Croatian canary in the EU coal mine

Croatian canary in the EU coal mine

Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, Sunday’s Croatian referendum on European Union membership may be the most insightful test yet on the future prospects of the 27-nation bloc. A dead canary means get out of the mine. Fast.

Sure, Croatia is a bit player in the continental scheme of things; indeed, its population of 4.5 million is smaller than that of Kadiköy. And just about everywhere, the EU’s symbolic golden stars are looking more like copper every day.

But come the morning after, the results will still bear analysis. For if Europe’s troubled southern tier suffers more than a little EU fatigue, if Finland’s growing xenophobia is a similar malady, if the Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles are feeling less EU-pean by the day; in Croatia a “yes” or “no” will reflect something far more contemporary.

This is not a poll. It is a full vote, like the one the Danes took twice to get right and the one the Norwegians rejected. It is also the first real plebiscite on the “European Project” under the new reality in a country that suffered both the isolation of Cold War socialism and the following Balkan wars. Whether they decide to gaze with a jaundiced eye upon the experiment will tell us much that will be useful to countries like Turkey who were once ahead in the queue, or Ukraine, whose EU aspirations once seemed realistic.

In a seminal essay two years ago for Britain’s Prospect magazine, the Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev argued that the Central and East European vantage point is unique. A half-century of rule by elites, he argued, is not something to be easily replaced with a new elite. “This new elite are a strange breed,” Krastev wrote. “They have the brains of bankers, the manners of waiters and the dreams of teenagers.” I think this pretty much sums up those still under the spell of Brussels.

Most in Croatia’s government are squarely in favor. And polls indicate the referendum will pass by as much as 60 percent, a victory Brussels will surely trumpet as a vote of confidence. Still, the interviews I have read suggest it will not be an easy sell. The chance to emigrate or the prospects of (diminished) development aid are still powerful motivations, but the chorus of greater democracy, of a new European identity, of soft power in a hard world; those sentiments that echoed so loudly just a few years ago, are not topics in the discussion.

 “We came out of Yugoslavia to be independent, and it is stupid to go straight into a union of some other kind,” one Zagreb voter told the British Independent.

Pollster Srdjan Dumicic told the New York Times the current popular joke: Joining now is like arriving at a party at 2 a.m. Half the revelers are drunk. Half have gone home. “It’s not the party it was at midnight,” he said.

Not it is not. But I am not sure the fact has yet dawned on Brussels. Plans are afoot to once again amend the EU’s foundational treaty by the end of the year to impose even tighter fiscal discipline. Fair enough. Yet the plan misses the point of accountability, an imperial bureaucracy and rule by command with desperation for more control. This is the EU’s real problem.

So let us see what the Croatian canary looks like on Monday. Dead? Sick? Or singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy?