ZAGREB (Reuters) – Croatia becomes the 28th member of the European Union at midnight tonight, a milestone that caps the Adriatic republic’s recovery from war but is tinged with anxiety over the state of the economy and the bloc it joins.
EU flags fluttered from a stage in Zagreb’s central square ahead of the evening’s festivities, though there have been few signs of the gushing welcome that marked past expansions to ex-communist Eastern Europe.
Croatia joins the bloc just over two decades after declaring independence from federal Yugoslavia, the trigger for four years of war in which some 20,000 people died.
But, facing a fifth year of recession and record unemployment of 21 per cent, few Croatians are in the mood to party
They join a bloc deeply troubled by its own economic woes, which have created internal divisions and undermined public support for the union.
“Just look what’s happening in Greece and Spain! Is this where we’re headed?” asked pensioner Pavao Brkanovic. “You need illusions to be joyful, but the illusions have long gone,” he said at a Zagreb market.
The country of 4.4 million people, blessed with a coastline that attracts 10 million tourists each year, is one of seven that emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia during a decade of war in the 1990s.
Slovenia was first to join the EU, in 2004, but Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are still years away.
Some in Croatia have drawn comparisons between tonight’s celebrations in Zagreb and the Eurovision Song Contest that the city hosted in 1990, when Yugoslavia was on the brink of collapse just as Europe was poised to unite with the fall of the Berlin Wall.