If you look beyond the current protest movement [since the end of February there have been several demonstrations in Croatia’s major cities to demand the resignation of Jadranka Kosor’s government which has been accused of corruption and bad management] you might be forgiven for thinking that joining the European Union is the main issue in this country, and that all eyes are on Brussels and the messages that come to us from the EU. But beware of jumping to conclusions.

The EU may be big news in media and political circles, but hardly anyone else has time to spare a thought for accession. Overwhelmed by the crisis and the question of their own survival, most of Croatia’s citizens cannot be bothered with an issue that is viewed as no more relevant than last year’s snow!

As it stands, they have neither the inclination or the possibility of taking an informed interest in negotiations that are going ahead in a rarefied circle to which they have no access. On the long road to the European Union, it seems that its future citizens have fallen by the wayside.

Once again caught in the throes of a serious and painful crisis

Now that it has dragged on for years, European accession appears to have lost much of its appeal. Most of the young people who recently demonstrated in the the streets do not remember the Zagreb Summit [which brought together representatives of the Western Balkans and the EU in the year 2000], the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, or the moment when Croatia applied to join the EU [in February 2003].

The long road towards EU membership has been marked by so many obstacles and humiliations — the manhunt for General Gotovina [in March 2005, the EU postponed the opening of accession negotiations, and demanded that Croatia arrest Gotovina – wanted on war crimes charges – and hand him over to the ICTY], the disagreement with Slovenia over the Ecological and Fisheries Protection zone (ZERP) which resulted in Slovenia’s blocking of negotiations [in 2008 and 2009, the two countries became embroiled in a dispute over maritime borders in the Bay of Piran] — that we have not only forgotten where we started from but we have also lost sight of our final destination.

After a decade of reforms and re-adjustments, we are once again caught in the throes of a serious and painful crisis, and this has been compounded by the fact that for the last year or two the news from Europe has been anything but good — just look at what has been happening in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Many of Croatia’s Europhiles demoralised

But external factors are just part of the problem. Enthusiasm for Europe among Croatia’s citizens has suffered even greater damage at the hands of the country’s political elite. In a bid to appear even more European than their counterparts in Brussels, Croatia’s politicians have demonstrated that they will stop at nothing in their attempt to achieve the “strategic objective” of EU membership.

At the same time, they have taken a huge number of unpopular decisions that have been identified with Europe even though they have little or nothing to do with negotiations with Brussels or the conditions for joining the EU. As a result, we have now reached a point where many of Croatia’s Europhiles are disgusted by the idea of the EU.

The media should also accept its share of the blame. It has been five and a half years since negotiations began with Brussels, and we have yet to see any real debate about the positive and negative aspects of EU membership in this country.

Now the end is in sight. But exhausted by the long road behind us and weary of the crisis and the loss of confidence in our leaders, we find that we are largely ignorant of this goal which has been presented to us as a reality to which there is no alternative.

Our politicians’ disdain for public involvement

With the conclusion to negotiations on the horizon [at the end of June if everything goes according to plan, see below], and with just a few months left to run before the referendum on the European Union, we are now faced with the question that will be the focus of the popular vote: "Are you for or against Croatia’s inclusion in the European Union?"

How has the government planned for the referendum which will be the first since the independence of Croatia? What will be the level of voter participation? And if there is a big turn-out, can we expect voters to use the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the government and the opposition, which is a much more pressing reality than the construction of Europe?

Will the demonstrators who tore down and set fire to the flags of HDZ (the ruling Croatian Democratic Union), the SDP (the oppositon Social Democratic Party) and the European Union be tempted to punish national and European leaders? Our politicians’ disdain for public involvement in the most important decision on the future of this country for twenty years is a testament to the sad state of democracy in Croatia.