July 1, 2013, is the date of Croatia’s accession to the European Union. The membership brings with it new legal protection and rights. But how prepared is the country to make full use of them?
Reforms linked to justice were among changes seen as crucial before Croatia was allowed to become the 28th member of the European Union.
Laws had to be brought into line with EU standards, and for those who help people fight for their rights on the ground it is a big learning curve.
A major project for Croatian and European officials has been the training of judges, public prosecutors, lawyers and other legal professionals in all aspects of EU law.
We met a young lawyer in Zagreb who has taken part in the seminars, and who expects clients to quickly claim their new rights.
Damjan Krivic, who works at the firm Gugić & Kovačić, told Euronews: “Once they get to know European practice, citizens will compare this to their everyday situations, and they will recognise the same events and circumstances that are current in their own legal cases.
“They will ask us to apply this court practice in their own cases, and this might be of vital importance to them in order to win the case or get the best out of it.”
Damjan says while mistakes linked to the reforms have and will continue to be spotted in everyday legal practice, he is confident they can be quickly ironed out.
But what about the enforcement of legislation? Right On met a judge who has also been involved in training.
Neri Radas at the Zagreb County Court says local judges are becoming European judges, and there is now a duty to abide by EU law.
“Croatia has already done a tremendous amount of work in this area through the professional training of judges and public prosecutors, as well as in the field of aligning Croatian law with European law,” said Judge Radas. “However, we are aware of the work that lies ahead, and Croatian judges are ready to accept the new missions and challenges before them in joining the European Union.”
Rights organisations say if Croatians are to benefit fully from their new rights as EU citizens, those in the judiciary must maintain their efforts to become totally familiar with the new legal standards.
Euronews’ Seamus Kearney reported: “But it’s not just the legal profession that has to know the details of European law. Citizens also have to be made aware of their rights and how to use them. And that will be a challenge.”
Not everyone in Croatia supported EU membership; 66 per cent said “yes” in a referendum last year. While civil society tries to engage with the public on the issues, authorities struggle to spark interest.
Campaigners say reform came quickly, with not enough public participation. But now, raising awareness about the impact is crucial.
Martina Horvat from the “GONG” civil society organisation told Euronews: “The public is still not informed enough. So the government should definitely have more measures to open (up) this process, to inform the public better, so that ordinary citizens would be able to participate better, especially to use more EU rights and EU laws.
“Of course, that is not only the role of government, that is also a role of all segments of society … and all sectors, but of course the government should be open (to) that.”
The government maintains it is doing all it can to make the transition to EU membership as smooth and as fair as possible.
But some experts warn that many people are tired of reforms after a tough and long accession process, and dealing with resistance to the changes will be difficult.
They say there is a lot of work to be done, that some reforms are not yet complete, and there are some opponents who will even try to have them reversed.
Alan Uzelac, a law professor at the University of Zagreb, told Right On: “It is the end of a very long process, and in that process many steps have been made. However, it is still far from enough, and there are many more things to be done, especially in the area of implementation.
“In the process until now, the main driver was the wish to please the European Commission, to show that we have undertaken the reforms that were requested from Croatia from the outset. And in some areas, especially in the judiciary, it led to the situation where things had to move faster than objectively possible. So many things are now done only half way, and therefore the biggest challenge of all will be to continue with the reforms.”
For now though Croatians are taking the time to work out exactly what the accession will mean in their daily lives, having the blue and the yellow stars of the European Union alongside their national colours.