Angry Young Europeans? Croatian attitudes towards the EU in comparative perspective

‘Is something wrong with the Croats?’ was the question addressed in a 2011 contribution to Balkanalysis in 2011 commenting upon low levels of trust towards national and EU institutions in that country. As it approached EU accession only 7% of Croats had ‘a lot of confidence’ in EU institutions, with similarly low levels of trust in political parties (5%) and the national parliament (9%). Despite the fact that support for the EU remained quite stable between 2000 and 2002, with 77-78% of Croats willing to vote in favour of EU accession, increasing levels of opposition worried the government to the extent that it launched a new information campaign in 2006, after the limited success of the first 2001 campaign.

The 2004 enlargement showed that the long waiting period for EU membership and the perceived lack of relevant information could impact on levels of public support. The main aim of these strategies was to provide information on the different stages and policies of the European integration process, and update citizens on the progress towards it, involving so-called ‘multipliers of public opinion, civil society organizations, social and economic institutions, bodies and associations’ (Ministarstvo Vanjskih Poslova i Europskih Integracija: MVPEI, Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs). Specifically, the government sought to ‘(enhance) the level and quality of discussion…satisfying the information needs of the Croatian public…rebutting any misunderstandings on EU-related matters’ (MVPEI). In 2005 the main concerns dealt with the ‘impact of Croatia’s EU membership on the economy’ (87%), the ‘impact of EU membership on everyday life’ (84%), the ‘rights and obligations stemming from Croatia’s EU membership’ (84%), and the ‘impact of the EU membership on sovereignty’ (84%) (MVPEI). Both national and European surveys indicated increasing levels of interest in the consequences of European integration and concerns about the costs of membership.

The January 2012 EU accession referendum in January 2012 did not boost levels of enthusiasm: the ‘Yes’ vote won (66.67%) on a low turnout (43.51%), which was valid after a 2010 constitutional amendment. While, as Table 1 below turnout in European Parliament (EP) elections is low in post-communist states, this is not unique to the region (see also Paul Lewis’ and Seán Hanley’s  posts) and has decreased steadily from 61.99% at the first elections in 1979 to 43% in 2009, with a meagre increase in 2014 to 43.09%. There was, however, a clear ‘turnout gap’ between ‘old’ EU member states (plus Malta and Cyprus) and new post-communist members (54.01% compared to 22.93%). Indeed, at the first Croatian EP election in April 2013, turnout remained at a record low with 20.84%, with only a small increase in 2014 to 25.06%.

Table 1: EP elections in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe

Table

A = National parliamentary election prior to 2004 EP election (2007 EP election in Bulgaria and Romania).

B = National parliamentary election after 2004 EP election (2007 EP election in Bulgaria and Romania).

C = 2003 EU accession referendum (2012 in Croatia).

D = 2004 EP election (2007 EP elections for Bulgaria and Romania).

E = 2009 EP election (2013 in Croatia).

F = 2014 EP elections.

Source: Guerra, S. (2013) Central and Eastern European Attitudes in the Face of Union, Basingstoke: Palgrave, p. 89 (updated).

The Croatian case can be seen as both similar to and distinctive from other post-communist states and may be evident of a new pattern developing across the EU. Croats are generally very positive towards democracy in principle, but have a bad opinion of democracy in their country; and young people were the ones who were less mobilised to vote in the country’s 2012 accession referendum (see Andrea Čović). Support for the EU increased with age and, in the run up to accession, 41% among those aged 15-24 supported the EU, but this went up to 55% among 29-39 year-olds, 56% among 40-54 year-olds, and 71% among those over 55 (Eurobarometer data). This can be explained by the low mobilisation of voters at the referendum where, as in the case of the 2003 referenda held in other Central and East European post-communist states, those opposing EU accession may have prefer not to vote, but it may also signal a new socio-demographic characteristic of Euroscepticism.

The socio-demographic characteristics of attitudes towards the EU show that support generally correlates with youth, living in an urban centre and higher levels of education. However, 41% of Croats expect to benefit personally from EU membership (EB data) and when discussing the positive benefits of accession generally refer to economic ones; although Croats also expected price increases and negative consequences for the country’s agriculture sector (EB data). This sums dissatisfaction at the domestic level and explain the Euroscepticism evident among young Croats. The context of the 2014 EP elections was a five-year long economic recession, corruption scandals, a ban on same-sex marriage, after a referendum held in December 2013 just five months after joining the EU (65.9% in favour of a ban on a low turnout) and high levels of unemployment (19%-21% between October 2013 and April 2014). The economic problems faced by Europe have hit young people the most: between 2007 and 2012 Greece, Ireland and Portugal lost 1.6 million jobs, mostly among the young age group (15-34 years) (International Labour Organisation, Brussels). When Croatia was debating the monthly salary of its MEPs at the domestic level (€ 6,700 plus daily expenses), an average of 476 people in the country were losing their jobs every day (2014 data, see ‘Croatian politicians chase coveted seats‘). Unemployment among young people was quite worrying, as job losses were more pronounced, job protection generally higher among older workers, and young people were not included in re-training schemes (International Labour Organisation, Brussels).

Previous research has found that for many in the post-communist states, the EU was viewed in primarily economic terms during their first years of membership. But high levels of expectations in terms of economic benefits can clash with a negative economic situation, as happened in the case of Croatia’s EU accession. The EU has not delivered the expected advantages of EU integration for some citizens and if young people are the ones suffering the most from high rates of unemployment (the most important challenge in Croatia, according to the latest available Eurobarometer), Euroscepticism and disengagement with the EU can become widespread among this segment of the population. The supposed EU membership benefits have not materialised and the ‘Generation Y’ protest vote can be channelled towards non-voting and/or a protest party as in France (with the Front National), Italy (with the MoVimento 5 Stelle). Writing about the Irish referendum on the European Fiscal Compact in 2012, John FitzGibbon found a similar phenomenon of increasing opposition to European integration among young rural voters.

The novelty of the 2014 EP elections in Croatia was the election of the first Green MEP, the former Social Democrat environment minister Mirela Holy, now leader of ORaH (Croatian Sustainable Development), a socially liberal party on the centre-left of the spectrum. ORaH has steadily increased its support (9%-11%) and polled better in traditionally left-leaning cities and counties such as Zagreb and Istria; and now, at the national level, the demand is for reforms towards the 2016 Croatian general elections. At the EU level these elections have shown that young voters do not necessarily represent a Euroenthusiast category. When high expectations meet low delivery and the costs of long-term recession leave behind young citizens, young Europeans can become critical, un-interested and the new Eurosceptics.

Simona Guerra

Simona Guerra (gs219@leicester.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leicester, a co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Research and a member of the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism.

 

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