Gordan Bosanac – Civil Society and EU Accession: The Croatian Experience

gordanAuthor: Gordan Bosanac

The first official step in institutionalizing the relations between the Republic of Croatia (RC) and the European Union (EU) took place on October 21 2001, with the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the Republic of Croatia and the European communities and their countries.[i] The signing of the Agreement occurred amidst government change in RC, when the coalition government made clear its determination to see RC become a member of the EU.  This was also the time when a national consensus on EU accession was reached among all political parties.  Before that time, EU accession was not a clearly stated aim of Croatian foreign politics and in the pre-negotiation era, the newly independent Croatia was a society in which “European issues” were seldom discussed in public.  Minority rights protection, insistence on prosecuting war crimes, prohibiting discrimination, fighting corruption, ensuring the autonomy of the justice system etc. are only some of the issues on which civil society worked more diligently than state institutions. In this regard,  civil society organizations (CSO), founded mostly in the last decade of the 20th century, viewed the European Union and the accession process as an ally.  In hindsight we can say that dealing with issues related to democracy and human rights protection was primarily started by civil society organizations, amongst a small number of citizens, and was subsequently brought from the margins into the center.  It took several years before these issues became part of the dominant political discourse.

The Beginning of Negotiations

Formal negotiations between the Croatian Republic and the European Union began on October  3 2005, with the political elites having begun to deal with “European issues” in earnest, i.e. having begun to meet the requirements constantly posed by the European Union.  Just two months after the opening of negotiations, Ante Gotovina, the last fugitive from RC whose extradiction was demanded by the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia, was arrested on December 7 2005. For human rights CSOs this was further symbolic affirmation of their marginalized and long disputed work. What seemed impossible only ten years ago was quickly becoming political reality. During the next six years, RC continued its negotiations with the EU and managed to align, more or less successfully, its legislation with the legislation of the EU. During the negotiation process CSOs utilized to a great extent the policy of carrots and sticks and recognized the European Commission as one of its most useful allies, not only because of the opportunity of receiving systematic financing but also because of the political influence the CSOs gained due to the negotiation process. Namely, ever since the 90s the CSOs that dealt with democracy and human rights issues were labeled as traitors and obstructors in the political arena of the newly independent Republic of Croatia. The situation was most succinctlyly portrayed in one of Franjo Tuðman’s speeches in which he attacked the CSOs, accusing them of political amateurism, cooperation with the black, yellow and red devils and selling out for Judas’ coins.[ii] It took years to remove this prejudice, although it is probably still upheld by some political elites. Still, the label of traitors was no longer so easily thrown about since the political elites had adopted the politics of EU integration and therefore had to admit, albeit reluctantly, that CSOs were ahead of their time. CSOs could legitimately claim that the European issues that began to preoccupy the leading political figures had already been on their agenda a decade ago. With less prejudice but with ongoing political marginalization of CSOs, the ruling parties began the process of the country’s democratization.

Between Brussels and Zagreb

This resulted in advocacy initiatives being directed primarily at Brussels (after being too easily rejected or marginalized by the authorities in Zagreb), since efforts to communicate with Brussels seemed more worthwhile than efforts to communicate with Zagreb. The process led to further mistrust between CSOs and the authorities. On the other hand, the CSOs positioning themselves closer to EU institutions and away from government institutions ensured unimpeded autonomy for CSOs and can be viewed as positive in that respect.  Still, it is only in recent years that the authorities adopted a much more open-minded approach to CSOs and began to interpret their comments as constructive instead of malicious.

CSOs took advantage of the accession process to a greater or lesser extent, in accordance with their capacity and advocacy skills, with key emphasis on the contribution of CSOs to European Commission’s reports on RC’s progress in the negotiation process, reports that came to be read with greater understanding and seriousness. In the very beginning, the content of the negotiation process was not of great interest for CSOs since they encompassed an extremely wide and complex area. The capacity of CSOs built throughout the 90s and later was mainly concerned with negotiations on Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and partially Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security and Chapter 27 – Environment. Other chapters held almost no interest to CSOs.

