Croatia

1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

Ivona Ondelj and Hrvo­je Butković

National topics and a limited debate

In Croa­t­ia the first (spe­cial) elec­tions for the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (EP) were held in April 2013, before the country’s acces­sion to the EU. The recent May 2014 elec­tions were the sec­ond expe­ri­ence for the coun­try, this time for the full Euro­pean Par­lia­ment man­date. The elec­toral cam­paign was very qui­et, with­out sound expla­na­tions on the main goals of the fron­trun­ners par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cam­paign. Although the media has point­ed out the weak­ness­es of such a cam­paign, it was not improved.

Polit­i­cal par­ties and the can­di­dates were most­ly focused on the nation­al and not on the Euro­pean issues. The cov­ered top­ics includ­ed unem­ploy­ment in Croa­t­ia, eco­nom­ic growth, posi­tion of pen­sion­ers, pro­tec­tion of pub­lic goods etc. The elec­toral cam­paign, to a lim­it­ed degree, dis­cussed EU-relat­ed top­ics such as the post-cri­sis per­spec­tives in the EU, oppor­tu­ni­ties for Croa­t­ian busi­ness­es on the EU mar­ket, bal­anced devel­op­ments of Croa­t­ian regions etc. The analy­sis made by the lead­ing NGO Gong shows that dur­ing the cam­paign the Croa­t­ian Prime Min­is­ter referred to an EU-relat­ed top­ic only once.

The media inter­est for the cam­paign was lim­it­ed. Croa­t­ian pub­lic tele­vi­sion (HRT) orga­nized the cen­tral debates and the ques­tion­ing of the elec­toral can­di­dates by the cit­i­zens on Chan­nel 4 (not a main­stream chan­nel) too hasti­ly. When ques­tion­ing politi­cians at the TV debates or on the radio, cit­i­zens often expressed the wor­ry that the small num­ber of Croa­t­ian MEPs (11) will not be able to sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­ence the EU’s policies.

In their cam­paigns Croa­t­ian polit­i­cal par­ties rarely referred to their affil­i­a­tion with the Euro­pean par­ties and their can­di­dates for the Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The main goals of the EU-wide fron­trun­ners were not prop­er­ly explained. How­ev­er, near the end of the cam­paign this issue was men­tioned more frequently.

Euroscepticism driven by disaffection with politics

Euroscep­ti­cism in the elec­toral cam­paign was part­ly linked to the lack of knowl­edge about EU issues among the pop­u­la­tion. This led some cit­i­zens to per­ceive the EU as an orga­ni­za­tion which places unrea­son­able oblig­a­tions upon Croa­t­ia, such as the exces­sive bud­get deficit pro­ce­dure. Euroscep­ti­cism is to some extent also caused by the gen­er­al dis­trust in domes­tic pol­i­tics and the nation­al polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions. The Euro­barom­e­ter spe­cial sur­vey Euro­peans in 2014 shows that in Croa­t­ia the trust in EU insti­tu­tions sur­pass­es the trust in the nation­al institutions.

Cit­i­zens open­ly expressed the lack of trust in elec­toral can­di­dates and dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their cam­paigns, which lacked con­sis­ten­cy. High unem­ploy­ment and pro­ceed­ings against some lead­ing politi­cians fur­ther con­tributed to the growth of euroscep­tic feel­ings. Lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of the Euro­pean Parliament’s role with­in the EU’s polit­i­cal sys­tem is also one of the caus­es for euroscepticism.

The EP elec­tions in Croa­t­ia con­tained a strong protest ele­ment. A declared right-wing Euro-scep­tic, Ruža Tomašić, who was a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Con­ser­v­a­tives and Reformists Group in her pre­vi­ous EP man­date, won the sec­ond largest num­ber of pref­er­en­tial votes in Croa­t­ia. Some Croa­t­ian and Euro­pean politi­cians (includ­ing the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty pres­i­dent Joseph Daul) protest­ed against the fact that the cen­tre-right Croa­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union (HDZ), which is a mem­ber of the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty, includ­ed Tomašić on their elec­toral list. Despite these protests, Tomašić was kept on their list. The euroscep­tic right-wing alliance head­ed by the Croa­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union of Slavo­nia and Baran­ja (HDSSB) gained 6.88 per­cent of the total votes, almost win­ning one seat.

