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RIJEKA, Croatia (AP) — Vedran Sabljak, a shipyard worker in this northern Adriatic port, knows what he thinks about Croatia joining the European Union: A resolute “No.”To gauge just how much the once-elite European club of nations has lost its luster with its debt-burdened economies and bickering leaders, one has to look no further than Croatia, which is holding a EU membership referendum Sunday.
“I’m against Croatia entering the European Union,” Sabljak said, as huge cranes in the 3rd of May shipyard helped to assemble a cargo ship on a dry dock.
He said he does not see any advantages to joining a bloc that faces the possible bankruptcy of some members and whose common euro currency is threatened by the European debt crisis.
Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and is on track to become a member in July 2013, if Croat voters say “Yes” in the referendum and all of the bloc’s 27 states later ratify the deal.
The Balkan nation started negotiating its EU entry six years ago with the strong backing of Germany, but since then the popularity of the bloc has gradually faded, as Croats realised that EU membership would not automatically lead to prosperity.
Still, recent polls indicate that a majority — some 56 per cent of those who will take part in the referendum — will vote in favour of joining.
They hope their country’s troubled economy — burdened by recession, a euro48-billion ($61-billion) foreign debt and a 13 per cent unemployment rate — will revive due to access to wider European markets and job opportunities that EU membership should bring.
“I would rather be with Germany and France than with Serbia and Bosnia,” said Jadranka Blazic, a lawyer from Zagreb, referring to Croatia’s former compatriots in the Yugoslav federation that broke up in a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
“Maybe the EU is no longer as attractive, and we may be late in joining, but better the European Union than back to some kind of a Balkan union,” the 42-year-old said as she sipped coffee in an elegant cafe in the capital, Zagreb.
Many in Croatia — and the rest of the EU — also wonder what is the bloc going to gain from the country that is ripe with corruption and has economic woes that are among the deepest in the Balkans.
Even the Croatian leaders, who have launched a campaign for a “Yes” vote, show little enthusiasm when they speak about joining, since it will be just in time to pay for bailouts to for indebted EU countries such as Greece.
“The European Union is neither haven nor hell,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said. “We expect to live better, but we can do that only if we use the mechanisms that the EU has to offer.”
With its spectacular Adriatic coastline and over a 1,000 islands, the tourism-oriented Croatia has long seen itself as more Western-looking than the other former Yugoslav republics. It is likely to become only the second of the six ex-Yugoslav nations to join the EU, after Slovenia, which enlisted in 2004.
The anti-EU campaigners say their country of just 4.5 million people will lose its identity and have little to say in a union where Germany and France are calling the shots. And they feel that the war for secession from the former Serb-dominated federation will become meaningless.
“20 years after we split from Yugoslavia, why would we enter an organisation that is breaking apart?” Dean Golubic, an anti-EU activist, asked several hundred right-wing protesters waving checkered red and white Croatian flags reading “I Love Croatia, No to EU” at a recent rally in the capital.
“We didn’t wage the war for our national identity, have 15,000 innocent victims, only to give it away to the capitalists,” war veteran Zeljko Sacic said.
Josipovic, the president, tried to alleviate those fears.
“Like the other 27 countries, Croatia will not give up its sovereignty by becoming an EU member,” he said. “Croatia will smartly invest a part of its sovereignty in the most prosperous political and economic community in the world.”
For the shipyard workers in Rijeka, not only their national identity is at stake. The EU has demanded that the Croatian government stop subsidizing and privatize all of its five loss-making ship builders — putting some 12,000 jobs at risk — before it becomes a member.
“I think we are rushing to join,” said shipyard worker Niksa Moreti. “Croatia and its shipbuilding industry need time. I am in favour of the EU membership, but at some later point.”
Although Croatian officials are likely to repeat the referendum until they get a “Yes” majority, they portrayed Sunday’s vote as decisive, and say the country could lose hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) in accession funds if the Croats say “No.”
Illustrating the deep divisions in Croatia, a young man interrupted officials at a pro-EU government rally Wednesday in Rijeka.
“You are destroying the future for the young, you should be ashamed,” opposition activist Marin Skribola shouted. “The European Union is a dungeon for the Croats!”
Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia.