The Greens could use this time of political uncertainty and change to cement themselves in the Croatian political imaginary and foster a real societal transformation.

The day before Croatia joined the European Union as a full member state, Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanović stated that in ten years time the citizens of Croatia will probably enjoy a better standard of living. Such a statement, clearly (or disappointingly) enough, confirmed that acceding to the EU is not the same as achieving prosperity, as was imagined twelve years ago when the country began its journey toward full membership . However, on the 1st of July 2013 Croatia’s hour arrived—it became the EU’s 28th Member State, although along the way both Croatia and the EU have changed substantially. Many people who were once highly supportive of European membership were left with a bitter taste in their mouths once July finally came around.

For some, the difficult and bumpy road toward full membership came to an end as pundits in Brussels confirmed that the country successfully stayed the course of EU accession. More cautious commentators would say that Croatia is only at the beginning of a never-ending and transformational journey towards European membership. However, the relative lack of fanfare generated by Croatia’s accession is not due only to its status as a small, peripheral country with severe financial issues and one of the highest youth unemployment rates; it is also due to the fact that Croatia’s membership in the EU is viewed as a source of ambivalance both in Croatia and in the EU.

In this article the author will, firstly, briefly portray some of the critical dimensions of this ambivalence, before, secondly, segueing into an examination of the ways in which EU membership could be used to trigger the advancement of green politics in the country. The author will argue that there is a clear opportunity for the green political movement to use the momentum of the post-accession phase to position itself as a new political force in the domestic political arena; one which will play a distinctive role, acting as a political force demanding transformation and the completion of the country’s modernisation. At the domestic level the Greens could safeguard the processes of modernisation and demand of the establishment that they play by the rules, while at the European level they could be more present in the struggle for a fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable Europe.

The roots of ambivalence

Before we explore these avenues of thought we need to explore the origins of these ambivalences. Most importantly, at the moment of its accession, Croatia has much more in common with Spain and Greece—all struggling to cope with a severe financial crisis and increased youth unemployment—than with Germany or Austria with which it used to be closely affiliated. However, it also has a lot in common with neighbours Hungary and Serbia, all of which harbour strong nationalistic tendencies, deeply rooted authoritarianism and a significant influence from the Church. In addition, its recent post-war experience makes Croatia’s position in the new European family quite distinct. These dimensions have been only strengthened in the last few years before accession.  Ambivalence is also fostered by the fact that the future of Europe relates not only to the sphere of identity politics (or “cultural wars”), but also (although this is admittedly an oversimplification) to contrasting images of winners and losers. While European accession rightly portends the modernisation of the country, it also augurs an increase in the gap between the establishment and the citizenry. Ultimately, the EU as it stood at the beginning of Croatia’s journey was not the same, or at least did not appear the same, as now. Today, the newcomer Croatia is joining the European family during very turbulent times, when there is a question mark hanging over the very concept of Europe as a political project, when the next step needs to be made despite the fact that the path to the top remains shrouded. By joining the EU at this difficult time, Croatia demonstrated that, along with the other 27 Member States, it is willing to take this common step and explore what the Europe of tomorrow could look like and, above all, whether we can all actively be part of this transformation.

However, ambivalence is present not only in the EU—where questions cover the whole spectrum from “are we ready for enlargement?” to “is this country really ready?”—but also in Croatia, where around 66% of voters said ‘yes’ to membership in the EU (while turnout on referendum was approximately 41%), questioning the thin democratic legitimacy of this decision. Today, even hard-line Euro optimists are challenged to advocate EU membership without hesitation. There are, however, a few prevailing factors that might help us to explain this disproportional ambivalence and the relatively unknown “good news”  that deserves to be heard much louder after a decade of mutual efforts:

  1. During the accession process, political elites made an alliance between themselves, while they lost favour with citizens (the last few elections clearly indicate that the elites are being punished by low turn-outs). In order to keep their momentum alive they restricted all debate to parliamentary level, hindering broader social discussion and stopping different social strata from taking active part in the process of accession. Negotiation positions were not revealed to citizens and the beneficial impacts of accession remained unknown, while the tabloids fulfilled the function of informing the population. Overall, the process was designed to be an exclusive, non-transparent and one-way communication strategy.  Thus, the consensus among the parties has actually blocked a broader debate that would have bolstered the popular mandate for the EU membership process and enhanced its legitimacy.
  2. Accordingly, winners of the process are usually portrayed as political and business elites and their close networks, while the losers are the ordinary citizens which were excluded from the process for a whole decade. This picture reveals that EU accession is closely linked to social inequalities, unfair distribution and discontent with the elites having the first and last word in designing the future.  A separate point that remains valid is that the public was passive and ignorant for the majority of the time, while the intensity of civil society involvement has only increased in the last few years. However, governments have failed to act responsibly in accordance with their mandates and to ensure access to information for all citizens.
  3. Joining the EU for some Euro optimists is equal to leaving the Balkans. Such an assumption creates a cacophony of expectations from Croatia as future EU Member State: some see its specific role as a bridge towards the region, some present it as a positive example for other countries on their path towards EU membership, while others are of the opinion that the country should turn their backs on Europe as a whole and connect with the Mediterranean or Central and Eastern Europe. A European future, however, requires peace and cooperation between European neighbours, a fact which makes the accumulation of financial and social capital amassed by the regressive and nationalistic forces in society during the war and post-war periods particularly troubling. There, ‘business-as-usual’ can hardly be maintained within the EU borders and under the scrutiny of the EU institutions. On the other hand, there is a third perspective from those that propose more regional cooperation in ex-Yugoslavian territory as a means of seeking prosperity through the economic re-unification of the region and who consider membership in the EU as a mistake.
  4. Ultimately, there is the impression that the EU has been eroded as a community of values and that it has been completely hijacked by the neoliberal economic agenda. The reduction of the EU to mere economic and financial interests prevails as one of the analyses which predicts that Croatian membership of the EU will be an instrument of the further commodification and privatisation of natural resources/public services in Croatia.  This impression, that most of the European project has been reduced and subordinated to a neoliberal economic agenda, strong marketisation and the death of social welfare, has been strengthened by the crisis and turned many Europhiles into Eurosceptics.
  5. While the EU has been substantially changing the legal, social and political life of Croatia over the last few years, membership will eventually give the citizens of Croatia the impression that they can themselves have some influence, and not just be influenced. Major concerns relate to equal and fair status within the EU and the capacity to co-decide with other 27 Member States —both of which are often related to the economic size and political competences of country’s representatives. A severe lack of political imagination and the high costs of clientelism are perceived as weak points within Europe’s leading administration.