A warning to the coalition government

The EP elec­tions in Croa­t­ia were held on 25 May 2014. The turnout was low (25.24 per­cent), but high­er than at the EP elec­tions held in April 2013 (20.8 per­cent). This could be explained by the length of the cam­paign (45 days) and by the fact that Croa­t­ia has been an EU mem­ber for almost one year which made EU issues more vis­i­ble. The turnout could per­haps have been even bet­ter if the cam­paign had not coin­cid­ed with the floods in East­ern Croa­t­ia, which reduced media space for the EP elec­tions. Low turnout in com­par­i­son with oth­er EU Mem­ber States was part­ly caused by out­dat­ed reg­u­la­tions on the media cov­er­age of the cam­paign, which gave a lot of media space to pre­vi­ous­ly unknown parties.

The Croa­t­ian EP elec­tions encom­passed 25 elec­toral lists, with eleven can­di­dates on each list. The elec­tions were pro­por­tion­al and the whole coun­try was treat­ed as one elec­toral unit. For the EP elec­tions Croa­t­ia adopt­ed a sys­tem of pref­er­en­tial vot­ing. The appli­ca­tion of pref­er­en­tial vot­ing clear­ly shows defi­cien­cies of inner par­ty democ­ra­cy in Croa­t­ia since the can­di­dates that won the most pref­er­en­tial votes have often been placed very low on the par­ty lists. Some par­ties nom­i­nat­ed well-known par­ty mem­bers who in advance announced that they would not serve as MEPs.

Although Toni­no Pic­u­la, the can­di­date of the rul­ing Social Democ­rats (SDP), won the great­est num­ber of pref­er­en­tial votes, the oppo­si­tion Croa­t­ian Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union HDZ won 41.42 per­cent of the total votes (6 out of 11 seats). The rul­ing Social Democ­rats SDP won 29.93 per­cent (4 out of 11 seats), while a new polit­i­cal par­ty named Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment of Croa­t­ia (ORAH) and belong­ing to the Euro­pean Greens obtained 9.42 per­cent (1 out of 11 seats). The fore­casts for the EP elec­tions and the actu­al results showed sig­nif­i­cant dis­crep­an­cies. The far left Labour Par­ty was expect­ed to win a seat, but it endured a seri­ous defeat (3.40 per­cent) and as a con­se­quence its pres­i­dent and founder resigned.

The high thresh­old result­ed in many small­er par­ties not suc­ceed­ing in win­ning a seat, although some came very close. The results clear­ly show a dis­sat­is­fac­tion of the vot­ers with the rul­ing coali­tion. The high per­cent­age of votes for the oppo­si­tion is a strong sig­nal for the SDP-led coali­tion government.

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2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

Sena­da Šelo Šabić and Mario Pallua

Following the EU position on Russia

Croatia’s rela­tions with Rus­sia, ever since Croatia’s inde­pen­dence in the 1990s, have been devel­op­ing slow­ly but steadi­ly. This, how­ev­er, with a degree of cau­tion as Rus­sia is per­ceived as an ally of Ser­bia, with which Croa­t­ia was at war. Eco­nom­ic rela­tions, as fre­quent­ly is the case, devel­oped faster than polit­i­cal ones. Rus­sia is Croatia’s 5th trade part­ner by vol­ume, with mas­sive trade deficits on the Croa­t­ian side. Oil and nat­ur­al gas make up 94 per­cent of Russ­ian exports to Croa­t­ia. Although Russ­ian for­eign direct invest­ment has increased in the last few years, pri­mar­i­ly in the ser­vice sec­tor, Rus­sia is list­ed as 20th among top investors in Croatia.

Croa­t­ian con­ser­v­a­tive par­ties’ reser­va­tions towards Rus­sia have been explained by Russia’s pan-Slav­ic and Ortho­dox links with Croatia’s east­ern neigh­bour Ser­bia. Lib­er­al polit­i­cal cir­cles’ reser­va­tions towards Rus­sia, on the oth­er hand, rest on their empha­sis of Russia’s trou­bling human rights record.

The cri­sis in Ukraine brought back the per­cep­tion of Rus­sia as an expan­sion­ist coun­try and an oppo­nent to the West. As a mem­ber of the EU and NATO, Croa­t­ia shares both orga­ni­za­tions’ con­cerns and endors­es their com­mon posi­tions on Russia’s actions in the EU’s neigh­bour­hood. Just as in the rest of the EU, the cri­sis has prompt­ed dis­cus­sion on the strate­gic neces­si­ty to diver­si­fy the sup­ply of oil and nat­ur­al gas. In this con­text, two projects are of spe­cial impor­tance: build­ing a liq­ue­fied nat­ur­al gas (LNG) ter­mi­nal on the island of Krk, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­posed Trans-Adri­at­ic Pipeline that would trans­port South Cau­casian nat­ur­al gas.

