Credit: David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images

May 25, 2019   5 mins

Peak tourist season hasn’t begun yet in Istria, the largest of Croatia’s idyllic peninsulas. Still, this is Tihomir Ilić’s busiest time. He designs electric signs, installs lighting and lays cables in restaurants, clubs and shops, whose owners want to embellish their establishments before the tourists flood in. He tells me he’s gazing at the deserted docks of Uljanik shipyard, which was declared bankrupt a couple of weeks ago, as the country geared up for its second ever EU election.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of shipbuilding to the Croatian economy. Up to 5% of the working population is employed by the industry, which generates up to 1.8% of the nation’s GDP.

The image of a shipyard worker – standing in overalls before a raft of giant, powerful machines, a hint of azure sea in the background – touches every generation of Croats. It’s a triumphant symbol of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, which, though it ended in 1991 during the breakup of Yugoslavia, is still idealised by many.

Historically, the shipyard and the state have mutually supported one another, but Croatia’s entry into the EU in 2013 changed that: one of the terms demanded by Brussels was that the government stop subsidising the nation’s shipbuilding industry. When Uljanik began to tank, the government in Zagreb did spend exorbitant sums of money issuing state guarantees for unbuilt ships on order, as well as on the salaries of those who work – worked – at the shipyard. But ultimately, the couldn’t intervene to save Uljanik without violating the EU’s principle of free competition.

Uljanik’s bankruptcy will affect more than 1000 workers. Collectively, they hold almost 50% of shares in the shipyard. But Tihomir tells me they never bothered to take an active role in supervising the work of the management board. They’ve assumed that it’s the EU’s responsibility to deal with their problems while, says Tihomir, “I’m breaking my back trying to contribute to the national budget”.

Tihomir is an entrepreneur, and every kuna of profit he’s earned in the last couple of months will be spent paying this year’s taxes. Cynical about Croatia’s huge public sector, Tihomir declares himself a pro-European liberal. In the impending EU elections, his options are few: the only parties that clearly present themselves as pro-European are the ruling, Right-wing HDZ and two minor Left-wing parties. The other 13 are, more or less, flirting with Euroscepticism.

And doubts about Europe have a long history in Croatia. At the beginning of the century, when the nation was negotiating entry into the EU, Croats were briefly enthusiastic about the economic advantages of joining the union. But the tide started to turn when Brussels put a certain condition on Croatia’s membership: full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for War Crimes in The Hague. The Tribunal demanded the extradition of a few Croatian generals – who’d been accused of war crimes, though many Croats perceived them as heroes. After a highly controversial national debate, the generals were handed over.

And meanwhile, of course, Croats were seething at the idea of the EU instructing their government to stop supporting the shipbuilding industry, which was a source of much national pride.

So, when Croatia was finally to be admitted, in 2013, the electorate was already showing signs of scepticism. Less than half of registered voters turned out for the referendum on EU accession, meaning only 37% of the total population actively voted to join.

The union Croatia finally joined – after this protracted and fraught negotiation process – was not what it had been. The EU was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, meaning the economic advantages Croatians were promised were not forthcoming. For instance the shipbuilding industry, in private hands, has been steadily sinking. The closure of Uljanik seems to be the last nail in the coffin. “Croatia no longer has a shipbuilding industry as of today,” commented the President of the Adriatic Union Boris Cerovac on the news. “If Uljanik is gone, so is shipbuilding.”

But Cerovac blames the Croatian government for the collapse, rather than the EU – reflecting the wider mood of the nation. Croats tend not to blame Brussels for their anticlimactic entry to the EU, but they do blame the Croatian political elites dealing with Brussels.

“This is not so much about Euroscepticism, as is about Cro-scepticism”, says Nino Đula, editor of Jutarnji List (the biggest daily in Croatia) on the election:

“People think that political elites have prevented Croatia becoming Europe enough. Tomorrow, when we will be casting ballots in the European elections, it will be less of a plea about organization of Europe, but whether we consider us a part of Europe”.

Many say they will abstain because they don’t like the idea of casting a vote that would enable corrupt and incompetent elites to enjoy astronomical wages and the high life in Brussels. In the latest Eurobarometer polls (held last month), a mere 17% said they’ll cast a ballot, compared to an EU average of 35%. The poll also suggested that, if a referendum on leaving the EU were to be held tomorrow, only 52% of Croats would vote to remain.

In other European nations – France, Sweden, Italy – the rise of Euroscepticism has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of far-Right parties; in Croatia, the far-Right has been weak and poorly organised. Its agenda focuses on primitive racism aimed at Serbs and nostalgia for the WWII-era, ultranationalist Ustashe state. Unusually, for a country along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t widespread.

It’s worth noting, however, that the HDZ encompasses a wide range of factions. The party is represented by the moderate Prime Minister Plenković and his team – the so-called “civilized Right”. But the far-Right end of their party harbours nationalists, opportunists and chauvinists– whose voices could potentially get louder.

Meanwhile, the populist Human Blockade, which is the third strongest party in Croatia, is trying to capitalise on the rise of Euroscepticism by making it a more central part of their agenda. Human Blockade’s leader, Ivan Pernar, is known for sporting a t-shirt with the inscription ‘I heart Putin’ (indeed, many suspect that he is, at least partly, funded by Moscow.) If the party wins seats, their MEP (or MEPs) would be in the same group as the Italian Five Star Movement – and they don’t disguise their sympathy for the German far-Right AfD. Denis Kuljiš, a well-known journalist and political analyst, characterises them:

“They are the voice of the desperate, the losers of the transition. They are against Europe, against capitalism, against modernism. They are not entirely insignificant, media like them because they provide a constant stream of ludicrosities, but I don’t consider them a key player”.

Kuljiš is as unconvinced by the pessimistic statistics of Eurobarometer polls as he is by the potential of Croatia’s far-Right:

“People walk around, gibbering, but I haven’t noticed such sentiment in my vicinity. Europe is not particularly trusted, that’s true, as it’s true that tourists would come here anyway and it’s true that people don’t quite understand what’s the use of such a Europe. However, people realize that there is nothing but Europe.

Take Serbia, for example: they think they can choose between Europe and Russia. They are so wrong. Russia is indifferent towards them – yet they don’t know it. In Croatia they know that European Union is the only show in town. Also, everyone is still awaiting some benefit from the EU, money from European funds. Some, on the other hand, love Europe because it provides an opportunity to flee Croatia. Not many here are against Europe.”

But many experts might have said the same thing about the UK, immediately before a majority voted for Brexit – a result that has inspired citizens across the continent to question the received wisdom that the EU ‘is the only show in town’.

And the UK was – is – a key player in the EU, whereas Croatia is the most recent country to become a member. Located on the fringe of the Union, and hometo few citizens who understand what it is or does, Croatia could easily be submerged by the rising tide of Euroscepticism. And this week’s election will tell us whether this rising tide could usher in a stronger, smarter far-Right.

Ines Sabalic is a journalist and the representative of the City of Zagreb to the EU.