BRUSSELS, Belgium – If opinion polls are to be believed, the people of Croatia will vote on Sunday in favor of joining the European Union, clearing the way for their nation to become the EU’s 28th member in July 2013.
For Croatia, entry into the continent’s mainstream club would mark the end of a long and painful journey from Communist Yugoslav republic, through the Balkan battlegrounds of the 1990s and years of post-independence isolation.
Yet there is little sense of euphoria about the prospect of joining the EU.
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With the EU teetering on the edge of recession and near neighbors Greece and Italy deep in the debt crisis, few Croats have any illusions that membership will bring any immediate relief for their own stagnant economy.
Croatia is bracing for recession in 2012, after growth of just 0.4 percent last year. Unemployment is predicted to pass 18 percent this year.
Farmers, small businesses and shipyard workers are worried about the impact of EU regulations and the competition that will come to the opening of Croat markets to European rivals. Nationalists warn of foreigners buying up property on the country’s spectacular coastline, and complain that the country suffered to win independence from Yugoslavia and should avoid now handing sovereignty over to the EU.
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“Croatia will be wide open to colonization,” Marjan Bosnjak, of the anti-EU Council for Croatia wrote on the group’s website. “From being a sovereign and independent state, Croatia will become a mere province, a small province, in a vast country.”
Despite its troubles however, the lure of the EU is strong. Polls have suggested around 56 percent Croats will vote in favor. Appeals for a “yes” vote have come from Roman Catholic bishops, war veterans’ associations and most mainstream politicians.
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The pro-EU camp argues that membership will guarantee stability and security; reinforce democracy and human rights and, in the longer term, strengthen the economy by granting access to the bloc’s market of 500 million consumers. It also draws a line under the dark days of war and dictatorship.
“After 20 years, modern Croatia has returned to the political and cultural space to which it belongs,” President Ivo Josipovic said after signing the membership treaty in December. “With Europe, Croatia is richer and with Croatia, Europe too is richer.”
If the referendum is positive, and the parliaments of the other EU nations ratify membership, Croatia will become the second former Yugoslav nation to join following Slovenia, which entered in 2004. The others all hope to join but their membership processes are years behind Croatia’s.
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