Under­stand­ing, how­ev­er, the com­plex rela­tion­ship Rus­sia has with the Euro­pean Union, and aware of Croatia’s lim­it­ed clout in deci­sion-mak­ing with respect to the EU posi­tion vis-à-vis Rus­sia, Croa­t­ian offi­cials abstain from fur­ther com­ments crit­i­cis­ing Rus­sia. It can be expect­ed that the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment will retain this approach and sup­port the cre­ation of com­mon EU posi­tions towards Russia.

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Support for the Eastern Partnership

There is a wide con­sen­sus that Croa­t­ia should sup­port strength­en­ing the rela­tions between the Euro­pean Union and the six coun­tries of the East­ern Part­ner­ship. Since the cri­sis in Ukraine start­ed, a series of arti­cles point­ed to the strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between the sit­u­a­tion in Ukraine today and Croa­t­ia in the ear­ly 1990s, when a rene­gade province and a self-pro­claimed autonomous repub­lic attempt­ed to secede with the help of a neigh­bour­ing kin-state. With respect to the East­ern Part­ner­ship, lib­er­al par­ties stress that it is impor­tant to shield part­ner coun­tries from Russia’s author­i­tar­i­an influ­ence on a nor­ma­tive, as well as polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic lev­el. Con­ser­v­a­tives empha­size the need to deep­en eco­nom­ic rela­tions with these coun­tries, if and where pos­si­ble. Both sides agree that most East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries are weak democ­ra­cies and lack sub­stan­tive free­doms, but they have a desire to inte­grate more deeply with the EU. No rel­e­vant polit­i­cal actor argues that the EU should back down and let Rus­sia con­sol­i­date its ‘zone of influ­ence’, although some seem will­ing to accom­mo­date Rus­sia to some extent.

In con­cur­rence with the EU view, Ukraine is seen in essence to be a “west­ern” coun­try, just as the per­cep­tion of impor­tance and rel­e­vance of Azer­bai­jan has grown since the EU has decid­ed to diver­si­fy ener­gy sup­plies to reduce the depen­dence on Russ­ian gas. Moldo­va is also seen as a coun­try with a fore­see­able EU future after it signed the Agree­ment on Euro-Atlantic Part­ner­ship with Croa­t­ia. In this frame­work, Croa­t­ia pro­vides tech­ni­cal assis­tance on EU-acces­sion issues to Moldo­va. Geor­gia is gen­er­al­ly per­ceived as the first coun­try that expe­ri­enced Putin’s region­al ambi­tions, while the view on Arme­nia is not quite clear due to its mixed record of rela­tions with Rus­sia and the neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. After the cri­sis in Ukraine, these three coun­tries are dis­cussed with watch­ful con­cern as the poten­tial for insta­bil­i­ty in each of them grows. Belarus is the only coun­try per­ceived in unfavourable light due to its poor human rights record.

There is a gen­er­al con­cern of polit­i­cal elites that the events in Ukraine will pre­oc­cu­py the EU for the fore­see­able future and thus, as a con­se­quence, fur­ther reduce the EU’s capac­i­ty and will to focus on enlarge­ment in the West­ern Balka­ns, of which Croa­t­ia is a staunch supporter.

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Support for Turkey’s EU membership

The Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment sup­ports Turkey’s EU mem­ber­ship. How­ev­er, it is gen­er­al­ly expect­ed that Turkey will remain a nego­ti­at­ing coun­try for a very long time for sev­er­al rea­sons: due to the cri­sis in the EU which has under­scored the enlarge­ment fatigue; due to the debates on inter­nal reforms in the EU; and due to objec­tions to Turkey ever becom­ing an EU mem­ber state based on cul­tur­al argu­ments. Croa­t­ia and Turkey offi­cial­ly start­ed nego­ti­a­tions on the same day – 3 Octo­ber 2005. While Croa­t­ia became a mem­ber on 1 July 2013, Turkey’s path is open-end­ed. How­ev­er, the debate in the coun­try takes into account that, when dis­cussing fur­ther enlarge­ment, Croa­t­ia (or any oth­er West­ern Balkan coun­try) and Turkey are very dif­fer­ent cas­es. Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment and aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles fol­low inter­nal debates in Turkey on its will to sus­tain efforts to become an EU mem­ber state. Both also fol­low Turkey’s increas­ing­ly more vis­i­ble pres­ence in the region of the West­ern Balka­ns in the eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al spheres. Croa­t­ian offi­cials empha­size good rela­tions between the two coun­tries, not fail­ing to men­tion Turkey’s sup­port­ive role to Croa­t­ia dur­ing the war in ex-Yugoslavia. The 2012 Euro­barom­e­ter pub­lic opin­ion sur­vey showed that 24 per­cent of Croa­t­ian cit­i­zens sup­port Turkey’s EU membership.

