration, three key issues arise from the above-discussed.

First, if the majority of Croatian citizens is in favor of the ongoing and deep-cutting reforms in judiciary, economy and public administration, how come the government opts to conduct these fundamental changes only in light of EU accession? Second, if the majority of citizens disagrees with conditionality-based reforms and consequently disproves of the country’s accession to the Union, what is the rationale behind the government’s pro-accession policies? For whose sake and whose benefit are these conducted? Third, if the public supports EU accession, while, at the same time, disagrees with the necessary reforms, one wonders why nobody has told the public that to accede, in its essence, means to reform. Should the job of communicating Europe be left to the national leadership or should Brussels play a more prominent role in explaining what Brussels is and what Brussels does?

Based on the above, one realizes that Croatia is yet another instance where the government of an acceding country and the Commission have confused the means with the ends. Simple equation of political will plus reforms equals EU accession is being reversed into a more problematic modus operandi where domestic political games, supported by the discourse on EU accession, should foster the reforms. Accordingly, the act of accession becomes a means in achieving various and often conflicting strategies of a wide spectrum of domestic actors ranging from political parties to civil society representatives. It is, therefore, an empty term in search of a meaning before it is downloaded to the domestic political context. Consequently, besides being a key mechanism of top-down Europeanization, accession conditionality is also a smoke-screen for political games of national and supranational actors. This is what enables one to link accession to a wide spectrum of domestic issues even in absence of a solid legal basis for such an act. Hence, when the Croatian Prime Minister, while responding to protesters, proclaimed “We can’t have both – it is either the EU or the protests,” she was just repeating a widespread political practice of strategically using the EU in a domestic discourse in pursue of a certain agenda. However, the accession criteria are not only being twisted by the domestic actors. European politicians have rarely missed out on the opportunity to place the accession criteria in the center of a wider political and/or historical debate. Is Turkey European enough to become a Member State, the importance of being called Macedonia, the Polish plumber campaign, or the tragedy of the Western Balkans are just few of the discourses that have marked or continue to mark the enlargement debate while having a weak or no link to the Union’s legal structure.

Thus, to bring the matter back to Croatia, seeing that EU accession often serves as a scapegoat for unpopular reform acts, and even more, because EU accession is, in the domestic discourse, often identified with political survival of certain actors, we should not be surprised that euro-skepticism is growing. Thus, one should not be flabbergasted when demonstrators, dissatisfied with domestic politics, next to vandalizing the flags of leading parties also take a hit on the EU flag, as they have done in Zagreb few days ago. This is by no means an act of a violent outcry against what EU accession in reality is. Rather, it is an outcry against what EU accession is presented to be.
Judging from the above, enlargement, in its essence, is a political rather than a legal mechanism of Europeanization. This is certainly not a new discovery. However, the politicized character of the accession process is very often forgotten when discussing the countries’ path to EU membership. Ultimately, the following question arises: is this a bad thing, and if yes, should one call for deeper technocratization of the enlargement process in order to avoid occurrences such as the burning of an EU flag in the future? My answer would be no. If, hypothetically, the accession process would be reduced to the transposition of the acquis into domestic legal systems, and hence not be political and politicized to the extent it is at the moment, it would fail to serve its purpose.

On the one hand, Europeanization is a vertical process where the Union, by insisting on the transposition of the acquis into domestic systems of candidate countries, facilitates change in these countries. Whereas the downloading of individual acquis chapters is a pivotal instrument of Europeanization in the accession context, it also tends to be a very technocratic and state-centered procedure exempt from scrutiny of the wider public. Although the public interest in the accession process varies from policy-area to policy-area, depending on a number of domestic veto players, generally, due to the way how Enlargement Treaty law and practice position accession negotiations, these extensively suffer from a democratic deficit. An often-cited example is the transposition of the acquis chapter on Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments in CEECs. Negotiations, aimed at building up the administrative capacity of the sub-national level to take part in the management and allocation of structural and cohesion funds, have been conducted bilaterally between the Commission and the central governments of candidate countries while excluding the representatives of net-beneficiaries from participating in policy-formulation. Similarly, whereas the Commission continues to stress the importance of candidate countries having a dynamic and well-functioning civil society, which plays a significant role in national decision-making, it itself fails to adhere to this norm vis-à-vis negotiations for EU accession. To give an example from the ongoing negotiations with Croatia, the working group for the preparation of negations on the notorious Chapter 23, Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, has no representatives from the civil society sector. Consequently, transposition of the acquis, as a vertical mechanism of Europeanization, due to the technical and state-centered character of negotiations, encourages change on policy-level, while having limited effect on more fundament transformation of practices.

On the other hand, this is not the whole story. Evidence form CEECs witness about Europeanization having complex and more profound effect on governance practices in candidate countries. Hence, Europeanization is not only confined to a vertical transportation of the Union’s body of law into the domestic legal system. Consequently, it is also not confined to bilateral negations between the Commission and the government. This is due to the existence of a horizontal dimension to the Europeanization process, which is not macro-managed by the Commission and as such involves and has an effect on a wide network of Brussels-based and domestic-based actors. Thus, even though the negotiations on Chapter 21 suffered from regional-deficit, by offering participatory access to actors from Central and Eastern Europe in a the form of various policy-based networks, Brussels contributed significantly to the pluralisation of these societies. Unfortunately, various analyses and reports on the accession process tend to forget that, despite of the state-centricity of the negotiations, Brussels became a relevant political platform for actors from CEECs already during the 1990s. The same is true for regions, localities, and civil society representatives from states that are yet to become EU members.

Furthermore, one tends to overlook the fact that the EU does the most when it does nothing. As stated earlier, various actors employ the EU in domestic discourses to enhance their position within domestic structures and policy debates. Hence, besides being referred to when discussing judiciary reforms, the EU has also participated passively in domestic debates on national sovereignty and identity, media independence, religion, economy, but also when dealing with soccer hooligans, national dietary habits and rituals, and recently, coming back to anti-EU segment of the ongoing protests in Croatia, the EU was employed by the government to legitimize the continuation of its term in office. On many occasions has this bottom-up twist to Europeanization, which by far exceeds the boundaries of accession conditionality, visualized inadequate governance practices and has enhanced democratization. Moreover, it has facilitated domestic debate about the EU and consequently enabled wider societal identification with the Union. Indeed, this politisation and/or domestification of EU accession steps in where conditionality fails. In the end, bad press is better than no press. Any discussion about the EU promotes the creation of a critical mass and consequently makes Croatian society more prepared for what comes after accession. Ultimately, since the EU has been constantly tailored and re-tailored to fit the strategic and normative needs of supranational, national, and subnational elites, it should not come as a surprise that the very same is done by all societal groups, even in the context of anti-government protests.

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  1. While I agree that the mere presence of the EU is an effective motor for further democratization in candidate countries, I believe that the government’s strategy to blame difficult decisions on Brussels runs the risk of ultimately diluting the attraction power of the Union. If all tough choices are made in Brussels, the national government appears weak, unable to put forward and follow through its own agenda. Moreover, the EU’s image becomes negative, some form of unjust colonial power insensitive to local needs, and thus the membership alternative is less appealing.

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