#EU2019 -Third time’s not the charm for EU’s newest member Croatia

The European elections, though lacking any popular appeal in Croatia, may still have an impact on the local politics. [Shutterstock]

Ever since Croatia joined the EU in July 2013, its membership has been so uneventful that it was almost invisible. Sadly, the same can be said for the EU’s presence in Croatia.

Almost as soon as Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ faded out at the accession celebration, Croats largely forgot that they are a part of the European circle. European topics are not popular, the EU Parliament is ‘distant’ and ‘overly complex’, and the only EU-related information people are aware of are the hefty salaries that MEPs receive.

Only a handful of Croats can name the country’s 11 MEPs, and fewer still are familiar with the work they have been doing in Bruxelles over the past five years.

This time, the third EU election in the country, Croats will be choosing 12 MEPs, because of Brexit, but only 11 of them will take their seats in the inaugural plenary session in Strasbourg this July. The last one will have to wait for the UK to officially leave the EU.

During the campaign, citizens were often heard complaining that they won’t vote because ‘there is nobody to vote for anyway’, so it is not surprising that turnout is expected to be around a lowly 30%.

The fact that EU membership has made it easier to travel and find jobs abroad (which many youngsters have done), but did not translate into higher living standards is not helping either.

Even though the campaign was livelier than the previous two, it still cannot be compared to any presidential, parliamentary or even local ballot. The biggest focus of the campaign has been put on Croatia’s equality in the EU and the problem of youth brain drain.

Božo Petrov, leader of the opposition party Most (Bridge), made a splash by suggesting the EU should use its cohesion funds to “compensate for the losses caused by youth emigration”. Numerous critics called him a populist after that.

EPP party – biggest and most active

The ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ, EPP) is the only party actively talking about European policies, as Prime Minister Andrej Plenković served as an MEP before and has a keen awareness of EU politics, but also due to the party’s very firm sense of belonging to the EPP.

The HDZ has traditionally had the biggest number of MEPs and the same is expected in this year’s election, where they are likely to get five seats, including for current MEPs Dubravka Šuica and Željana Zovko.

The biggest opposition party, the SDP (S&D), is still facing an identity crisis, having been in free fall and losing support since  Davor Bernardić took over as the new leader in 2016. As a result of this trend, there is a huge gap in the centre-left that has yet to be filled.

The polls are predicting three seats for the SDP, for the current MEPs Tonino Picula and Biljana Borzan and for number three on the list, former war veterans’ minister Predrag Matić, unless the preferential votes give the seat to someone else.

Anti-system, populist leftist party Human Shield (Živi zid), in alliance with Italian M5S, has successfully held the post of the third largest party for months. However, their popularity has dropped after a scandal with party finances in January.

While initial polls gave them as many as three MEPs, this has been reduced to a single one, Tihomir Lukanić, the party’s secretary.

Most, a party with no clear ideology, which was the biggest sensation of Croatia’s parliamentary elections in 2015, will make its debut in EU elections and expects one MEP.

According to the latest information, party secretary Nikola Grmoja is negotiating with Matteo Salvini about joining his Eurosceptic alliance in the European Parliament, though Most members are tight-lipped about future alliances, saying only that their “goal is to protect Croatia’s interest”.

The Amsterdam coalition, a broad alliance of centre-left parties, most of which are ALDE-affiliated, expects one MEP, and it should be their lead candidate, the Istria County prefect, Valter Flego.

No cross-party cooperation

Whoever gets a seat in the European Parliament this summer, one thing is certain: Croatian MEPs are not going to cooperate among themselves.

Due to firm ideological differences and conflicts on the national level, the parties are forbidding their members to cooperate with other MEPs, thinking that their credibility might be compromised among voters at home.

The best example is a case in 2013, when Tonino Picula (S&D) and Davor Ivo Stier (EPP) called for a bilateral agreement and cross-party cooperation. Both were subsequently punished by being relegated to the bottom of their parties 2014 election lists.

The European elections, though lacking any popular appeal in Croatia, may still have an impact on the local politics.

Plenković has been trying to contain the right wing of his HDZ party ever since he became its president in 2016. In case HDZ gets fewer than 5 MEPs, his leadership will be put to test. The situation is even more dramatic for the SDP; if the party gets fewer than three MEPs, the career of party president Bernardić is almost surely over.

As for Croatia’s new Commissioner, nothing has been publicly announced, but he/she will be named by Plenković’s conservative government, which rules out the current Commissioner Neven Mimica, who had been named by the previous SDP cabinet.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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