by Tamara Ćapeta
On 1 July 2013, after lengthy process of negotiation, Croatia becomes the 28th Member State of the European Union. With the exception of Turkey, Croatian path to the EU was the longest one. Formal request for membership was placed in February 2003, and the status of a candidate country obtained in June 2004. However the negotiations have started only a year later, in October 2005 and lasted for six years, leading to the signing of Accession Treaty in December 2011. The term ‘negotiations’ describes the process the country has undergone on its way to membership only partly. Predominantly, ‘negotiations’ were in fact adjustments of the acceding country to the already existing rules developed within the EU. Thus, the negotiation process had important transformative role for Croatian society.
Since the times when the process begun until the achievement of membership, much has changed. Most importantly, the European Union itself is not the same. Once the attractive, economically stable and prosperous club, the EU has turned into a struggling economy, with States forced into austerity measures; into economy with high overall unemployment rates, where unemployed youth cries for an urgent action. Iceland, a country that has also applied for the EU membership, revoked its request. “So, what is there for Croatia in the European Union?” Croatian citizens have asked themselves as they expected the night of the celebration on the eve of entry into the EU.
At the referendum held in January 2012, when the EU was already deep in the economic crisis, majority (66.3%) of Croatians upheld the idea of Croatia’s future in the EU. I was among those who voted in favor, and would do the same if asked today. Let me, therefore, offer two reasons I consider most important for why should Croatia celebrate the 1st of July 2013.
Firstly, the original motivating idea of European integration of lasting stability and peace is of utmost importance for a nation that was in war only two decades ago, and still feels its consequences. With the EU States showing unprecedented solidarity towards each other when facing serious economic troubles, nobody fears that the economic crisis could lead to a war. Disappearance of borders between the States, the main achievement of the EU internal market project, gradually leads to more tolerance and understanding between European nations and towards building of the common European identity.
Secondly, Croatia needs the EU for consolidating its value system. Croatian Constitution restates the values which are common to the European nations, today also stated in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This reveals the wish of Croatian citizens to live in the society which respects those values. However, after emerging as a new democracy in the late eighties, Croatia has, same as other ex-communist countries, simply copy-pasted these values rather than gradually built them in its social contract as the society developed. Thus certain notions, such as market economy for instance, are still not fully internalized.
One recent development surrounding gay rights in Croatia, is the latest example why I see the EU membership as an important value anchor. Last month, a citizens’ initiative named “For family” gathered over 750.000 signatures on a proposal which obliges the Government to open a referendum on constitutional amendments. The proposed change is to insert in the constitutional text a provision stating that marriage is a community of a man and a woman. With its potentially discriminatory consequences, this initiative comes in the time when many EU states already recognize gay marriages or some kind of registered partnership, with France being the most recent example. This is the same time when the US Supreme Court struck down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), considering it to be unconstitutional for deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. The EU itself cannot regulate domestic relations any more than the U.S. federal government can. In the EU, as in the U.S., this is still the matter for the individual states. However, the states or the federal government, in the U.S. or in the EU cannot introduce discriminatory measures.
In the same way as the American Supreme Court, the EU Court of Justice may and does promote equality of citizens. This contributes to the gradual creation of the culture of tolerance, and offers better chances for the development of the societies which people in Europe, including Croatia, wanted by inserting values, such as equality, in their constitutions. I am not saying that Croatia would never build such a society alone, but EU is an important facilitator.
Tamara Ćapeta is a Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb.