Croatians waver over European Union membership

image captionCroatia is hoping to become the 28th EU member in 2012

Croatia hopes to wrap up negotiations on joining the European Union in the coming year, but many in the country are sceptical about the idea, as the BBC's Mark Lowen reports from Zagreb.

The milk must be heated to just the right temperature, the salt added at exactly the right time.

image captionMario Pecnik says Brussels' demands will force many out of business

The stirring, the draining, the cooling - each step has been mastered by Mario Pecnik and his wife as they lovingly produce their creamy cottage cheese. It is a great Croatian tradition, known for its soft, sweet taste.

But Mario has recently had to spend 400,000 kuna ($72,000; £46,000) upgrading his facilities to satisfy European standards, so as to receive EU subsidies.

He says that while he has managed it, older, smaller producers will not be able to afford the change and will simply die out.

"It was a really big shock when we realised what needed to change," he says.

"For us it's made things better, but others haven't accepted it well. They won't adapt, so they'll be forced to close... I completely understand their anger with EU demands."

'Keeping momentum'

That fear of change, that pride in local traditions goes some way towards explaining the apparent widespread Euroscepticism here.

Croatia is hoping to wrap up membership negotiations with the EU and sign its accession treaty this year, allowing it to become the 28th member of the bloc in 2012.

But recent polls suggest a majority of the public is apathetic - even hostile - to the idea of joining.

According to one survey, just 38% would vote to join. Another shows only 26% think it is a good idea - although the government cites a more favourable poll.

A referendum on membership will soon be held, but Andrej Plenkovic, the state secretary for EU integration, is confident most Croatians will vote "yes" when the time comes.

"I believe the opinion polls are only a snapshot in a certain period of time," he tells me.

"We are taking them seriously, but we have a task of keeping a momentum and trying to explain to the Croatian voters the benefits of joining."

I ask why those in favour have dropped from a high of about 80% a few years ago to today's level.

"If we had joined together with the ten countries back in 2004, this support would have been higher," he says.

"For the average voter it's difficult to remain equally enthusiastic after so many postponements."

Difficult process

Croatia's negotiations have indeed lasted a long time - more than five years - and the country has faced serious hurdles.

image captionFormer Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is facing corruption allegations

The EU has suffered from a severe bout of enlargement fatigue. Slovenia blocked Croatia's bid for several months over a border dispute.

And many here feel that after Romania and Bulgaria were perceived to have joined too early, Brussels is taking a tougher line with Croatia.

Zagreb itself has not made it an easy ride either.

Initially sluggish co-operation with the UN War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague worked against its application, as government officials seemed unable or unwilling to hand over documents relating to Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Corruption and organised crime have also dented Croatia's image - Ivo Sanader, the prime minister until 2009, is the latest to be hit by allegations of wrongdoing.

But when it comes to the seeming lack of enthusiasm for the EU among the general public, political analyst Viseslav Raos says other factors are at work too.

After Croats fought for their separate state, he believes many are now struggling to accept a transnational concept.

"During the 1990s, there was a high value placed on sovereignty," he says. "Now you have this concept of 'shared sovereignty' in the EU, and that's hard to grasp."

But he says the EU itself has also lost its pull here.

"Croatian citizens see what's happening in Greece and Ireland," he says.

"They know that the European Union is not a remedy to all economic and social problems. So the EU itself is in a sort of crisis, and that reflects on Croatia's accession."

Final push

At the market in central Zagreb where Mario sells his cheese, opinions are split.

"I think we could survive without the EU," says Nadja, one shopper. "We survived until now, so why not in the future?"

But Goran Vidovik disagrees. "People need to be better informed about the EU and all the benefits. This is our chance to accept the standards that are common for the European community."

"Croatia shouldn't join," says Vesna, a schoolteacher. "I prefer the Switzerland model. The EU will bring us lots of administration and regulations."

In the heart of the capital, the EU information centre is hard at work, answering calls and handing out leaflets.

The consensus among the government and EU delegation staff here is that the Croatian public simply does not know enough about what the union means - and that apparent apathy is simply down to a lack of information.

A big, last-minute communications push will soon be launched, hoping to reverse the trend and persuade Croatians to back membership.

But the EU has not yet struck a chord here - and time is running out for the Croatian government to sell the European project to this proud nation.

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