Croatia EU referendum: Voters back membership

Votes being counted at a polling station in Zagreb President Ivo Josipovic said the referendum was a turning point in Croatia's history

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Near complete results from Croatia's referendum on European Union membership suggest that a large majority of people want to join the EU in 2013.

With nearly all the votes counted, 66% of voters backed the membership. About 33% were against.

But officials expressed disappointment at the low turnout of about 44%.

Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and should join in July 2013, once all 27 existing members of the union have ratified the deal.

It would come more than 20 years after Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, which triggered a 1991-95 war to secure its independence.

'Historic decision'

On Sunday, voters in Croatia were asked "Do you support the Republic of Croatia's membership of the European Union?"

A simple majority was required for membership to be approved. There was no minimum threshold in order for the poll to be valid.

Start Quote

The turnout shows that Croatia has turned its back on the EU”

End Quote Zeljko Sacic "No" campaign leader

All the major political parties in Croatia favour joining the EU, despite the financial crisis engulfing the organisation.

"It is a historic decision... possibly a turning point in our history," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said after the vote.

EU supporters say membership is the best option for the country in the long term.

Opponents of the "yes" vote - non-parliamentary, nationalist and army veteran groups - earlier warned of a loss of sovereignty, just two decades after Croatia became an independent state.

"The turnout shows that Croatia has turned its back on the EU," said war veteran Zeljko Sacic, one of the leaders of the "no" campaign.

Croatia itself is currently suffering from high unemployment and other economic problems.

"Croatia will not lose its sovereignty or natural resources, nor will it be ruled by the EU," President Ivo Josipovic said in a written statement.

"Europe will not solve all our problems, but it's a great opportunity."

The EU described the result as good news for the Balkan region.

"The upcoming accession of Croatia sends a clear signal to the whole region of south-eastern Europe. It shows that through political courage and determined reforms, EU membership is within reach," the EU said in a statement.

National hero

Enthusiasm in Croatia for EU membership has waned from a high point several years ago, the BBC's Central Europe correspondent Nick Thorpe says.

However, not only do all the main parliamentary parties support the move, but most of the minority Serbs do too, he adds.

And in a surprise move, Croatia's wartime military commander Ante Gotovina - currently serving a long sentence abroad for war crimes against Serbs - earlier sent a message to his compatriots urging them to vote "yes" in the referendum.

Gotovina's flight from a war crimes indictment by The Hague - and Zagreb's perceived half-heartedness in tracking him and other war crimes suspects down - delayed Croatia's EU bid.

His conviction in 2011 sparked a surge of anti-European sentiment in Croatia, where he is viewed by many as a national hero.

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