Croats voted overwhelmingly in favour of defining marriage in the constitution as a "union of man and woman" yesterday (1 December), a move initiated by Roman Catholic groups but criticised by opponents as discrimination against homosexuals. The Commission declined to comment, saying that the issue of marriage is of national competence.
Almost 66% of those who voted in the referendum in the new European Union member endorsed the initiative, launched by the Catholic group "In the Name of the Family", according to preliminary results on Sunday night. Turnout was 37%.
The group had gathered over 740,000 signatures in support of the referendum, forcing parliament to call the vote.
The Social Democrat-led government disagreed with the referendum's demand, but the outcome was no surprise in a morally conservative country where 90% of the population of 4.4 million say they are Catholic.
The Church wholeheartedly backed the initiative, which sought to define marriage in the constitution rather than law so that its status can only be changed by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
"I am happy because, from now on, no future government will be able to legalise gay marriages," said Željka Marki?, leader of "In the Name of the Family".
Ballet dancer Sanja Grgic said: "I have nothing against gay people, I have many gay friends, but I voted in favour because I think children should grow up in a family that has a mother and a father."
Opponents noted that Croatia now shares its constitutional definition of marriage with Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia, where intolerance of same-sex unions is widespread.
"This is discrimination, an attack on human rights and liberties. It's a stain we'll all have to carry," said Duje Prkut, one of the main activists in the 'Against' camp.
The campaign for the referendum began last year after the government introduced sex education in schools despite protests from Catholic groups.
It then hinted that it might grant same-sex couples the right to be treated as if they were married, with next-of-kin status and inheritance rights, albeit without allowing them to formally marry.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovi? had called the referendum "sad and pointless", but said the government would pass a bill giving same-sex couples more rights in the coming weeks.
While gay pride marches have become routine in Croatia, same-sex couples still face many practical challenges.
"Right now, I have no right to inherit my girlfriend's property, we cannot adopt children or get married, I could not visit her if she ended up in an old people's home," said Marta Susak, a 21-year-old student who came to vote holding hands with her girlfriend.
Leaders of the conservative opposition HDZ party supported the referendum demand. Some analysts said this was the start of a conservative backlash against the increasingly unpopular government, which has failed to revive the withering economy.
"This vote is not about marriage or the definition of marriage, this is a referendum against the current government," Davor Butkovic, an influential columnist, wrote in the pro-government Jutarnji List daily before the referendum.
The Commission declined to comment, saying that the issue of marriage is of national competence of the member states. In fact, in the pre-accession period the commission puts a lot of pressure on candidate countries regarding LGBT rights, but as the countries join the Union, Brussels keeps silent on the matter.
Hannes Swoboda, president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament expressed “deep disappointment” at the results of the vote:
"As democrats, we of course respect the decision of the Croatian voters. But I am deeply disappointed by this outcome. I have come to know Croatia as an open and progressive country, not a country whose people outlaw happiness and equal rights. The extreme right and the religious groups that lobbied in favour of this constitutional amendment must urgently confront the reality: LGBT rights, equality and human rights are all part of a bigger concept of fundamental rights and values shared by Europeans. I expect Croatia to share these values, especially now that it is an EU member state.
I welcome the fact that the government under Zoran Milanovi? has made clear that it will continue its work to increase the rights of same-sex couples."
The European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT rights expressed “regret at the outcome of the referendum banning same-sex marriage”.
Michael Cashman, co-president of the Intergoup reacted: “"Given the organisation of this referendum by the Catholic Church, I am saddened—but not surprised—by the outcome. But this result will not stop progressive, democratic and inclusive movements in Croatia. Equality is a defining element of a civilised and inclusive society."