The conclusions from the GONG round table: The priorities are structural reforms, as well as clear information and active involvement of citizens

Zagreb, 11.04.2013 - Nastavak 8. sjednice Hrvatskog sabora. Na slici sabornica prije poèetka sjednice. foto FaH/ Denis CERIÆ/ ik

The process of reforms for Croatia did not end with the closing of accession negotiations and the referendum. On the contrary, on all levels Croatia is facing demands for structural reforms in many areas of life and work. Those are some of the essential conclusions of the discussion at the GONG round table titled “After the Referendum – What Next?”, held on 7 February at the Croatian Parliament.

The period until Croatia becomes a full EU member is a good opportunity for citizens to take an active position so that both as individuals and as a society they may seize the opportunities provided by the EU, and soon also directly influence the creation of European policies. The process of reforms for Croatia did not end with the closing of accession negotiations and the referendum. On the contrary, on all levels Croatia is facing demands for structural reforms in many areas of life and work. Those are some of the essential conclusions of the discussion at the GONG round table titled “After the Referendum – What Next?”, held on 7 February at the Croatian Parliament. 

The round table is one of the last activities of the EU IN Forum project, which GONG has been implementing over the past year with the aim of strengthening the public debate and dialogue in Croatia, as well as the understanding of the process of integration and EU membership. The key issues that will present themselves as challenges but also as problems in the coming period of one and a half year until full membership were deliberated on in the discussion between independent experts from different areas, members of parliament, representatives of the academic and international community, as well as representatives of non-governmental organizations. The participants of the round table also suggested possible guidelines for activities, rendered here extensively, as a type of platform for deliberations on the obligations and responsibilities of all social actors.

Šprem, Vandoren and Šalaj on the importance of strengthening participatory democracy and creating new modes of citizens’ participation in the political process

Paul Vandoren, Head of EU delegation in Croatia (the speech in its entirety is available here)
“After the referendum, the citizens did not wake up and find themselves in paradise, and the accession process will not end on 1 July 2013. It is a transformation of the society that extends through time, and the reforms that Croatia has undertaken to implement should be done to achieve a better quality of life for all citizens, and not merely to close certain chapters. Thousands of pages of legislation have been adopted, and the citizens are only now digesting the changes that are taking place and many are asking themselves: ‘Is what is happening good for them?’ That is precisely why the coming period is an exceptional opportunity for the citizens to inform themselves and prepare for membership, and to contribute to the shaping of European policies as active observers in EU institutions. It is in that aspect that the modern public administration, which will be open to the public, should be strengthened and the level of competencies should continue to be raised in that sector. For instance, Croatia cannot afford to have more voters than inhabitants on the voters’ lists for the election of Croatian representatives in the EU Parliament, and for the local elections of 2013. For that reason, the problem with the voters’ lists must be resolved.” 

“Croatia should refrain from adopting decisions which could cast a shadow of a doubt on the previous obligations”, Vandoren stressed, adding that this was precisely where citizens and the civil society could contribute by carefully monitoring the development of the situation and making sure Croatia did not slide backwards. “You should remind the Government, politicians, local authorities and individuals as well that it is no longer a matter of closing chapters, but of implementing the rule of law on the field, in all possible spheres. Civil society should be constructive: instead of emphasizing what is not working, suggestions for improvement are welcomed.

I hope that the Government will begin with the privatization of shipyards as soon as possible in order to preserve jobs and the livelihood of the workers’ families. The citizens of Croatia desperately want to see economic growth and it is time to open up the Croatian market to investors. The reform of the judiciary must be continued: unbiased, independent and efficient judges should be appointed. Efficient anti-corruption measures must also be adopted. Human rights must be respected, which is why it is necessary to finally resolve the issue of war crimes and finish demining the country. The role of Croatia in the policy of EU enlargement to other countries in the region is also important. The delegation is open for dialogue and assistance to Croatian institutions to create a favorable climate for investments in Croatia.” 

