At the end of the day, even without much enthusiasm and emotion, somehow by default, nearly 2/3 of the Croatians who voted on the referendum approved joining the EU in 2013 and becoming its 28th member (if no unexpected drama ruins the plan in the meantime). But far from the spotlight of the media, another big number remained ignored: 43%. This was the voting turnout on the referendum. And if we look at previous EU-joining referenda, it's one of the lowest turnouts in the history of the Union. Which tells us a lot not just about the Croatian particularities but also about EU's waning attractiveness.
Meanwhile, the other countries in the region could interpret Croatia's "Yes" in two possible ways. The optimistic way is that this will encourage the neighbors (Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania) to break up with the past and make bolder steps toward Europe. The pessimistic one is that Croatia was gonna sneak into Europe in the last moment anyway, just before the gates get slammed in the face of the rest. And no matter how hard Serbia, Bosnia et al would try, the EU which is now turning on the inside and towards its own internal problems, wouldn't have the appetite for further expansion anytime soon.
"Surprisingly unsurprising" - that's how the Croatian "Yes" was called over the local blogosphere. Because really, the polls before the referendum indicated that the "Yes" camp would have an easy win. But only until very recently things were looking very differently. Last year, angered by the verdict against Gen. Gotovina, huge crowds were burning the EU flag in the center of Zagreb, and Croatia had the fame of the most Euro-sceptical country in the Western Balkans. For example in 2010 a Gallup Balkan Monitor research showed that only 25% of the Croatians believed that joining the EU was a good thing.
Some analysts are explaining the stunning difference between that number and today's result with two factors that show the EU's attitude to the Western Balkans. First, while people's enthusiasm might cool off with the protracting of the negotiations, once the negotiations are over it'd be easier to warm up these pro-EU feelings again. And secondly, many of the citizens of these countries might not have very warm feelings to EU, but still they consider it the "least worse" among several options. Among those who voted "Yes" there certainly are some who prefer to bet on the safe card, especially when the alternative looks unclear and too risky. Why do I think this? A Croatian e-friend of mine recently said "I'm gonna vote Yes because this is the lesser of two evils. I have no illusions, we're just too small to stay outside". And she's expressing a sentiment shared by many Balkanites(tm).
There might be another explanation for the tricky nature of the Croatian "Yes", though. The super-aggressive "Yes"-campaign pushed so vigorously by the major parties often had the reversed effect. It was counter-productive. People got fed up of politicians constantly saying hour after hour on the TV, radio, print press and blogs how saying "Yes" was vitally important, without even bothering to analyze what'd follow after the coveted EU entry. As if it was the end of the story.
Meanwhile the arguments "For" joining were too incoherent and personal for the most part. For instance the musicians explained that they wanted to join the EU just because of the open borders, so they wouldn't have any visa problems when they were going on tour. The elderly people - because of fear that their pensions would be cut if the referendum failed (this concern was even expressed in public by the foreign minister Vesna Pusic). And the mainly leftist youth used to say they simply believed the only way for Croatia to shred off its corruption and achieve social and economic stability would be inside the EU, and their country would never achieve that on their own (that's a very popular sentiment on the Balkans: "We're so fucked up, we need someone from outside to 'fix' us"). And then, there were those who said "Yes" only because of concerns that Croatia would have to pay back millions of euros from the EU funds that had already been granted, and some even spent by the government.
Another fact helped for the sobering up - Croatia had to go through a much longer and stricter negotiation process, because after the experience with Bulgaria and Romania the bar was raised drastically. In Croatia's case, there was something unique, compared to the previous joinings - unlike the 12 early newcomers, Croatia never got a significant economic and investment injection because of the financial crisis. And now it's entering a Union that's sucked into the morass of recession and is probably in the most critical period of its history.
This also explains the lack of pompous political statements and slogans. Just on the contrary - the politicians are warning that the EU entry won't automatically and quickly drag the country out of its own crisis - a 3 year old recession, a 102%/GDP public debt, a near 18% unemployment (official) and the prospect of having to knock at the IMF doors pretty soon. "Europe will hardly solve our problems, but still it offers some big opportunities", the president Ivo Josipovic announced. But meanwhile he directly contested one of the main arguments of the Euro-sceptic campaign: "Croatia won't lose its sovereignty and its natural resources, and neither will it be ruled from Brussels". I have my reservations on the last part, but meh.
The Europhobic moods in the country are still fueled by the notion that 20 years after they exited an already failed union (Yugoslavia), and they did it the hard and bloody way, the Croatians are now entering another one, voluntarily. Which, given EU's current state, looks more like boarding the Titanic just a few minutes before it hits the iceberg. "This is a defeat for freedom and independence. We're joining an alliance that's already falling apart", Jeljko Sacic of the NGO "Council for Croatia - Say No to EU" said. Most of these fears may be more like a result from misunderstood concerns about the loss of sovereignty, than concerns of the European debt crisis, but I may be wrong. It's a fact though that a large part of this opposition comes from misunderstandings, lack of information, the inherent xenophobia of most Balkan societies, and the erroneous notion that they'll be directly exposed to the crisis - although Croatia probably won't come anywhere near adopting the Euro at least for the next 10 years. (On a side note, Bulgaria made a U-turn and quit pushing to the Euro-zone, and for a reason; now we're more sober about all this, and our PM is saying things like "Schengen is all right, but the Euro-zone - meeeh, not so much).
"Farewell, Balkans!", was the front-page headline on the biggest Croatian newspaper Vecerni List on the next day after the referendum. This was the predominant sentiment in the media: you see, the country is entering Europe, where it has always belonged, and is symbolically breaking up with the political traditions and problems of the Balkans. Like it's gonna happen overnight, with a magic wand. Meanwhile in the neighboring countries this "Yes" result has probably caused a lot of sighs of relief, because a possible "No" would've had catastrophic effects on the European aspirations of the likes of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia & Albania.
Not that the horizon ahead looks very near, and neither is it so bright. Both because of Croatia's own flaws and because of the moods that are sweeping across Europe at the moment. On one side, the Croatian "Yes" has tickled the EU's ego, and probably made some Powdered Poodles(tm) in Brussels believe that the EU hasn't lost all of its attractiveness just yet. But on the other side, the self-introvert mode which EU has entered because of the debt crisis and the rise of anti-immigrant and populist parties across Europe, may mean that Croatia could be the last new EU member for a long time ahead. Brussels is still trying to digest Bulgaria and Romania, and Sarkozy is openly complaining that with so many member states around the table you could never take any decision easily (I bet he wishes he was the Emperor of Europe, eh?); and for many "Old Europeans" any new member is a potential candidate for urgent life support the Greece-style (but Italy isn't?). Well, Bulgaria for instance has by far been one of the most fiscally responsible new members, and the PM Borisov even said "Bulgaria is willing to help other EU countries who are in trouble, but not before our salaries reach theirs, or their salaries reach ours" (the latter sounding like Armageddon if you ask me!) But it's no secret that in Germany on the other hand, almost all the political energy is now being spent for extinguishing the fires all around the Euro zone, and that's why the support for a further EU expansion has plummeted to the ridiculous 17%.
It seems the Euro crisis is sucking up all the attention and diverting the focus away from any other issues. And in fact the EU's greatest value is in its ability to transform shitty little countries like ours - through encouraging, often even forcing reform, and "fixing" the twisted little minds of fucked up guys like ourselves Dark Balkan Types(tm). Even if EU loses everything else, THIS is the thing it should preserve at any cost. If EU loses its power to inspire, saving the Euro might be the least concern of all, and we might well all pack up and go home. Question is, where "Home" is.