Can Europe Make It?

Contrasting euroscepticisms in Croatia and Serbia

What are the implications for Serbia from Croatia’s experience throughout the course of its EU-membership?

Vassilis Petsinis
23 January 2019
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15,000 people gathered in Croatia's second largest city Split on Thursday to protest the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, April, 2018. Ivo Cagalj/ Press Association. all rights reserved.

The emergence of Euroscepticism provides one more common denominator between Croatia and Serbia. In Croatia, Euroscepticism revolves around economic anxieties, ‘new’ identity politics (mainly gender-related issues) and opposition to legal provisions on minority rights. In Serbia, ‘Euroscepticism outside of the EU’ predominantly consists in geopolitical considerations, namely the desire to preserve the country’s ‘neutrality’ between east and west.

What are the commonalities and differences between the Croatian and Serbian variants of Euroscepticism? What are the implications for Serbia from Croatia’s experience throughout the course of its EU-membership?

Euroscepticism in Croatia

The EU Structural Funds contributed towards the improvement of the infrastructure in Zagreb and the major urban centres (Split, Rijeka and Ošijek). EU-membership has aided Croatia in promoting and upgrading its tourist industry while, in light of  youth unemployment, it has enabled a younger generation of highly-qualified professionals to seek employment opportunities within the common European space. To this one should add remittance flows from wealthier west European countries towards Croatia. These realities are largely to account for the relative increase in the pro-EU stance among the Croatian public, as indicated in the results of the most recent Eurobarometer surveys.

Nevertheless, the purchasing power of Croatian citizens remains relatively weak. The collateral damage of free mobility within the EU space often corresponds to the emigration of highly-qualified personnel out of Croatia and the ensuing brain-drain. Moreover, the more peripheral and less developed parts of the country do not seem to have taken adequate advantage of EU Structural Funds. Their technical infrastructure remains outdated and minimal employment opportunities have been created.

In several rural localities of Slavonia, the complexities of interethnic reconciliation seem to combine with economic malfunction, blue-collar emigration to western Europe and depopulation. In all this, the aftermath of the economic crisis across the EU-south renders the Croatian public rather skeptical over the actual timing of joining the Union.

‘Live Wall’

Under the leadership of Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, the party of Živi Zid (‘Live Wall’) is represented by 4 deputies at the Sabor (Parliament) and its popularity is increasing. Živi Zid promotes an agenda of economic Euroscepticism and holds that ‘the EU is not run by the elected representatives of the people but by an impersonal bureaucracy and corporations’. The party-manifesto contends that the EU is structured in accordance to a ‘neo-feudal and neocolonial principle’, rejects austerity measures and underlines that ‘we do not desire Croatia’s isolation, however we would not desire our country to become a colony of foreign interests to the detriment of its citizens’. In addition to its quasi-leftist standpoints on the economy and the principle of Croatia’s ‘global neutrality’, Živi Zid pledges to safeguard ‘Christian moral values’ and ‘generate the proper circumstances for boosting the birthrate’.

With regard to gender-related issues, one should take into consideration the pact between Croatia’s religious authorities and the political establishment; as also stipulated in the Vatican Contract. As part of this semi-formal arrangement, the governing Croatian Democratic Community/HDZ granted its assent to the constitutional referendum on the same-sex marriage ban (2013) and condones the Church’s opposition to sexual education. Most recently, the ruling party’s ‘right-wing faction’ concentrated their engagement on opposition to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention (2017). In compliance with the party-line to portray Croatia as a ‘Christian and European country’, HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ criticizes the Istanbul Convention from a predominantly gender-related angle. However, HDZ backbenchers still allude to the external ‘imposition’ of alien ethical norms on Croatian society and issue calls for the reformation of the EU via means of return to its original (‘European and Christian’) principles and values.

Political mobilization around the migration crisis has been feeble. Even though the HDZ-led government questions the long-term viability of EU quotas for refugees, it objected to the erection of razor-wire fences along Croatia’s borders. Unlike FIDESZ in Hungary or PiS in Poland, HDZ does not perceive any interest in the ‘weaponization’ of the refugee issue, largely as a consequence of Croatia’s more recent entry into the EU.

Meanwhile, conforming to a universal trend among the European far right, the Croatian Party of Rights/HSP, the Croatian Pure Party of Rights/HČSP and smaller groupings commenced a mobilization process via dubbing refugees and migrants ‘potential rapists’.

Nevertheless, as a result of the fragmentation and lack of coordination among the Croatian far right, this attempt at mass mobilization cannot compare to the precedents of Hungary (Jobbik) and Slovakia (‘Our Slovakia’/Naše Slovensko) throughout 2015 and 2016.

Moreover, the fact that most refugees and other migrants tend to view Croatia as a transit country relegates the migration crisis to a secondary area of interest in the agendas of Croatian Eurosceptics.

However, researchers from the GONG NGO (Zagreb) assess that the refugee question may become more topical in the next elections as part of HDZ’s endeavor to claim target-groups who perceive themselves as ‘left behind’ by the official party-line. 

With regard to minority issues, the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script in Vukovar, and other municipalities of Slavonia where the ethnic Serb population meets the prescribed 30 percent threshold, has not been put into force. In addition to the controversy over whether quite a few registered Serbs actually reside in these municipalities, the implementation of the legislation has been blocked by the systematic mobilization of the War Veterans Association/UHRV (2013-2016). Opposition to the public use of the Serb Cyrillic script prompted the formation of a nexus which comprises actors as diverse as the UHRV, former HDZ-affiliates (the former Minister of Culture, Zlatko Hasanbegović) and local representatives of the HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ (the Vukovar mayor, Ivan Penava).

This development enabled these actors to voice their opposition to certain decisions of the political establishment as well as to any ‘external interference in Croatia’s domestic affairs’. In addition to the provision of endorsement to the UHRV, Penava has also been accused of ‘sabotaging’ the Nova Škola (‘New School’) project. This EU-sponsored project, funded by the Norwegian government, is aimed at breaking down segregation and promoting integrated schooling for pupils of all ethnic backgrounds in Vukovar.

Euroscepticism in Serbia                

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party/SNS subscribes to Serbia’s EU-accession process as a trajectory which is expected to enhance the country’s democratic institutions, accelerate economic growth and modernize the state’s infrastructure.

In all of this, the governing party opts for military neutrality and envisages Serbia’s global role as ‘a bridge between east and west’ which should be open to cooperation with global actors as diverse as the US, China, Japan and Russia. In specific regard to bilateral relations with Russia, the party-manifesto underlines the necessity to promote the Orthodox and Slavic cultural bonds between the two nations.

As, the former party-chairman and Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić stated on a series of occasions: ’Serbia wants to join the EU because it is an organized family of nations but, at the same time, we have a close historical and religious connection to the Russian Federation’. The Serbian government’s quest for a geopolitical equilibrium is subject to pragmatic and timely considerations. In addition to the promotion of political and economic stability, the accession process to the EU is legitimized through reference to the existence of a vibrant Serb diaspora in central and northwestern Europe and the ‘remittances factor’, as well as to the export-import ratio between the EU and Serbia.

Nevertheless, Russia remains Serbia’s staunchest ally at the UN Security Council in regards to the question of Kosovo, and a key-partner in energy cooperation. Moreover, the ongoing impact of the economic and migration crises throughout the EU functions as an additional incentive for Serbian policymakers to prolong Serbia’s geopolitical oscillation between east and west.

Serbian policymakers may often reflect upon the Croatian precedent and the widespread belief that Croatia did not reap all the economic benefits that it anticipated from EU-membership. The aggregate of all the aforementioned catalysts has resulted in the consolidation of a conditional and soft version of Euroscepticism, with a primarily geopolitical profile. This consists in the occasional criticism of the EU’s alleged bias over the collective status of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo (or, secondarily, the relations between Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia) which is frequently coupled with statements of allegiance to Russia as Serbia’s most powerful patron over Kosovo.