Berto Šalaj, President of the GONG Council
“GONG was critical about the date of the referendum because we believed the deadline imposed for its implementation was too short. The poor turnout of voters at the referendum demonstrated that the authorities once again, by insisting on such a short deadline, sent a message to the citizens that they did not matter. That is why we are warning again that one of the main tasks of the new political authorities should also be the democratization of the political process, which implies a greater role and influence of citizens on political decision making. This can be ensured by strengthening the elements of direct democracy, such as the mitigation of conditions for the launch of a referendum through civic initiative, but also the regulation of legal frameworks for its implementation, so as not to have the situation repeat where the citizens collect a certain number of signatures, and the referendum is still not held. Democratization of the political process also takes place through deliberative democracy, i.e. by stimulating inclusive public political debates held on the basis of information and acknowledgment of the strength of arguments as key reasons for the adoption of certain decisions. Democratization is also strengthened through associative democracy, i.e. greater role of the civil society in the decision making process, so that the Code of Practice on consultation with the interested public in procedures of adopting laws, other regulations and acts does not remain merely a dead letter.
It is of utmost importance to strengthen participatory democracy and design new, innovative ways for citizens to participate in the political process, such as the institute of external members of parliamentary committees. Further reform of electoral legislation is needed. GONG will advocate for a single electoral code which would regulate all important electoral issues, where the disorderly voters’ lists is a burning issue.”

Boris Šprem, Speaker of the Croatian Parliament
“The citizens have made the right decision regarding the accession, because EU membership has brought political and democratic stability to many countries and gave them an opportunity for greater economic growth and better standard. However, the referendum is certainly not the end of the story. Now, more than ever, is when we have to get down to work and reap the most benefits from the EU, because the success of our membership will be measured by the success of each individual citizen who wants to get an education or find employment. For the citizens to be aware of all of the possibilities provided by the EU, they need to be explained well the possibilities of the European funds. We should also embark on structural changes and reforms, and everyone on their part should move forward in that aspect. At the Parliament I have already announced changes in the parliamentary Rules of Procedure for the purpose of achieving more efficiency in the work of parliamentary committees, and the reform of working bodies on many levels.” 

Adaptation of the market of knowledge to the labor market, for a better future and increased employability of young people

Katarina Pavić, President of the Croatian Youth Network put forward the key expectations of young people, the problem of their finding employment and the need for an analysis of the achievements of investments made into young people to date, in order to perform a reallocation of funds, since a range of indicators suggest that those investments have fallen short of the target: “The fact that in Croatia young people are currently the greatest Eurosceptics shouldn’t really surprise anyone, considering that during their entire primary and secondary education they do not have an opportunity to educate themselves on EU. Increased mobility of young people is constantly being emphasized as one of the positive aspects of Croatia’s accession to the EU. However, this will not bring about significant change, because those who have that opportunity at their disposal, students for instance, are already in the system which makes it possible for them to participate in international exchange. And for young people who are not employed or highly educated this opportunity will not mean a thing. Young people should be made aware of their civic position, and the Government should help in a solid restructuring and increase of the capacities of all public authority bodies, by employing persons who will come there from the society. Hence we welcome the announcement that in the Ministry of Social Policy and Youth the number of those working in the youth sector will triple. What is most important for us is the new cycle of the National Youth Program to be passed next year. We, as the Croatian Youth Network, want to witness the high quality of its drafting which will include young people themselves, experts from the area and all of the interested public. After that we expect this strategy, in which all state administration bodies should participate and not just the Ministry of Youth, to take hold and to help make us young people finally feel like citizens.”

Sandra Benčić, Program Manager at the Center for Peace Studies pointed to the need of quickly building a sustainable, efficient and effective system for the protection of human rights:“The reforms that preceded the closing of negotiations managed merely to scratch the surface of all that needs to be changed. One of the quick moves that demonstrated the will to protect human rights is the fulfillment of the requirements of Platform 112, which can also serve as a useful instrument for the monitoring of the new Government. In the long run, it is necessary to introduce education for active citizenship on all educational levels which will be value oriented and will not rely merely on studying the theory, but on adopting certain skills which create active citizens. I would also like to pose the question of whether and when a tender will be launched for external members of parliamentary committees, because we in the civil society believe that it is an example of good practice of how civil society can participate in the decision making process. Although external members do not participate in decision making, their presence and comments contribute to the opening of the political process towards citizens.”

