Wary Croatians say 'no alternative' to EU
(ZAGREB) - Wary Croatians said Friday they were uncertain what EU membership will bring them, but many agreed there was no alternative to joining the bloc despite its current woes.
Six years after beginning accession talks with the European Union, Zagreb on Friday signed the accession treaty in Brussels, paving the way for it to join in July 2013 more than two decades after independence.
"Although I'm very concerned with developments within the European Union and the fact that the whole situation is unpredictable, we have no alternative," Nevenka Maric, a 36-year-old translator, told AFP.
Croatia signed the deal as EU leaders, excepting Britain, banded together to back tighter budget policing after a heated summit considered a last chance to save the debt-laden eurozone.
"This is a big, historic event for Croatia," the head of the Social Democrats and likely new prime minister Zoran Milanovic told journalists.
"Croatia went through a difficult and long path in (accession) talks and this is only a precondition for an important result."
A centre-left coalition, led by his SDP, inflicted a crushing defeat on the ruling conservatives in Sunday's general elections. A new government is expected to take over by the end of the month.
Voters in the Balkan state will have to confirm the treaty in a referendum expected to be held in February and it has to be ratified by all EU member states.
A survey published two weeks ago said 60 percent of Croatians would vote yes in the referendum.
But becoming the union's 28th member looks set to be a marriage of convenience rather than a love match for Croatia, which will be the second of the six former Yugoslav republics to join after Slovenia.
"The EU is falling apart so the question is what are we madly rushing toward? To another disaster?" 41-year-old administrator Tanja Zemljic asked.
Aside from the European debt crisis, Croatian euroscepticism was fuelled by drawn-out accession talks, which opened in 2005, as many demands from Brussels were perceived as being unjust.
In particular, there was anger over EU demands for it to cooperate with the UN war crimes court which was prosecuting several Croatian generals hailed in the country as heroes of the 1991-95 war.
The country of 4.2 million people, whose economy is based mostly on Adriatic tourism, is also facing its own serious crisis. It has been in recession for most of the last three years and unemployment is running above 17 percent.
EU opponents claim Croatia will lose its national identity by entering a "mega-state" and accuse the country's leaders of betraying national interests.
"The EU is imploding and Croatia does not need a new political adventure," said Zeljko Sacic, who organised an anti-EU rally on the eve of the signing ceremony.
"I will say 'no' to the EU. Politicians bombard us with declarations how beautiful it will be once we enter while we can see what is going on in Greece, Spain or Portugal," said Ankica, who did not want to give her last name.
"They underestimate basic human intelligence," the 38-year-old dental technician from the coastal town of Split said.
The signing of the treaty marks a historic chapter for Croatia 20 years after it proclaimed independence, sparking the four-year war with Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs.
Out of the six former Yugoslav republics -- Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia -- only the latter is an EU member, since 2004. On Friday, the EU said it would make a decision in February on whether to grant Serbia candidate status.
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