Can Europe Make It?

In Croatia, has longing for the EU brought us non-EU values?

Marko Boko
6 March 2014

As I have had the opportunity to work at the European level on many occasions, I have gotten so many questions from my European colleagues on whether I voted on the referendum for the EU accession of Croatia that was held on 22 January 2012.

Sure I voted. It was really nice to see the Croatian government actually curious regarding citizens' opinions, as pro and anti EU membership campaigns were fairly latecoming and devoid of any real content. But that is only one side of a story which is much more complex than I could explain to my fellow colleagues in a few words.

The whole story began after Croatia had signed the Treaty of Accession on 9 December 2011, changing its status from a candidate to an acceding country. The ratification process by the parliaments of 27 EU member states was expected to be concluded by the end of June 2013, and Croatia's accession to the EU was expected to take place on 1 July 2013. This went as planned, but ratification by current EU member states was not the last step towards Croatia's accesion. Article 142 of the Constitution of Croatia requires a referendum on sovereignty issues such as Croatian EU membership. Also, this would be first referendum since the one on Croatian independence that was held back in 1991.

As consensus on Croatia's accession to the EU was secured among all the relevant political actors and political elites, it was clear that everything needed to be done in order not to fail at the referendum. The first big event was a series of amendments to the Croatian constitution which ensured that referenda at the national level are valid regardless of actual turnout.

If you would like to initiate a referendum in Croatia at the national level you have to get the signatures of 10% (c.400,000!) of all registered voters in fifteen days and it will be valid even if the turnout is under 50% of all voters.

If you would like to initiate a referendum at the local level you have to get the signatures of 20% of all voters registered in the target municipality, city or county. A referendum is valid only if turnout is 50% + 1 of all voters, so it is pretty clear that it is much harder to initiate and carry out local referendum than the national one.

Fifteen days to collect 400,000 signatures is not enough (for example in Poland and Italy, the initiator has three months and needs less or approximately 1% of the signatures of all voters), so it is clear that the Croatian Referendum law has to be revised. It does not have to be revised only for the reasons mentioned above, but for much bigger threats.

After the EU referendum initiative, a few minor far-right parties, NGOs and individuals, supported by the Catholic church, initiated a referendum to constitutionaly define marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus creating a constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage.

Although there was no ''threat'' for this initiative as the government had never given any indication of legalizing same-sex marriage to begin with, the religious and far-right groups saw a perfect opportunity to change the constitution. It was ''preventive'' as they said.

This initiative collected 749,316 signs in fifteen days, which clearly shows that they enjoyed huge public support. However the way they managed it was questionable, which is another good reason to revise the Referendum law.

The total turnout was 37.9% of which 65.87% voted for constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage and 33.51% was against. Turnout was well under 50% although the referendum was about constitutional change.

Almost parallel with this referendum, an initiative was started demanding a referendum to end the official use of Serbian Cyrillic script in some parts of Croatia. Clearly, it was a very good moment to have chosen as the right-wing scene was quite mobilized and the whole country was in a world-view war. They have gathered over 650,000 signatures, but there is still no concrete information on what is going to happen with this initiative. The EU and Croatian government do not support this cause and it seems that they are attempting to block the initiative institutionally, which is a provocative and in theory undemocratic and dangerous move.

But what is really problematic with these two examples is that both referenda are focused on the rights of certain groups within society: so basically the majority challenges the human rights of minorities.

It becomes clear that both referendum questions intersect with Article 3 of the Constitution of Croatia which defines the highest values ​​of the constitutional order such as: freedom, equality, national equality and gender equality, peace, social justice etc. For these reasons in most countries there are restrictions on what a referendum can and cannot decide, and these include human rights, taxes, budget, ratification of international agreements etc.

Besides illogical criteria to initiate and carry on a referendum in Croatia, it seems that it is also possible to question Article 3 of the Constitution of Croatia, which is now proven to be dangerous and discriminatory.

Everything started with a longing for the EU and changing the constitution in order not to fail the EU referendum, but alongside the EU, we have also acquired something  en route that strongly opposes EU values and this is something very dangerous.

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