Croatia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union: new impetus for the Balkans

ZOiS Spotlight 47/2019 by Carolin Leutloff-Grandits (18 December 2019)

Flags of the EU and Croatia at the port of Rovinj, Kroatien. © Klaus Rainer Krieger / Alamy Stock Foto

In January 2020, Croatia will take over the six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union. But the initial euphoria at the country’s accession to the European Union in 2013 has given way to growing popular scepticism towards the EU, largely due to Croatia’s ongoing economic problems, out-migration of skilled workers to better-performing EU countries and widespread corruption.

Despite slow but steady growth of around 2.6%, driven partly by EU subsidies, Croatia’s economy is too weak for accession to the eurozone. The sharp fall in unemployment since 2014 to less than 9% today is mainly the result of large-scale out-migration to western Europe. Seeing no prospects for the future at home, large numbers of young and well-educated Croatians are making full use of the free movement of labour conferred through EU accession and unrestricted since July 2015. In 2016 alone, 56,000 Croatians migrated to Germany, the main destination country; since 1990, Croatia has lost 20% of its population.

Corruption and populism

For many people, the parlous state of the country’s economy can be blamed on widespread corruption, with many Croatians feeling disillusioned with politics. Croatia had a hardline nationalist government until 1999; since then, power has passed back and forth between the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) at the head of various shifting alliances, culminating in the country’s accession to the EU in 2013. However, this has yet to produce any major economic or democratic momentum, with the result that new right- and left-wing parties have formed, some of which pursue a populist and polarising agenda.

Croatia is weighed down, too, by the legacies of past conflicts, which continue to divide society. Although nearly a quarter century has passed since the end of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) against Serbian forces controlled by Slobodan Milošević, criticism of the Homeland War (Domovinski rat) is regarded as traitorous, not least on account of the popular myth that it was the war that enabled Croatia to emerge as an independent state. This perception is overlaid by polarised attitudes towards the Second World War. In what was then the Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska – NDH), the Ustasha regime collaborated with Nazi Germany and committed horrific crimes against Jews, Serbs and Roma, a fact often ignored by some members of the Croatian government, who focus instead on the Croatian victims of the communist takeover at the end of the Second World War. Other members of the government, often just as selectively, defend the socialist past.

These polarising discourses mainly serve to assert power-political interests, but they also make it well-nigh impossible to conduct an even-handed appraisal of Croatia’s historical responsibility for wars and domestic conflicts.

Leading the way on the EU’s Balkan enlargement?

Croatia has set itself an ambitious agenda for its Council Presidency. At the EU’s Zagreb summit scheduled for the first half of 2020, which will consider the future of the Western Balkans, Croatia is keen to take on a lead role on the issue of EU accession for its Western Balkan neighbour statesSerbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia. Recently, in October 2019, the European Council decided not to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, however. None of the Western Balkan countries currently has any real prospect of joining the EU  – despite hopes that this would curb some of the negative dynamics that can be observed in the region, including nationalism, populism and corruption, and indeed the growing influence of Russia, Turkey and China. Russia, for example, supports Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence while also investing heavily in Serbia’s energy sector. Turkey, for its part, is taking a lead role on building mosques and education institutions in Muslim-inhabited areas of BiH and Kosovo. China is mainly focused on its economic interests and is investing in the expansion of motorways and the rail network. In light of the Western Balkan countries’ shared history within socialist Yugoslavia (with the exception of Albania) and its own frontrunner role as an EU member within the region, Croatia seems ideally placed to speak for its neighbours and inject some momentum into the stalled talks.

In order to move closer to its self-proclaimed goal of joining the Schengen Area, Croatia must also prove that it is capable of securing its own borders while respecting human rights. This is vital, especially in relation to unauthorised crossings by migrants using the Balkan route to reach EU countries in Northern Europe. In recent years, there were frequent human rights abuses here, including violence, when migrants were pushed back. As seen elsewhere along the EU’s external border, the aim of controlling, channelling and restricting migration often collides with the aim of implementing a humanitarian migration policy in line with human dignity.

Attitudes towards the Serb minority in Croatia itself also show little sign of solidarity. Before the Croatian War of Independence, Serbs accounted for a good 12% of the population, but this has fallen to just 4%, partly because only a fraction of the Serb population returned to live permanently in Croatia after the war. Many live in the country’s rural or marginalised regions, where verbal and even physical attacks on Serbs have increased of late.

Its upcoming Presidency of the Council of the European Union will enable Croatia to take more responsibility for Europe and will sharpen the EU’s and the public’s focus not only on Croatia itself but on the wider region. It thus creates an opportunity to generate the long-awaited and much-needed positive momentum for Croatia and the Western Balkan countries. Hopefully, this will provide new direction on the issue of its neighbours’ accession to the EU, thereby promoting cooperation among these countries and stimulating their economies. Perhaps it will also shift attention to the issue of human and minority rights. With better prospects for the future, Croatia might then be able to turn a more critical light on its own past.


Carolin Leutloff-Grandits is a social anthropologist and Interim Professor of Economic and Social Geography in the Faculty of Cultural and Social Sciences, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder).