Majority of EU citizens favor the euro, with Romanians most enthusiastic
Croatia is now approaching the endgame for its entry into the Eurozone. Last month, the European Central Bank (ECB) put out a list of five Bulgarian and eight Croatian banks that it would be directly supervising starting on October 1st, including the Croatian subsidiaries of Unicredit, Erste, Intesa, Raiffeisen, Sberbank, and Addiko, writes Colin Stevens.
The announcement followed Croatia’s official admittance to the Eurozone’s exchange rate mechanism (ERM II) in July, and fulfils ECB regulatory requirements that all of Croatia’s major banks be placed under its supervision. To move forward and officially join the eurozone, Croatia will now need to take part in ERM II “for at least two years without severe tensions,” and especially without devaluing its current currency, the kuna, against the Euro.
Of course, this being 2020, severe fiscal tensions have become a fact of life for European governments.
Trouble on multiple fronts
According to the World Bank, Croatia’s overall GDP is now expected to plummet by 8.1% this year, admittedly an improvement over the 9.3% annual drop the Bank had predicted in June. Croatia’s economy, heavily reliant as it is on tourism, has been buffeted by the ongoing pandemic. Worse still, the country’s attempt to make up for lost ground with a post-lockdown rush of summer holidaymakers has seen it blamed for jumpstarting the surge in Covid-19 cases in several other European countries.
Nor is the Covid-driven downturn the only economic issue facing prime minister Andrej Plenković, whose Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) held onto power in the country’s July elections, and the independent finance minister Zdravko Marić, who has been in his post since before Plenković took office.
Even as Croatia receives a coveted endorsement from the other economies of the Eurozone, the country continues to be rocked by corruption scandals – the most recent being the salacious revelations of a secret club in Zagreb frequented the country’s political and business elites, including multiple ministers. While the rest of the population endured strict confinement measures, many of Croatia’s most powerful people flouted lockdown rules, exchanged bribes, and even enjoyed the company of escorts brought in from Serbia.
There is also the ongoing matter of how Croatia’s government in 2015 forced banks to retroactively convert loans from Swiss francs to euros and pay out over €1.1 billion in reimbursements to customers it had lent money too. The issue continues to roil Zagreb’s relationships with its own banking sector and with the European financial industry more broadly, with Hungary’s OTP Bank filing suit against Croatia at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) this month to recoup approximately 224 million Kuna (€29.58 million) in losses.
Croatia’s endemic corruption problem
Much like its counterparts in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, corruption has become an endemic issue in Croatia, with even the gains made after the country acceded to the EU now at risk of being lost.
Much of the blame for the country’s perceived backsliding lies at the feet of the HDZ, in no small part on account of the ongoing legal saga surrounding former premier and HDZ party boss Ivo Sanader. Whereas Sanader’s 2010 arrest was taken as a sign of the country’s commitment to uprooting corruption as it worked to join the EU, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified the sentence in 2015. Today, only one of the cases against him – for war profiteering – has officially been concluded.
The inability to effectively prosecute past wrongdoing has driven Croatia down Transparency International’s rankings, with the country how earning just 47 of 100 points in the group’s “perceived corruption” index. With civil society leaders such as Oriana Ivkovic Novokmet pointing to corruption cases that languish in the courts or never get brought at all, the decline is hardly surprising.
Instead of turning a corner, the current members of the HDZ government face allegations of their own. The Zagreb speakeasy frequented by Croatian leaders included transportation minister Oleg Butković, labour minister Josip Aladrović, and economic minister Tomislav Ćorić amongst its clientele. Andrej Plenkovic himself is currently locked in a war of words over the country’s anticorruption efforts with his chief political opponent, Croatian president Zoran Milanović. The former leader of the rival Social Democratic Party and Plenkovic’s predecessor as prime minister, Milanović was also a club patron.
Zdravko Marić between a rock and a banking crisis
Finance minister (and deputy PM) Zdravko Marić, despite operating outside the established political groupings, has been dogged by questions of potential misconduct as well. Earlier in his term, Marić faced the prospect of an investigation into his ties with food group Agrokor, Croatia’s largest private company, on conflict of interest grounds. Despite being a former employee of Argokor himself, Marić nonetheless undertook secret negotiations with his former company and its creditors (primarily the Russian state-owned bank Sberbank) that exploded into the local press in March 2017.
Weeks later, Agrokor was put under state administration on account of its crippling debt load. By 2019, the company had been wound down and its operations rebranded. Marić himself ultimately survived the Agrokor scandal, with his fellow minister Martina Dalić (who headed the economy ministry) forced out of office instead.
Agrokor, however, has not been the only business crisis undermining Plenkovic’s government. Going into Croatia’s 2015 elections, in which Zoran Milanović’s Social Democrats lost power to the HDZ, Milanović undertook a number of populist economic measures in a bid to shore up his own electoral position. They included a debt cancellation scheme for poor Croatians who owed money to the government or municipal utilities, but also sweeping legislation that converted billions of dollars in loans made by banks to Croatian customers from Swiss francs to euros, with retroactive effect. Milanović’s government forced the banks themselves to bear the costs of this sudden shift, prompting years of legal action by the affected lenders.
Of course, having lost the election, these populist moves ultimately turned into a poisoned chalice for Milanović’s successors in government. The loan conversion issue has plagued the HDZ since 2016, when the first suit against Croatia was filed by Unicredit. At the time, Marić argued in favour of an agreement with the banks to avoid the substantial costs of arbitration, especially with the country under pressure from the European Commission to change course. Four years later, the issue instead remains an albatross around the government’s neck.
Stakes for the Euro
Neither Croatia’s corruption issues nor its conflicts with the banking sector have been enough to derail the country’s Eurozone ambitions, but to successfully see this process through to its conclusion, Zagreb will need to a commit to a level of fiscal discipline and reform that it has not yet demonstrated. Needed reforms include reduced budget deficits, strengthened measures against money laundering, and improved corporate governance in state-owned companies.
If Croatia succeeds, the potential benefits include lower interest rates, higher investor confidence, and closer links to the rest of the single market. As is so often the case with European integration, though, the most important gains are the improvements made at home along the way.