This brief analysis does not ignore—but rather purposefully goes beyond—the sphere of identity politics that serves as a huge reservoir for irrational reactions towards the future of Europe and adds to the ambivalence and highly fragmented support regarding Croatian EU membership (they also serve as fuel for populist political options). However, it does help to some extent to describe some of the determining elements of this heavily-disillusioned political context: trust in public institutions has rapidly eroded and political parties are among least trusted organisations in Croatian society. Crucially, ordinary citizens are burdened with the impression that they are ‘boarding the Titanic’, as expressed in Groucho Marx’s famous quip: “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member” – often quoted by Croatian liberal philosopher Žarko Puhovski.

A hangover cure that finally works? Opportunities for the Greens

Let us use the hangover from the highly vulnerable post-accession period to mark the departure point for discussion of where the Greens can fit in in the new political constellation. What are the advantages and potential benefits that the Green political movement could gain from the membership in the European Union? Could membership itself prove a trigger for a new political force to take an active and specific role in the broader project of societal transformation?

Currently-existing green parties in Croatia have not succeeded in becoming key nodes of a broader political movement, at least not at the level of national politics. On the other hand, in Croatian society – in the academia, NGOs, in the media and in local communities – there is multitude of groups and individuals whose actions (and sometimes small victories) – did correlate highly with the demands and values of European green movement but they have, thus far, ardently resisted engagement with parlamentarianism. This is slowly changing, however, and membership in the EU certainly presents a new context and new opportunities for action. Importantly, any green political movement that would be galvanised into action in this new political formation will certainly need to position itself in relation to above-mentioned ambivalences.

Apart from that, Greens will have to recognise the new momentum that could offer them a distinct, transformative role in society, where they can act as a new political force that can help to complete the modernisation of society. At the very beginning of the post-accession period it can demand from authorities that they keep up with reforms and proceed with the transformation of society. This effort might diverge significantly from the neoliberal agenda exercised by the Troika, but it can still be in line with the transnational European struggle for fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable societies. In doing so the Greens will have an opportunity to safeguard the positive impacts of EU accession and to demand that these changes remain irreversible. As such, although small, they can play a distinctive role in a domestic political arena that is in an extremely vulnerable post-accession period and where there are serious risks of sliding back into authoritarianism or neo-conservativism, or to continue to blindly follow the neo-liberal agenda that pushes for the privatisation of public goods/services.  Accordingly, there is a clear need for part of society to recognise this opportunity and to set particular goals, while building broad and active alliances against these processes, using the next European and national elections to cement their political presence not only on the streets but in the parliamentary sphere as well as in movements, NGOs and grassroots initiatives. Recognising and building new social energy around this common denominator will be the first test.

Furthermore, presenting the Greens as European could be very beneficial for them and give them disproportional influence which could be used tactically to a) confront the strong neoliberal agenda demanding privatisation, b) to demand redistribution leading to greater equality, c) to insist on ecological modernisation, d) to develop more participative models of governance and above all, e) to allow them to act in a much more interrogative manner in relation to the diverse corruption affairs in Croatia. These five streams can be certainly developed as potential routes for the further development of the Greens, alongside their permanent political work on environmental issues and in the fight for open and inclusive society.

Performing this distinctive role in the transformation of society and the completion of its modernisation, the Greens will surely need to develop and practice new forms of social mobilisation and citizen participation and make an evident step toward ‘deliberative democracy’ as a central component of its behaviour. In addition, it will need to clearly demonstrate how ecological modernisation can be beneficial for the country’s economic and social policy. It could be an assurance that further commodification and privatisation of natural resources will not take place, whilst simultaneously developing better models of public governance. Furthermore, in order to reduce inequalities and ameliorate the lack of social justice, a redistributive agenda should be the core idea of their demands and  political actions. Recognising  the clear contemporary tendencies towards authoritaranism, nationalism and neo-conservativism, this political agenda would need to bring highly progressive and secular values to the top of its agenda. Needless to say, this formation will clearly advocate immigrant rights and proceed with the permanent struggle against the discrimination of any person on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity, race or sexual preference. Although working on the modernisation of society and preparing it for future challenges, this political group could clearly be seen as part of the anti-fascist legacy in Croatia, actively condemning new forms of neo-fascism, radical right extremism and xenophobia.

A bittersweet taste?

As a new transformative power, the Greens might have a small opportunity to decrease the gap between the winners and losers of Croatian accession to the EU. In other words, their new (and first) job must be to turn the bitter taste of accession into a sweet one, and to generate benefits in their favour. In so doing, they could demonstrate that another style of governance is possible,  and could make Europe more friendly and more open to their citizens, while at the same time struggling for a more democratic and more equal Europe. Such developments could mobilise broader social strata to support the Greens as a part of a strategy to keep the achievements of accession alive, while at the same time increasing the integrity and vitality to save the legacy of the European social model.

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