Welcome, Croatia: EU member state number 28. This is an incredible achievement, since the War of Independence only ended in 1995. In 18 years you have established yourself as a sovereign country and transitioned from communism to capitalism. You have in many ways overcome the human cost of the war and readied yourself for participation in the single market. Your journey since 1995 has been inspirational.
But what awaits you now that you are part of the EU family? It must seem difficult to merge your identity as a sovereign state, so freshly minted, in the melting pot of Europe. It’s true that as far as identity goes being an EU member can be a plus, not a minus, and after years ‘inside’ I very much doubt that anyone in France, Denmark, Portugal, Finland, Poland or Bulgaria – to take just one state from each set of previous accessions – feels their national identity any less keenly than they did. There is no reason why Croats’ national identity should be any weaker inside the EU than out.
But sovereignty is a different matter; by joining the EU, you have, like your 27 partners, agreed to share your sovereign power with each other and with the EU institutions. It is absolutely true that in today’s globalised world the only way for a state to enjoy something like full sovereignty is autarky, and only North Korea has chosen this path. It is also true that for geographically small states, banding together in a regional organisation is a classic strategy for maximising leverage beyond your borders: even rich-as-Croesus Luxembourg knows this. But as a new state, forged in the heat of war, your decision is courageous as well as realistic. It shows an understanding of the realities of global politics and economics that many in these islands could learn from.
The EU that you have joined is not the same as the one your Slovene cousins acceded to in 2004. The Lisbon Treaty, ratified in 2009, made some significant changes to the political system of the EU, making it much more clearly a bicameral, quasi-federal entity. But the euro-crisis, addressed so far only with yesterday’s ideas and far from proactively, has shown the weaknesses of the EU too. Current demonstrators against the Hungarian and Bulgarian governments, lurching towards authoritarianism and eroding liberal democracy, have cause to despair of meaningful intervention from Brussels. And the economic crisis is far from over, as a trip to rural Spain or Greece could show you. The EU, then, is slow to respond to major events, cumbersome, and increasingly dependent for its strategic development upon the way the wind is blowing in Berlin. So far, Germany has been a reluctant leader, but leader it will none the less have to be. Lernen Sie Deutsch, wenn Sie in Europa-Räter erfolgreich sein wollen!
So how can you make the most of the EU? Think positively. Smaller states in geographical and/or global influence terms continue to do very well from the integration process, since as part of ‘Europe’ they are far more able to deal with rising or risen powers elsewhere. Regional and cohesion policy funds, albeit smaller as a per centage of the EU budget than they should be, will come your way and can be used wisely to bolster infrastructure and rural development (but be careful to do this sustainably). The solidarity clause of the Lisbon Treaty offers explicit protection from the more powerful partner states in case of aggression from third countries, a fact states like Estonia have been grateful for. Many ‘small’ states are also skilled players of the Brussels political and diplomatic games, driving hard bargains while accepting trade-offs and generating reputations for reliability. There is no reason why Croatia cannot do the same.
Train your fire on a few select key issues that are your priorities. This helps concentrate resources, and is also useful politically, since partner governments will understand when you really can’t make too many concessions and when you really need a good deal. Espouse ‘European’ values and the worth of the integration process as a ‘project’, as this signals that you really are part of the club and not there for want of a better alternative. Poland is a good example here; since the Kaczynski twins left office, Poland has skilfully repositioned itself as an Atlanticist pro-European in a way the UK has still not pulled off. Send many of your ablest officials and politicians to Brussels, and make sure to set up strong relations between your national parliaments and MEPs.
Welcome, Croatia. May the EU bring you much that is helpful. And may you help transform it into an organisation that is fully worthy of your membership.