Was it a mistake for the European Union to admit Croatia earlier this year?

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It hasn’t been an incredibly distinguished first six months for the European Union’s 28th member.croatia

Croatia, which entered the European Union on July 1, is only the second state to do so from the former Yugoslav union, but it’s already proving to be somewhat of a problem child — as some Europeans feared openly before its accession.

Most of those fears relate to economics and, given the eurozone’s economic crisis over the past four years, you might have thought that Croatia’s growing pains would be economic in nature, but that’s not the case.

Instead, Croatia’s difficulties have more to do with social issues and historical legacies — in its first six months of EU membership, Croatia caused a showdown almost immediately with EU leaders over the potential extradition of Josip Perković, the former Yugoslav-era director of Croatia’s secret police, and it signaled to the world its relative intolerance for LGBT freedom by conducting a referendum that resulted in a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage at a time when much of Europe is embracing equal marriage rights for LGBT individuals.

Those experiences could shape future EU appetite for further expansion in the Balkans, at a time when the European Union has deftly dangled the carrot of EU membership in exchange for a more permanent peace between Serbia and Kosovo, and at a time when EU membership might be the only thing that can save the triple-fractured union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while also integrating smaller countries like Macedonia and Montenegro into the global economy.

The most serious rupture began three days before Croatia even joined the European Union when it passed the ‘Perković law,’ which purported to prevent the extradition of anyone for crimes committed before August 2002.  That caused an almost immediate backlash against Croatia from EU leaders and the other 27 EU member-states, and by September — less than 90 days after Croatia had joined the European Union — EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, was threatening economic sanctions.  Germany, in particular, is interesting in extraditing Perković in relation to his role in the assassination of Croatian defector Stjepan Đureković, who was killed in 1983 in what was then West Germany.

Ironically, it’s the center-left government of Zoran Milanović, who leads the four-party Kukuriku coalition and its largest member, the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP, Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske), that dug in its heels over the Perković law, not the more conservative, nationalist opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ, Hrvatska demokratska zajednica), which governed Croatia through much of the EU harmonization period, from 2003 through the December 2011 election.  The HDZ, as well as several top government officials opposed the law from the beginning, including Croatia’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister Vesna Pusić, the leader of the second-largest party in the Kukuriku coalition, the Croatian People’s Party/Liberal Democrats (HNS, Hrvatska narodna stranka/liberalni demokrati).

Milanović and the Croatian government eventually backed down in late September by amending the law in a way that complied with EU requirements, but only after Reding instituted formal EU proceedings, needlessly undermining Croatian credibility almost immediately after its EU accession.

Yet almost as soon as the extradition crisis ended, Croatia found itself embroiled in another difficult debate in holding the December 1 constitutional referendum on same-sex marriage.  

Though only 37.9% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot, 65.87% of those who did backed the amendment, while just 33.51% opposed it.  Same-sex marriage remains relatively unpopular in Croatian culture, and both the HDZ and the Roman Catholic church backed the amendment with fervor — that’s important in a country where 86% of the population (4.2 million) identifies as Catholic.

The constitutional amendment doesn’t violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the European Union, and Croatia joins Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary among EU countries with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (Latvia passed its ban in 2006, and Hungary passed its ban in 2012).  Moreover, plenty of other countries, including Italy and Germany, who were founding members of the European Economic Community in the 1950s, have failed to address same-sex marriage in any meaningful legislative way.   While Croatia’s ban isn’t going to cause a legal clash with the European Union, it still pits Croatia against an arc of liberal states that stretches from Scandinavia, through Benelux, through France and the United Kingdom (both as of 2013), all the way to the Iberian peninsula, where full same-sex marriage rights have been enacted.

In response, Milanović’s government this week introduced a more liberal family law that would grant to LGBT couples many of the same rights that married heterosexual couples enjoy, including partnership registration, hospital visitation and inheritance rights, though the law wouldn’t permit same-sex adoption.  So long as the government remains united, the new law should be enacted by Croatia’s unicameral parliament, the Sabor, where the government controls 80 of the chamber’s 151 seats.

Neither the marriage referendum nor the extradition fight are proof that Croatia’s EU membership was a mistake, but the two episodes could surely leave EU officials thinking twice before further enlargements, especially in the Balkans.

It’s not as if Brussels didn’t put Croatia through its paces in the decade prior to its accession.  Croatia faced perhaps the most onerous terms to date for EU accession — partly due to the need for Croatia to reform its economic, judicial and legal institutions, but also due to the massive size of the acquis communautaire, the body of European law that each member state is required to harmonize into their own national law.  Between the 2007 accession and Croatia’s accession earlier this year, the acquis grew from 31 chapters to 35.

Future enlargement efforts in the Balkans or elsewhere are likely to involve an even longer checklist.

Ironically, Croatia’s economy, though far from healthy, hasn’t been the most troublesome aspect of EU membership.

One of Europe’s top tourist destinations, Croatian GDP per capita (on a PPP basis) is already higher than Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, and GDP per capita is on a basis roughly equivalent to (or just slightly lower than) the Baltic states or Poland.  Wages are actually higher in Croatia than throughout much of central Europe, including the Czech Republic.  Though the unemployment rate is 17.6% and the economy contracted by 2% in 2012, GDP is expected to contract by just 0.6% in 2013 and return to growth next year.  That’s better than much of the rest of Mediterranean Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, though it’s noteworthy that Croatia still controls its own currency, the kuna.  Croatia is obligated, upon EU accession, to move toward eurozone membership, though that process won’t happen overnight, if at all, especially given that Croatia has a public debt of around 70%, higher than the 60% threshold established by last year’s EU fiscal compact treaty.

Photo credit to AFP.

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