What have we learned from the first proper European elections in Croatia?

, by Marko Boko

What have we learned from the first proper European elections in Croatia?

These European Parliament elections were the first proper EP elections in Croatia, after Croatia’s accession to the European Union. In 2013 we elected 12 MEPs and following the referendum on Croatia’s accession to the EU, had our first real chance for Croatian citizens to participate in some political process of EU-wide importance. But, this turned out not to be so popular or even relevant for them.

Actually, that was expected and the final turnout (around 20%) was no big surprise. Basically, citizens are fed up with standard political discourse, so they did not want to legitimize someone’s ‘’7000+ € salary for doing nothing’’.

Some of the MEPs were more or less invisible in the EP. Some of them have not said anything relevant in a year, some spent all the time in Croatia campaigning for the 2014 EP elections etc. They have not offered us or the rest of the EU anything spectacular, which is not strange when you realise that they have had serious problems even orienting themselves through EP corridors.

So, the 2014 election crept up on us very quickly and the time came for the current MEPs to show what they have done and start campaigning. A fun fact is that some of them used the last ( extremely badly attended) plenary session in Strasbourg to talk a lot in order to pump up their talking statistics. Regarding the campaign in Croatia, I can with full authority say that it did not exist. What we have seen was average, bad and wrongly articulated everyday political discussion based on an exclusively national perspective and totally deprived of any European dimension. As a result, most citizens became uninterested in the campaign from its very start, especially with the domestic political crisis at its peak. It was clear from the start that the turnout would be no better than the last one was.

Besides being fed up with politicians and the failure of the political system in general, most citizens did not want to participate in the legitimization of the new mandate of ‘’European collapsing monster which can offer nothing to a small state such as Croatia’’ and they have honestly said that they would rather spend sunny Sunday hanging around with their friends and families.

So, mix up citizen’s ignorance (which is common at the EU level) and lack of interest and knowledge on EU affairs among candidates and as a result you get a total turnout of 25%. I do not even understand how it rose 5% compared to 2013.

Another interesting fact is that few debates among candidates were organized across Croatia and they were mostly initiated by civil society organizations. Civil society has played an important role in the 2013 and 2014 EP elections by informing citizens, fostering discussion among candidates, analyzing election manifestos etc. It is interesting to see that civil society (abundantly funded by EU institutions and foundations) has played an important role in the campaign all over Europe this way, which clearly shows how important it felt mobilizing citizens to vote was, as the interest in the EP elections is low all over the EU (90% turnout in some countries does not mean considerable interest, as voting in these countries is mandatory).

Having followed these debates and discussions in Croatia, I have really become aware of how only a few leading candidates offered an EU perspective on issues that were raised. The National Youth Council, where I am active, organized a debate on youth rights and youth policies, also on the future of Europe, and the audience were shocked by the answers that we heard. An interesting fact is that the two biggest parties did not bother to send their candidates, which is a clear indicator of how high young people are on their agenda.

Regarding the results, the EPP won 6 seats, the Party of Socialists and Democrats (to which the ruling party belongs) won 4 seats and the Greens won 1 seat. The governing party was clearly punished, which automatically goes in favor of conservatives, and the only positive surprise is that it seems that Croatia has finally got a relevant green party - for now - but let’s see them at the parliamentary elections next year (if the government has not collapsed by then).

At least we have not sent any of the extreme right wing and fascist parties to the EP, although most of preferential votes at the EPP list were won by a far right candidate, who has become relatively pacified with the MEP salary and claims that she is not Eurosceptic anymore. But, still she sits with the ECR group in the EP, so maybe the EPP should revise their membership, as Brussels was not happy with having an ECR candidate on the EPP list in Croatia. Regarding the S&D in Croatia, prime-minister Milanović has put the strongest candidate at the 5th place on their list in order to try to lower his popularity. But, that candidate has won most preferential votes, so the PM’s chair shakes even more than before as that candidate will most probably run for the party president. And about Greens – it is enough to say that that party was created after an internal fight within the S&D, so it is clear that S&D are the biggest loser of EP 2014 elections in Croatia.

When it comes to the results at the EU level, the only positive things were the facts that for the first time since the 1979, total turnout has not been lower than the previous one and that party groups have fielded their European Commission president candidates – a step closer to the real European elections where one is not limited to national candidates and can vote for candidates from any EU member state.

I do really hope that our vote will be respected in the end. Turnout percentage gets lower moving from the west of Europe to the east, which might be explained by the fact that central/eastern European democracies are still quite young, but also that these countries are quite new members of the EU with lack of trust in it and without strong identification with EU values/idea.

It is sad that for the first time we will have neo-Nazi and fascist parties in the EP, an institution that is a result of victory over Nazi-fascism, as well as the anti-EU ones. Right wing populist parties have always been popular in times of crisis, but I still find it strange to see neo-Nazis supported in this way, considering that we know what they have been historically capable of.

Great Britain and France have shown their anti-EU/anti-immigration side with victories by Front National and UKIP and I am amazed by the lack of critical comments about their victories. Just imagine an equivalent success of that type of party in central/eastern Europe – the whole of Europe would be much more disgusted, as we always have these double standards. Even western chauvinism is much more acceptable than central/eastern ones.

That is definitely a clear signal to European politicians and huge bureaucratic system that they have lost their vision of a social, united and strong Europe that cares about its citizens, includes them in important processes, listen their needs and respects their rights. That is the Europe that we need and that I would like to see in the future.

Europe is what we make of it and a good example to exercise its idea was this series of articles by young bloggers from all over the EU, gathered under the title ‘’Can Europe make it?’’ It was really interesting for me to participate in a process like this one, as it shows how different regional/national perspectives do matter for our common Europe, and how critical approach with concrete solutions can contribute to Europe’s rebuilding. I can say that I am lucky, as I have gotten a chance to work a lot at the EU level through my everyday activities within the youth sector, and that level provides you with the knowledge and experience of what Europe is and which shape of Europe one would like to see. Exchange of opinions and practices shows us what we do all have in common, what should be improved or replaced and that is how I have got my own vision of Europe – a Europe which is social, united, strong, solidary, antifascist and where no one is illegal. Move Europe forward, the struggle has just started!

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