At the start of the negotiation process, some CSOs devoted all their energy to trying to declassify the negotiations and increase transparency so that greater numbers of citizens could be continuously informed on everything that was happening behind closed doors. This initiative wasn’t welcomed by neither the ruling authorities nor the European Commission out of fear that negotiation information would be manipulated through media coverage and lead to the citizens’ loss of confidence in the EU. Furthermore, there was fear of political parties using the media to politicize the negotiations.  After unsuccessful attempts to make the negotiations more open to the general public, CSOs continued to advocate resolving democracy and human rights protection issues either independently or in small coalitions. It was in this phase the CSOs noticed that some international standards of human rights protection are not included in the minimal standards required by the EU. On the contrary, in some areas the EU failed to meet international standards such as in its asylum policy.  Similarly, it became clear that RC, in aligning its legislature with that of the EU, was doing so by adopting only the minimal standards proscribed by EU directives. The Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination which covers a wider area than is required by the EU represents a rare case of adopting legislation that went beyond the minimal standards.

This period was also marked by a significant institutional growth of a small number of advocacy CSOs that managed to successfully use EU resources for the development of civil society and become bigger and more visible advocacy organizations, with programs that focused on different public policies. The negative side of this process was the inability of smaller organizations to survive on the “donors market” and ceasing to exist altogether.  A great deal of CSOs founded from scratch in the 90s did not manage to transform so as to adjust to new rules of financing and new political priorities. This was especially true for CSOs located outside of Zagreb where most of the major political decisions were made. „EU projects“ also led to an increasing bureaucratization of NGOs that were now criticized for being too caught up in projects and failing to keep track of the emergence of new forms of social injustice related primarily to the socio-economic rights of citizens

The Strength of Mutual Action

The end-period of the negotiation process brought about the realization that acting together can make much more of an impact on decision makers than expert, individual work. In February 2011, a group of CSOs, having come into possession of closing benchmarks for Chapter 23 –  Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, issued a mutual opinion on RC’s readiness to close negotiations on the judiciary and fundamental rights, claiming that RC was not ready to close Chapter 23.[iii]  This example shows the importance of CSOs having an insight into at least the opening and closing benchmarks of chapter negotiations. The document needs to be supervised not only by the  EU but also by the citizens of the negotiating country.

The report made a very big impact in institutions of the EU and the member countries but was almost completely marginalized in Croatia. Furthermore, CSOs were criticized for trying to block RC’s accession to the EU. But the report gave a new impetus to CSOs and turned them into important opinion makers on the implementability of the reforms that had been integrated into the legislature during negotiations. The coalition was led by organizations that had managed to grow institutionally during the previous 10 years which enabled them to organize their activities in such a way so as to devote a portion of their employee’s working time to advocacy activities. The coalition functions on an ad-hoc basis, without any project financing, and the number of its members and supporters keeps growing each month. In June 2011, RC closed the final chapter. The CSOs realized that this was a political decision made not only by RC but also by the European Union.[iv] A date for RC’s entry into the EU was also set very soon and the CSOs realized little time was left for their carrots and sticks approach, so they focused more intently on pressuring local and EU institutions to implement reforms and enhance the quality of human rights and democracy in the EU. Some of the proposals of CSOs were adopted by the government almost overnight (e.g. abolishing the Law on Golf, improving the Act on the Right of Access to Information), but the majority of recommendations and proposals still remain unfulfilled and no longer find support even in the EU (e.g. improving the Law on Free Legal Aid, compensation for civil victims of the war etc.). The coalition, choosing not to insist on individual thematic proposals only, also proposed setting up an efficient mechanism of monitoring the implementation of all duties prescribed by Chapter 23 within  the Croatian Parliament, which would include the participation of members of political parties, representatives of the academic community, experts and civil society organizations, as well as European Parliament representatives and experts of the European Commission. This monitoring mechanism should report to the institutions of the European Union twice a year, at least for three years following the completion of negotiations.[v]  The request confirmed the fear among CSOs that RC, having joined the EU, will cease to implement reforms which could have negative effects on democracy and the state of human rights. The  fear  proved to be justified, since the first year of the country’s membership was marked by “citizen initiatives” which used the mechanism of the referendum in order to curb LGBT and minority rights.

Joining the EU – What’s Next?

