Little joy - Croatia's path to the EU

In preparing to become the EU's 28th member state in July 2013, Croatia struggles with high unemployment and an ailing industry, among many other problems. Few are in the mood to celebrate.


The words "Mladi, napustite Hrvatsku" ("Youth, leave Croatia") are written in chalk on a small side-street between two houses not far from the city center of Zagreb. The message is an appeal to Croatia's youth to find their future outside of Croatia. Their country, the scrawled message implies, has nothing to offer them.


For five years, Croatia has been stuck in a deep economic crisis. And yet, a 15-page document from Brussels references a country ready for accession. Thus it is with mixed feelings that Croatia continues on its path toward EU entry.


It's a Saturday morning, with sunlight beaming into the inner courtyard of an old Croatian building. Tables are unfolded, with old books and used clothing stacked upon them.


Stay or go?


"We need money for our campaign, which is why we organize such flea markets," said Marko Gregovic, who, together with his "Za Grad" popular party ("For the City"), hopes to enter Zagreb politics in local elections.


"Lots of people are apathetic and apolitical," he told DW. "They lack a protest culture. People just aren't used to fighting for their rights."


Gregovic even believes that a "generational change" is necessary. "Our politicians are basically the same people who were in power 20 years ago," he said.


Gregovic, who studied in Norway, Sweden and England, returned to his country two years ago, at the high point of the financial crisis. "It makes no sense to leave your country, especially one that's slowly going down the drain," he said. "We all have to return and fight for our country."


Yet his colleague, Marija, is preparing for the opposite. For more than a year, she has been searching for a job. Now she's collecting her documents in order to leave Croatia. "Personally, I see the entry into the EU as a chance to find a job abroad," she told DW.


With youth unemployment at more than 40 percent, many Croatians will soon face a similar decision.


No improvement in sight


Not far from the flea market is "Dolac," a popular weekend market in Zagreb's city center. Large umbrellas block the sun and saturate the piles of mandarins and ripe apples below in red. Home-grown fruit and vegetables are in high demand, and milk products of all varieties form a ring around the market.


Visnja woke early to travel the 60 kilometers to Croatia's capital to set up her stand. Twice a week she makes the trip to sell her "sir," a soft cheese and something of a delicacy, at the price of 2 euros per "loaf."


"My husband and I can't live on just the sales here alone," she told DW. "He actually gets a pension, but in order for us to make it, we have to sell geese. Beyond that, we sell what we grow in the garden and, thanks to our cows, we produce this milk."


Croatia's agricultural sector will be hit hard by EU accession. Currently, many of Croatia's agricultural goods are exported to neighboring countries - an arrangement made easy by CEFTA, a free-trade treaty between the Balkan states. But with its entry into the EU on July 1, Croatia will be forced to exit that agreement; its exports to those countries will then be hit with a customs fee.


In addition, Croatia's entry will open its market to products from EU countries. Increased competition will place significant pressure on domestic products – products like those produced by Visnja and her husband.


"The prices will drop even more, and then I'll have to ask for even less for my cheese," she said. "At some point, it's just not going to be worth it anymore."


As Visnja speaks to DW, many clients come by but none buy anything. When Croatia enters the EU in July, she will not be among those celebrating.


The good ol' days


Ships are Sinisa Ostojics' passion - and have been for years. For twelve years, he worked for one of the largest shipyards in the country and then for another eight in sales for different firm. For the last five years, he's been working for an association of Croatian shipbuilders.


"In the 80s, we were third worldwide in terms of production volume, after Japan and Korea," he told DW. "We were basically number one in Europe. But then the war came, and everything came to a standstill. Today, we're in 14th or 15th place worldwide."


For years, the Croatian government subsidized all deficits incurred by the shipbuilding industry to keep such traditional Croatian businesses solvent. As soon as possible, Brussels hopes to abolish those subsidies. State subsidies of that sort run counter to EU law, and should they continue after Croatia's EU accession, the shipbuilding industry will have to pay them back. For some ailing shipbuilders, the only option will be to search for investors and take the companies private.


Though these changes will threaten thousands of jobs, Ostojics does not view the EU as "evil."


On the one hand, it does look as if the EU wants to impose some things on us," he said. "But that might be the only chance we have at making our shipbuilders functional and competitive again. Actually, we should have realized it ourselves that it can't go on like this any longer."


Like many of his countrymen and countrywomen, Ostojic will have to wait and see which of his hopes and dreams are fulfilled through EU membership - and which are not.




01.05. 2013