At the same time, media cov­er­age of the Turk­ish government’s weak human rights record and its pres­sure on free media, includ­ing the failed Twit­ter-ban, con­tin­ue while the Tak­sim Gezi Park demon­stra­tions were wide­ly cov­ered in 2013.

The main bilat­er­al issue between Croa­t­ia and Turkey is the visa regime which was rein­stat­ed as a result of Croa­t­ia join­ing the EU in 2013. In an effort to strength­en rela­tions between the EU and Turkey, which Croa­t­ia views as impor­tant, the gov­ern­ment sup­ports cre­at­ing con­di­tions for visa lib­er­al­iza­tion. Both bilat­er­al­ly, and in the con­text of the EU, Turkey is per­ceived as an impor­tant eco­nom­ic part­ner, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of ener­gy sup­ply, a geopo­lit­i­cal ally, and a part­ner in find­ing a solu­tion for cre­at­ing a sta­ble and func­tion­al state in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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3. Power relations in the EU

Iva Korn­fein and Valenti­na Vučković

A generally positive view of Germany’s EU leadership

The Croa­t­ian per­cep­tion of Ger­many as the grand leader of Europe has been rather con­stant in the past twen­ty years, albeit with some occa­sion­al downturns.

The last down­turn in Zagreb-Berlin rela­tions occurred in 2013, when Croa­t­ia refused the extra­di­tion of two for­mer secret ser­vice offi­cials Josip Perković, sus­pect­ed of mur­der­ing a Croa­t­ian émi­gré, and Zdravko Mus­tač, his supe­ri­or. Croa­t­ia ulti­mate­ly yield­ed in the spring of 2014 and extra­dit­ed both Perković and Mus­tač, which smoothened out the tar­nished bilat­er­al relations.

Croa­t­ian jour­nal­ists reg­u­lar­ly stress Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel’s per­son­al qual­i­ties and lead­er­ship skills, labelling her as “the most pow­er­ful woman in the world” and “the moth­er of all Euro­peans, not only Ger­mans”, while the gen­er­al pub­lic per­pet­u­ates the myth of his­toric patron­age of Ger­many over Croatia.

How­ev­er, the Croa­t­ian per­cep­tions of rela­tions with Ger­many and its role in the EU are far more com­plex. On one side, Ger­many, as one of Croatia’s top polit­i­cal, trade and invest­ment part­ners, remains of prime impor­tance for its econ­o­my and pol­i­tics. On the oth­er side, how­ev­er, Ger­many stress­es EU enlarge­ment fatigue and does not sup­port Croa­t­ian for­eign min­is­ter Pusić’s pro­pos­al for fast-track­ing Bosnia and Herze­gov­ina and the rest of the West­ern Balka­ns into the EU.

On many occa­sions, Croa­t­ian Prime Min­is­ter Milanović expressed sup­port for Ger­man-style aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, but showed reluc­tance towards the future bank­ing union. In his lat­est lec­ture giv­en at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, Prime Min­is­ter Milanović quot­ed Wolf­gang Schäu­ble, the Ger­man finance min­is­ter, prais­ing the suc­cess of coun­tries that imple­ment­ed struc­tur­al reforms, thus indi­cat­ing his sup­port for Merkel’s efforts at man­ag­ing the euro crisis.

Croa­t­ia still sees Ger­many as its main part­ner and pro­tec­tor in the EU and does not want to ques­tion Berlin’s EU lead­er­ship; yet on pre­cise pol­i­cy issues, Zagreb offi­cials often do not want to for­mu­late a clear view­point that either would or would not be in line with the Ger­man stance.

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Economic crisis and the need of growth policies

The Croa­t­ian pub­lic has been very much inter­est­ed in the top EU pol­i­cy debate on aus­ter­i­ty vs. growth, espe­cial­ly tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion that Croa­t­ia and Cyprus are the only two EU mem­ber states with fore­cast­ed neg­a­tive growth rates for the year 2014. Croa­t­ia is enter­ing the sixth year of reces­sion and sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic reforms will have to be imple­ment­ed in order to com­ply with the Exces­sive Deficit Pro­ce­dures. These include the reforms of the labour mar­ket, the pub­lic com­pa­nies and the pen­sion and health care sys­tems. Judi­cia­ry and busi­ness envi­ron­ment reforms are also stressed by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion with­in the rec­om­men­da­tions on Croa­t­i­a’s 2014 nation­al reform pro­gramme. The struc­tur­al reforms are seen as a pri­or­i­ty by the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment, eco­nom­ic ana­lysts and oppo­si­tion par­ties, although dif­fer­ent views exist on the strat­e­gy and speed of their imple­men­ta­tion. Specif­i­cal­ly, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Branko Grčić sup­ports the need for fur­ther struc­tur­al reforms, espe­cial­ly those of the pen­sion and health care sys­tems and the judiciary.

