Despite the ongoing eurozone crisis, and the attendant political and economic instability across the continent, the European Union is getting ready to expand, once more.
On 1 July, Croatia will become the 28th country to join the “European Club”. In doing so, it will become only the second former Yugoslav republic to be admitted, following Slovenia in 2004.
It was Slovenia and Croatia’s declarations on independence, in 1991, that sparked the Yugoslav war. Two decades on, however, attention in the Croatian capital Zagreb is focused less on its Balkan neighbours, and more on the increasingly parlous situation within Croatia’s borders.
The Croatian economy, which has scarcely grown since 2008, is back in recession. It is expected to shrink by 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product this year. In March, officially unemployment stood at 21.6 per cent. Among young people that figure is even higher.
“We are in such a big crisis that we don’t know how to deal with it and we are hoping that someone else will solve our problems, but I don’t think that’s a good idea”, student Vanja Pavlovic told me when we met at a festival for volunteers in Zagreb recently.
“We are just joining some bigger society and we are hoping that will solve some of our problems.”
Many across Croatia share these concerns. Around two-thirds of Croats said yes to the European Union in a referendum last year, but as the eurozone crisis has dragged on, optimism about EU membership has diminished.
Not everyone is so down on the EU. For some, accession to the EU is a reflection of how far Croatia has come in just 20 years, from war to peace.
Membership will offer peace, stability, a big market and the European cultural space, Croatian president Ivo Josipovic told Balkans correspondent Tim Judah last month.
EU membership could have a big impact on the Croatian economy – if it is handled correctly, says Vuk Vukovic, lecturer in political economy at Zagreb School of Economics and Management.
“We need to emulate the cases of Ireland, Poland or Estonia and how they have managed efficiently and effectively to use the EU funds into helping their domestic economies,” he said.
One of the hardest tasks will be keeping Croatia’s young people in the country.
Britain is among a number of EU states that have placed restrictions on Croats that want to work abroad, but still it is anticipated that many will leave
Student Vanja does not expect to spend too long in Croatia. “I hope I will go study somewhere else, anywhere else. Study, then live there. I don’t want to stay here.”