Since 2014, there has been observed a decline in favourable attitudes towards Serbia’s accession process to the EU and the pro-EU respondents in the public surveys have been fluctuating between 55 and 45 percent. The reluctant or negative attitudes vis-à-vis the EU seem to correlate with the Serbian government’s oscillation between east and west in that they usually revolve around: perceived controversies with the EU policies on Kosovo and other issues in regional geopolitics; fears that the EU-membership may not contribute a lot to the improvement of Serbia’s economic situation. To these, one should add the impact of ‘conditionality fatigue’ and disillusionment among a considerable percentage of Serbian citizens over their country’s delayed and non-linear trajectory to the European structures.

Contrasting or converging Euroscepticisms?

Whereas, in Croatia, Euroscepticism appears to be rather multifaceted, in Serbia it has become ‘single-issue’.

Nevertheless, the domination of both Croatian and Serbian politics by preponderant parties of the conservative right provides a common denominator between the two countries; also, in regards to the manifestation of soft Euroscepticism from the halls of power. In particular, both HDZ and SNS are non-homogeneous organizations with a high degree of intra-party diversity. This, in turn, has prompted certain ‘divisions of labour’ within both governing parties as far as their outlooks on the EU are concerned. This situationally adaptive and internally devolved pattern seems to demarcate HDZ and SNS from the more homogeneous, dominant parties of the conservative right in the Visegrad Four states (e.g. FIDESZ and/or PiS).

In Croatia, HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ appears to have been vested with the task of catering for those target-groups not accommodated by the official pro-EU party-line and opposing any ‘external interference’ to policy-areas such as minority issues and/or established gender norms in society. In Serbia, President Vučić and SNS have been opting for tactical and situationally adaptive maneuvering in an endeavor to placate a wide range of stakeholders and interest groups inside the country and abroad.

On the one hand, the occasional criticism of Brussels and powerful EU member-states (e.g. Germany) over Kosovo, coupled with the expression of gratitude to Russia for its support at the UN Security Council, also aims at catering for these target-groups with a more nationalistic and hard Eurosceptic disposition. On the other hand, decisions such as the appointment of (openly gay) Ana Brnabić to the post of Prime Minister have been interpreted as symbolic gestures towards Brussels with regard to the Serbian government’s standard commitment to the system of values espoused by the EU.

Furthermore, the increasing intersection between economic anxieties and Euroscepticism seems to provide one more common denominator between Croatia and Serbia. In spite of the financial benefits from its admission to the EU, the demographic realities and certain structural deficiencies of the Croatian economy resemble those that can be encountered in the ‘old’ member-states of the EU-south (e.g. Greece and Spain); especially as far as youth unemployment and brain drain are concerned.

The rapid emergence of Živi Zid hints at the growing relevance of economic Euroscepticism not solely for anti-austerity initiatives in Southern Europe but also for a new generation of ambitious, anti-establishment, parties in the crisis-ridden parts of the ‘new’ Europe (e.g. the Who Owns the State?/KPV party in Latvia).

At this given moment, one may ponder the resilience of the ‘division of labour’ pattern between the more pro-EU and the more socially conservative cohorts of HDZ. In contrast to the precedents of FIDESZ in Hungary and/or PiS in Poland, there are no apparent, short-term, prospects that the party’s social conservatives will impose their agenda upon HDZ in a pervasive and standardized manner, to such an extent that it culminates in an affront to Brussels (either on gender-related issues or the migration crisis). As previously highlighted, Croatia’s economic benefits from EU-membership (foreign investment, the utilization of the EU Structural Funds and free movement inside the common European space) still seem to counterbalance any potential losses.

In the case of Serbia, the situation is more complicated because it is entangled in the apparent decision of the European Commission to temporarily freeze the EU-enlargement process as a whole.  Nevertheless, within the immediate future, one may equally ponder whether Aleksandar Vučić and the SNS-led government are likely to prolong their geopolitical oscillation between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic institutions, or may be triggered into assuming a harder Eurosceptic stance by unfavourable decisions at the level of EU macro-politics. However, at this given moment, there are no hints towards a drastic change of course on the part of Brussels (e.g. the reserved and apprehensive stance held by the European Commission following Pristina’s unilateral announcement of a ‘Kosovan army’ in December 2018).

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