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Croatians vote 'yes' to EU membership

Croatians voted Sunday in favour of joining the European Union despite a poor turnout for the referendum, a move with paves the way for entry into the 27-nation bloc next year. An anti-EU group said the 43.58% turnout invalidated the vote.


AFP - Croatians gave lukewarm approval to EU membership Sunday as more than 66 percent of voters said "yes" in a referendum on entry into the 27-nation bloc, but on a low turnout.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic nevertheless welcomed the result, which paves the way for entry into the European Union next year.

"Croatia decided that it will be a member of the European Union," he said.

"It is a historic decision ... possibly a turning point in our history."

The provisional results issued late Sunday were based on votes counted at almost 99 percent of polling stations.

Only a simple majority was required and the vote is valid regardless of turnout.

But one anti-EU group argued that the results were not valid precisely because of the 43.58 percent turnout announced by the election commission.

That figure was substantially lower than the 54.32 percent turnout for December's general election, which Milanovic attributed to general disillusionment with politicians and the country's economic difficulties.

"People are obviously disappointed," said Milanovic, who only took office a month ago.

"This is a message due to the situation in the country, a message to my government," said Milanovic, whose centre-left coalition led by his Social Democrats (SDP) ousted the scandal-plagued conservative HDZ.

For President Ivo Josipovic, however, "most important is that the big European 'yes' has been said."

But the authorities should also take into account fears and dilemmas of those who voted 'no,' he added.

All major Croatian political parties are in favour of EU membership.

They see it as a vital factor for consolidating peace and economic recovery in the ex-Yugoslav republic, which gained independence in 1995 after a four-year war with rebel Serbs.

In a joint statement from Brussels, EU president Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso welcomed the referendum result, saying that "Croatia's citizens have given their endorsement to European integration."

"The Croatian government can now complete the remaining preparations for membership... so that Croatia can become the Union's 28th member on July 1 2013," the two EU leaders added.

In Serbia, where relations with Croatia have been gradually improving, President Boris Tadic was also among the first to send his congratulations.

Belgrade also has its eye on EU membership and is waiting for a response from Brussels to its application for official candidate status.

For the past three years, Croatia, whose economy relies on Adriatic tourism, has been struggling. The central bank is forecasting that the economy will shrink 0.2 percent this year.

On top of its economic problems, the country has had to deal with a series of top-level corruption scandals.

Although they mostly involved the HDZ party, many observers feel that the fall-out has been a general mistrust of politicians.

After the results were announced, one spokesman for the anti-EU camp threatened legal moves, arguing that the low turnout invalidated the referendum.

"This is a defeat of Croatia's freedom (and) independence... We are entering an association that is falling apart," Zeljko Sacic, of the 'Council for Croatia - No to EU' umbrella group, told national television.

But legal specialists say challenges to the validity of the referendum have little chance of succeeding: the law was changed in June 2010 precisely to remove the minimum turnout requirement.

Those opposed to entering the European Union have also expressed fears about a loss of sovereignty and national identity in this country of 4.2 million.

While other post-communist countries in central and eastern Europe were strengthening their democracies and paving their way towards EU integration, Croatia's EU aspirations were halted by the 1991-95 war and its legacy.

It was not until 2000 that the election of a pro-European government enabled Croatia's transformation into a genuine parliamentary democracy eligible for EU candidate status.

However, enthusiasm for EU membership waned after long and often difficult accession talks that opened in 2005.

Croatia's EU accession treaty must still be ratified by all 27 members of the bloc, before the country formally joins.

Slovenia is the only current EU member among the six former Yugoslav republics, though Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia all have aspirations to join.

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