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That Croatians raised a modest cheer at midnight last Sunday was perhaps the greatest surprise of the week. Croatia smiled and fireworks brightened the skies over Zagreb to mark the moment when the country became the 28th member of the EU.
Snubbed by Merkel
In fact, the crowds had been out in Zagreb much of Sunday afternoon and evening. There’s nothing like a good party to mark acceptance as member of a club worth joining. The great and the good from across Europe were invited to come to Zagreb and share Croatia’s moment in the limelight.
Most gave their various excuses. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yes, but then changed her mind at the last moment. This left a conspicuously empty space at the top table. German attitudes towards Croatia have cooled since autumn 1991 when Berlin and Bonn moved a little too quickly to recognize the fledgling state when it declared independence from Yugoslavia — so upping the stakes, some said, in Croatia’s vicious spat with neighboring Serbia.
Signing up to the European project
In the absence of Merkel, journalist turned diplomat Vladimir Drobnjak, who led the Croatian team negotiating with Brussels, was left to hold the fort. By all accounts Drobnjak did a grand job talking up the EU project as the accession hour approached. Folk in the square, ordinary citizens of Zagreb who have traveled in by tram from the suburbs to be part of the magic moment, politely applauded. And there was genuine good spirit.
Past or future?
But was that joy born of excitement at joining the EU? It was perhaps more a sense of relief that Croatia could now eventually lay to rest a few ghosts. In a quarter of a century, Croatia has reinvented itself. But the path of change has been a rocky one.
One by one key political figures have been sidelined by allegations of war crimes or corruption. For example Ivo Sanader, who served as Prime Minister of Croatia from 2003 to 2009, fled the country amid accusations of war profiteering. He was arrested in Austria and sent back home to stand trial. Last fall he was sentenced to ten years for taking backhanders from an Austrian bank.
Croatians hope that accession to the EU closes a troubled chapter in national history. But that does not necessary equate with unqualified enthusiasm for the great European project. Just after Easter this year, Croatians had the chance to elect twelve members of the European Parliament. Here was a chance for Croatians to help shape a better, brighter future for their country. Just a fifth of the electorate bothered to vote. To be exact: 20.8%.