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Croatia Holds Referendum on EU Membership

  • Lisa Bryant

Croatian voters cast their ballots at the polling station in Zagreb, Croatia, January 22, 2012.

Croatian voters cast their ballots at the polling station in Zagreb, Croatia, January 22, 2012.

Croats are voting Sunday on whether to join the European Union. If they approve the measure, as many expect, Croatia will become the 28th EU member - a symbolic victory for both the Balkan nation and for Brussels.

Croatia's referendum on joining the European Union comes as the block faces one of its biggest crises ever - the sovereign debt and banking problems that have migrated from one eurozone country to another.

There is a sizable chunk of Croats opposed to joining the EU. On Saturday police clashed with protesters in Zagreb at an anti-EU rally that gathered hundreds of people.

Europe's financial problems don't appear to be the main worry, as Croatia would not be joining the eurozone anytime soon.

This man says he will vote against joining the EU because politicians didn't bother to explain what the block really stands for. Other critics fear losing sovereignty to Brussels.

But polls indicate that a majority of the population will vote in favor of joining the EU. The Croatian government has been pushing the benefits of joining - an argument echoed by Balkans expert Dimitar Bechev, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"One is the political dividend. In the sense that Croatia is not only recognized as part of a democratically stable and advanced part of Europe, but also that it gets a voice in all institutions in Brussels," said Bechev.

Bechev says Croatia will also have the perks of being part of the EU's internal market. But perhaps the biggest argument for the Balkan nation, after its war of secession from the former Yugoslavia, is symbolic.

"At a very emotional level, this is a vindication of what they truly believe for a long period of time - that they belong to Europe," said Bechev. "One strand of all the ideology of independence was rejoining Europe. Of course, Croatian independence had a darker side as well."

Analysts say Croatia's membership is important for the EU as well, in part because it could help cement stability in the Balkans.

"Because there would be few developments that would be more challenging to the EU and potentially more negative than the descent of the Balkans into deep political instability," said Thomas Klau, the head of the European Council's Paris office.

If Croatia becomes the next EU member it will signal to other candidate countries, notably neighboring Serbia, that they, too, might someday be part of the bloc.