From a difficult accession process to full integration into the Schengen area and the Eurozone, ten years into its EU membership Croatia has been a “good EU pupil” and an example for EU candidates to follow. However, challenges remain in reaching European standards, particularly regarding administrative reforms and standards of living.
When Croatia joined the EU on 1 July 2013 as the 28th Member State, it was the only European nation, except for Greece in 1981, to do so on its own. The newest EU Member’s accession was far from obvious due to complex political circumstances. Involved in the longest war in recent European history (1991-1995), Croatia was left with significant human and economic losses – 20 000 people killed and the cost of reconstruction amounting to 160 percent of GDP. The country’s difficulty to come to terms with war crime prosecutions, all of which were eventually acquitted, significantly impacted its relations with the EU.
Consequently, Croatia missed the 2004 (Central and Eastern European States) and 2007 (Bulgaria and Romania) rounds of accession and, somewhat ironically, was placed in the membership package with the Western Balkan countries and later in the accession negotiations with the eternal EU candidate Turkiye. Troubled border issues with Slovenia, then already an EU Member, further compounded the accession – unnecessarily as the Court of Justice of the EU confirmed in 2020.
Per aspera ad astra: a good pupil of the EU
The enlargement fatigue, which came as a result of the slow integration process for new members, enticed the Member States and the European Commission to be more demanding on Croatia. In addition to the Copenhagen political criteria introduced for all new enlargements, Croatia’s membership negotiations involved an unprecedented 35 chapters with specific opening and closing benchmarks, 160,000 pages of the EU’s Acquis Communautaire, and an additional monitoring process between closing negotiations and full membership, which all led to a long accession process, just short of a decade. With hindsight, this level of scrutiny most likely helped Croatia join the Schengen area and the Eurozone on 1 January this year – ahead of several Eastern European States. With its public debt-to-GDP ratio on the downward trajectory (68.4 percent at the end of 2022), Croatia is also performing better than other Mediterranean Eurozone States.
The war, for which the country never received any reparations, and then the “lost decade” between 2004 and 2013 with the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, critically slowed Croatia’s economic growth, meaning it began its membership in the EU as its poorest growth prospects. Ten years on, macroeconomic data paints a more positive picture. Croatia’s GDP growth in the second decade of its EU membership has almost tripled compared to the decade before – reaching a staggering 13.1 percent in 2021. Croatia’s EU funds absorption has also significantly improved with the country receiving €12.1 billion in total from different funds. EU membership has facilitated a number of infrastructure projects, from the Peljesac bridge, one of the EU’s largest infrastructure investments, to reconstruction following earthquakes that hit Croatia in 2020.
The accession to the Eurozone has lowered borrowing costs and given impetus to exports. It is expected that it will also boost tourism. Joining the Schengen area and removing borders with neighbouring EU Member States has enabled visitors to travel faster, with record numbers of tourists expected this year.
Despite stellar numbers, systemic challenges remain affecting Croatia’s microeconomic performance. Overrepresentation of employment in the public sector, high and complex taxation, and inflexible labour laws have contributed to a stifling effect on business activity. Croatia’s average net salary is about €1100, well below the EU’s average, and its GDP per capita is among the lowest in the EU, half the EU average.
Croatia’s population has consequently declined by nearly 10 percent to 3.8 million since joining the EU, a significant loss for a small country of mostly its younger population. It therefore does not come as a surprise that the country’s unemployment rate has been steadily decreasing over the years – it is currently at 5.6 percent. Labour shortages are being filled by workers from Balkan countries, but also by Asian workers, a cultural opportunity and a challenge for the rather homogenous Croatian society.
Among experts and the business community, Croatia is still perceived as a relatively corrupt country, fairing only marginally better than Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Several notable high-profile corruption cases in recent years demonstrates the scope of corruption. The EU-wide Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), established in 2021 to investigate corruption specifically related to EU funds, recorded 23 investigations in Croatia last year, most of which concerned regional development and agricultural funds.
While the different reforms are underway, the question is whether they will be sufficient to diversify the country’s economy, still largely dependent on tourism (20 percent of Croatia’s GDP) and stop the demographic hemorrhage.
Since Croatia’s accession, the EU has also faced a number of challenges. From the 2015 migration crisis to Brexit, and humanitarian, energy, and economic challenges brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has been forced to rethink its enlargement strategy. It has recently accepted Ukraine and Moldova as new candidates for EU membership, with Georgia in the pipeline. This is in addition to the already lined up Western Balkan states. Given the persisting political tensions and socio-economic gaps, the integration of such a disparate group of countries presents a difficulty. For now, the current geopolitical situation and the ongoing war requires a cautioning of the EU’s openness.
Croatia, as “good EU pupil,” can be a constructive factor in this process. It has been a strong supporter of further enlargement and with its recent experience can provide know-how and assistance. Croatia’s war, and the peacebuilding that followed, could be valuable for the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine. Unlike some of the EU’s “enfants terribles” among new Member States, Croatia has not challenged the rule of law or broader EU values. So far, it has proved reliable in protecting the EU external border, which is positioned on the challenging Western Balkan migration route. Much of its good reputation in Brussels can also be thanked to the country’s prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, who belongs to a progressive line of European conservative leaders gathered in the European People’s Party (EPP) that still rules the EU, as the biggest party in the European Parliament.
Given its size, geographical position, and strong European identity, Croatia’s accession to the EU has been an exception in many aspects. However, its performance over the first ten years demonstrates that exceptions can be politically wise. Much as its famous soccer team, Croatia has been in many ways punching above its weight. Its “success story” could thus give an impetus to European integration and serve as a model for future EU enlargements.
Dr Ivana Damjanovic is Lecturer at the University of Canberra, Visiting Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for European Studies, and former diplomat. She participated in Croatia’s accession process to the EU.
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