01/07/2013 04:39 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Croatia on the Brink

In order to get into the European Union, Croatia needs the support of each one of the current 27 members. So far, 20 countries have ratified Croatia's EU accession treaty. As long as the other seven countries do the same, Croatia will become a member on July 1, 2013. In December, as a final sweetener, the EU added a final pre-accession allotment of nearly 50 million Euro -- part of a package of nearly 1 billion Euro since 2007 -- to help Croatia reach EU standards in various categories. Once Croatia enters the club, then it will have access to another pot of money, known as the Structural and Cohesion funds.

But this long-sought-after goal is by no means a done deal. In mid-December, Croatia's sovereign debt dropped to junk bond level. The financial powers-that-be are not happy with the current Croatian government's somewhat permissive approach to austerity. With unemployment at nearly 20 percent and the domestic economy contracting, the Social Democrats allowed the deficit to rise from 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP. This economic performance has contributed to assessments like that of the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who said in October that Croatia "isn't ready for EU membership." Germany has yet to ratify the accession treaty.

Still, a queasy economy won't keep Croatia out of the EU; it will just put the country on par with other troubled members, like Romania and Greece.

Croatia's long-simmering conflict with Slovenia, on the other hand, might prove to be more than a speed bump. The two countries have been haggling for years over Croatian savings in a defunct Slovenian bank. Slovenia wants Croatia to stop the lawsuits for the recovery of the money in the Croatian accounts in Ljubljanska Banka or else it might block entrance to the EU. It's not a small sum: 172 million Euro. Croatia wants to settle the issue separately from accession.

Croatian support for accession remains high. A year ago, 66 percent of voters said yes to EU membership in a national referendum. But not everyone is enthusiastic.

"I don't believe anymore in the European Union," Daniel Bucan told me. "As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don't necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France."

Daniel Bucan is not your usual run-of-the-mill Euroskeptic. He's a former diplomat whose last posting was in Strasbourg, at the Council of Europe. In other words, this is someone who is no stranger to European affairs.

I met Daniel Bucan 22 years ago when he was in the ministry of information in the newly formed government of Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union. Much of his skepticism about Yugoslavia has translated into skepticism of Europe. We also talked about the Croatian Spring, his conversations with Tudjman, and what it means to be a Croatian nationalist.

The Interview

At what point did you stop believing in the EU?

I stopped believing when I saw that the reforms were going in the direction of creating more and more centralized power. This centralized power means bureaucracy, which is always a terrible thing, and it means that the strongest rule. I also started to look into how the EU functions, who is paying how much into the budget, and it seemed to me that Germany was paying for everything. How long will they be willing to pay for everything and everybody? This is a shaky foundation. I understand that the EU needs a more centralized decision-making process during this crisis. But then, if it were not for this centralizing tendency, if it were not for the Euro, the EU would probably not have this crisis.

Anyhow, I'm not sure that the EU has a bright future, and I'm not sure that we "sold" ourselves successfully. Because what we gain from the EU will depend on our capacity to exploit EU funds, and our capacity to do so is very low. And yes, we will be sitting at the same table, but we won't have a real voice. That is, we are going to have a vote, but what does this vote mean for a country like Croatia beside the vote of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and others?

Isn't it better to have a small vote rather than no vote at all?

Again, it depends on our capacity. If we can be independent outside of the European Union, it would be better not to have a vote at all. But to be independent in such a context you have to have resources, and a capable leadership, and an efficient governing structure -- which we don't have. So I don't know whether it is better for Croatia to be in the EU or outside. Theoretically speaking, I would opt for being outside, but practically speaking I'm not sure anymore.

Earlier you said that the issue is injustice, and that you were a nationalist because the issue was an imbalance of power at a national level. Croatia is now independent, more or less, and it's a sovereign country, so do you still consider yourself a nationalist if that injustice has been removed?

I never considered myself a nationalist in terms of the definition of nationalism, either then or now. If you ask me whether I still believe that national issues are still important, I would say yes. Look at human rights. If you want to be politically correct you have to recognize the rights of all different groups, in terms of sexual orientation, national minorities, any minority. But when you start speaking about Croat national rights or Serb national rights, they are going to look at you as a nationalist, even a chauvinist. A man is defined by many things. He is defined by his sexual orientation, by his gender, by the social group he belongs to, and by his nationality in terms of his language, and so on. So why should I recognize his right as a homosexual, his right as a football player, and not his right as a Croat? In those terms, I believe that this national dimension has weight, at least as much as these other dimensions. These issues are not important in the social and political context where there is no discrimination. But if there is discrimination based on language...

To read the rest of the interview, click here.