CSOs face new challenges now that RC has joined the EU. On the one side, there is the threat of a possible surge in nationalism spurred by the unresolved process of confronting the past and the global migration process which will  increase the arrival of foreign citizens to RC. On the other side, there is also the shift in thematic priorities that will have to be dealt with by both CSOs and RC if they are to respond to the needs of the citizens. These mainly include protection of labor rights and the fight against the privatization of public goods as well as issues of migration caused by climate or social changes in the world.  CSOs will have to respond to new issues and new social injustices, the brunt of which will be taken by the citizens of RC. At the same time, informal civil movements that are not structured in the manner of traditional NGOs are arising  all the time, warning against the infringements of socio-economic rights.  Building a relationship between existing CSOs and new social movements will be key for further civil action. Furthermore, a sharp rise in right-wing CSOs that use democratic and human rights instruments  established during the negotiation process in order to derogate democracy and human rights occurred  after RC joined the EU.  Traditional CSOs are somewhat losing their monopoly.

It will be very interesting to follow the future cooperation of regional CSOs. Ever since the end of the armed conflict on the territory of former Yugoslavia, it was the CSOs that managed to maintain intensive cooperation, even in those times when the borders between the newly-formed states were closed and when animosity towards members of other peoples was at its peak.  Many CSOs were formed in these years, and regardless of where they were situated, they faced the same problems: heavy infringements of human rights, war crimes, corruption etc. Even in the post-war period, the issued they dealt with were the same: democratization, transparency in the work of the government, educating for peace, non-violence, human rights, democracy etc. In the newly arisen situation of RC joining the EU and the expected change of thematic focus, there is fear that Croatian CSOs will drift away from regional civil society organizations. There is plenty of space for cooperation in exchanging experiences from the negotiation process, but these are technical details, not cooperation of true value. Croatian CSOs have the obligation of more focused and intensive monitoring of Croatian foreign policy towards countries from the region, a task that can be achieved only through cooperation with local CSOs.  The trust  built through years-long cooperation and mutual support that not even the impossible circumstances of war could impede, represents a great capital for future cooperation. We like to believe that the Schengen border will not interrupt the dynamic and tradition of cooperation.

Finally, there is the question of how CSOs will position themselves now that RC has joined the EU and the policy of conditioning which formed the backbone of their advocacy work has lost relevance. It’s possible that CSOs and their attempts to influence public policies will suffer marginalization. Perhaps a chance was missed in the pre-accession negotiations to further institutionalize the influence of citizens in decision-making process and monitoring the implementation of obligatory reforms through various laws and other mechanisms. Some mechanism have been adopted: almost all Parliament committees are open for external members (which can be easily revoked by amendments  to the Parliamentary rules of procedure), the Code of Practice on Consultations with the Interested Public in Procedures of Adopting Laws, Other Regulations and Acts[vi] has been adopted, although attempts to turn the Code into a Law have failed, the Council for Civil Society Development – a hybrid body formed between CSOs and the state administration has been in existence for several years, although it didn’t strenghten its competence either, the Act on the Right of Access to Information has been improved and  represents an important tool for citizens in their fight against corruption, a semblance of civil monitoring of the work of intelligence agencies and the police has been established, etc.

[i]     The Report of the Government of Republic of Croatia on Accession Negotiations between Republic of Croatia and the EU, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, http://www.mvep.hr/MVP.asp?pcpid=2727, October 25,  2011 (accession date:  November 3, 2012)
[ii]See for example the documentary Devils  red, yellow, green by  Martina Globočnik, Fade In, 2007
[iii] The First Mutual Opinion of Croatian Civil Society Organizations on the Readiness of the Republic of Croatia to Close Negotiations on Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, http://www.gong.hr/news.aspx?newsID=3478&pageID=1  (accession date,  November 3, 2012)
[iv] The Second Mutual Opinion of Croatian Civil Society Organizations on Progress in the Readiness of he Republic of Croatia to Close Negotiations on Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, May, 24 2011 http://www.gong.hr/news.aspx?newsID=3756&pageID=228 (accession date,  November 3, 2012)
v]    Ibid.
[vi] Narodne novine, 140/2009, Zagreb, November 25, 2009