Part of pub­lic debate was direct­ed also on the abil­i­ty of the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment to imple­ment the nec­es­sary reforms. It seems that the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment is torn between the need to cut the bud­get deficit and pub­lic debt and ensur­ing eco­nom­ic growth at the same time. So far it has not suc­ceed­ed in either objec­tive. Although the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment is strong­ly com­mit­ted to imple­ment­ing the struc­tur­al reforms, as was often reit­er­at­ed by Prime Min­is­ter Zoran Milanović, eco­nom­ic ana­lysts, such as Velimir Šon­je and Zdeslav Šan­tić, often ques­tion its abil­i­ty of doing so, while lead­ing oppo­si­tion par­ty HDZ is even call­ing for new elec­tions. Specif­i­cal­ly, the ana­lysts argue that, although the cur­rent Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment seemed to be a reformist, since 2013 it has been act­ing in a rather chaot­ic way, with bud­get revi­sions at least once a year and many ten­sions sig­nalling poten­tial polit­i­cal cri­sis with­in the gov­ern­ment. These ten­sions cul­mi­nat­ed in the recent replace­ment of Finance Min­is­ter Slavko Linić.

Croa­t­ian media also reg­u­lar­ly report the views com­ing from Brus­sels on eco­nom­ic reforms and aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. A state­ment made by José Manuel Bar­roso say­ing that, although high on the EU agen­da, aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures have to be polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly accept­able, caught par­tic­u­lar atten­tion. Ana­lysts con­sid­ered it a sign that Brus­sels is pre­pared to give more time to coun­tries such as France, Spain and Italy to imple­ment unpop­u­lar eco­nom­ic reforms and decrease bud­get deficits. Prime Min­is­ter Milanović hoped that Croa­t­ia would get the same treatment.

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In favour of UK (and Scottish) continued EU membership

Con­sid­er­ing EU affairs, the present focus of the Croa­t­ian pub­lic debate has been rather dif­fer­ent than the one in the UK. This is under­stand­able as Croa­t­ia has “just” joined the EU and is there­fore much more absorbed with the present Brus­sels agen­da, while in the UK, options of leav­ing the EU have been on the table for quite a while.

A pos­si­ble UK exit from the EU as well as pos­si­ble inde­pen­dence of Scot­land from the UK, were nev­er­the­less offi­cial­ly com­ment­ed on by Croa­t­ian polit­i­cal lead­ers. At the lat­est infor­mal EU sum­mit in May 2014, Croa­t­ian Prime Min­is­ter Zoran Milanović stressed his wish for Britain to stay inside of the EU. On the oth­er hand, in his recent pub­lic lec­ture at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, Milanović said that he was not over­ly enthu­si­as­tic of new changes to the EU Treaty towards deep­er inte­gra­tion. Most of the main­stream media in Croa­t­ia also open­ly regret the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a British exit and present it as a loss for Europe (both in eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal terms), stat­ing that it would be a direct blow to plans of fur­ther EU enlarge­ment in the West­ern Balka­ns, one of Croatia’s for­eign pol­i­cy priorities.

Regard­ing the sec­ond UK-relat­ed issue, poten­tial Scot­tish inde­pen­dence, the office of Croatia’s Prime Min­is­ter advo­cat­ed the con­tin­ued EU mem­ber­ship of Scot­land. Rely­ing on the con­ti­nu­ity of British mem­ber­ship, it would not just auto­mat­i­cal­ly remain in the EU, said the spokesper­son of the Croa­t­ian Prime Minister’s office. How­ev­er, he also stressed that if Scot­land want­ed inde­pen­dence from the UK to be a mem­ber of the EU, it would have to go through the usu­al acces­sion negotiations.

Despite some points of sim­i­lar­i­ty in views and poli­cies on the insti­tu­tion­al and con­sti­tu­tion­al future of the EU, the present intense nego­ti­a­tions on the next Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion have how­ev­er set UK and Croa­t­ia on dif­fer­ent sides. While Milanović agreed that the Euro­pean People’s Par­ty can­di­date Jean-Claude Junck­er has an ini­tial right to be nom­i­nat­ed as Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent (in line with a deci­sion also made by Euro­pean Social­ists), David Cameron voiced a strong oppo­si­tion to Junck­er as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of “Brus­sels bureaucracy”.

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This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site: www.eu-28watch.org.

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.