ZAGREB // Croatians voted yesterday on whether to join the European Union - a test of the 27-nation bloc's appeal because of the enormous debts of some of its members.
Polls taken before the vote suggest that between 56 and 60 per cent of those who take part in the vote will answer "yes" to the question: "Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?"
Those who support the EU say their Balkan country's troubled economy - burdened by recession, a €48-billion (Dh 224bn) foreign debt and a 17 per cent unemployment rate - will revive if the country has access to wider European markets and job opportunities that the membership should bring.
"It's a big moment in our history ... we are joining more successful countries in Europe," Croatia's president, Ivo Josipovic, said after casting his ballot.
Opponents say Croatia has nothing to gain by entering the bloc, which is fighting off the bankruptcy of some of its members. They say that Croatia will lose its sovereignty and the national identity it fought for in a war for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"I voted against because I don't think we'll do well in the EU," said university student Matea Kolenc, 23. "I heard a lot of bad things about the EU, its economic situation and what it has to offer."
Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and is on track to become a member in July 2013, if Croat voters say yes and all of the bloc's states later ratify the deal.
The country started negotiating its EU entry six years ago, but since then the popularity of the bloc has faded as Croats realise that EU membership would not automatically lead to prosperity.
In a sign of deep divisions in Croatia over the membership, police clashed on Saturday in downtown Zagreb with nationalist protesters who attempted to take down an EU flag.
"We won't have any say in our own affairs any more," Natko Kovacevic, one of the organisers of the protest, told the crowd carrying banners reading "No to EU" and "I love Croatia".
Croatian officials launched a pro-EU campaign ahead of the referendum and warned that rejecting membership would deprive the country of the much-needed accession funds. They say that even the payment of pensions for retirees and war veterans could be in jeopardy.
Croatia has received about €150 million in pre-accession assistance since 2007. It is to receive another €150m for 2012 and €95m in 2013.
"Clearly all that funding will be stopped if the Croats say no in the referendum," Croatia's foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, said.
* Associated Press