Sanja Crnković Pozaić, expert in labor market, emphasized the need to link the education system with the needs of the labor market, but in order for it not to remain an eternal empty phrase, she warned that it was previously necessary to identify clusters of knowledge that we used to have but lost in the transition: “We are a small country entering a huge market in which we will not survive unless we find our niche, i.e. an area in which we will be competitive. The existing education strategy is a general one and does not correspond to the actual needs of the labor market, and does not provide the possibility of concentrating creativity and knowledge in one place. In order to get to that point we should establish a partnership between the institutions in the education system, business entities and research institutions. We need to define jointly the enrolment policy and desired outcomes of the education process. We must also take the necessary steps with regard to the development of a methodology of mapping knowledge clusters, in order to identify the sector potentials which would at the same time present potentials for growth and development. Without such structural reforms we will continue to educate entire classes of young people for whom the only certainty in the labor market is unemployment.”

Aida Liha, Vice Dean for International Cooperation at VERN University of Applied Sciences, stressed that the education policy must be adapted not only to the Croatian but to the European labor market, and that the internationalization of education should be commenced as soon as possible:
“We need to embark on preparations for structural and cohesion funds which will be at our disposal. The pre-accession period is, as far as cohesion policy is concerned, a kind of a learning platform. As of 1 July 2013, we will be a full EU member and there will be no more time for mistakes in the implementation of projects, because after that date there will be no more control that has been implemented by the Delegation of the European Commission this entire time. As from that date forward we will also be beneficiaries of structural funds, we must commence with the accreditation process of all institutions which will be competent for the use of funds that will be available to Croatia as of 2013.”

Judita Cuculić Župa from the Croatian National Bankconfirmed that the Croatian monetary policy will remain associated with the stability of the exchange rate, which is compatible with the process of introducing the euro: “The introduction of the euro depends on the fulfillment of increasingly strict criteria, which requires work on the fiscal consolidation and increased competitiveness of the economy, and internal alignment of salaries and productivity. “

Chances for Croatian competitiveness increase lie in the area of healthcare and ecological agriculture

Saša Cvetojević, member of the Croatian Employers’ Association and of the Croatian Institute for Health Insurance Management Board in three terms, emphasized that we could be competitive in the European market in the area of healthcare: “Some areas of Croatian healthcare such as ophthalmology, dental medicine, physical therapy and plastic surgery are those niches in which Croatia could be exceptionally competitive. The possibility of changing the legal framework and making equal the rights and obligations of private and public health institutions opens up the possibility for our healthcare, especially if combined with tourism, to become an export product.”

Darko Znaor, independent consultant and master of ecological agriculture stated that another area of potential competitiveness is ecological agriculture: “Ecological agriculture in Croatia is gathering great momentum, and last year the land covered by eco agriculture increased by 70 percent. At the same time, we are witnessing the growth of the market for eco food, which is finally no longer perceived as ‘food for the rich, the sick and the fools’. The state no longer takes eco agriculture lightly and a more serious approach is evident. In order to make it more efficient, we should be more consistent in the implementation of the Action Plan for Eco Agriculture, but also use some other support mechanisms.”

Alen Soldo from the University of Split Center of Marine Studies stressed that it was realistic to expect problems in the sectors of fisheries and shipyards unless prior to the EU accession the government passed documents and reforms it had undertaken to implement: “Although we managed to negotiate to our benefit in the chapter on fisheries, and managed to keep in use traditional fishing tools that are mostly used in Croatia, we have still not created any management plans for the use of such tools which should be finished and approved by the European Commission by 1 July 2013, otherwise upon accession we might lose the right to their use. In addition, a large number of fishermen do not yet know which regulations exactly they will have to comply with once we enter the EU, and why some of those regulations, for completely incomprehensible reasons, are in a way still kept secret. It should also be stressed that the bad situation in fisheries can directly influence some other branches directly associated with it, such as tourism.”

Polish ambassador Wieslaw Tarka shared the experience of the restructuring of shipbuilding in Poland, as this is something the Polish also had to deal with. This topic is a sore spot in Croatia as well. Out of three large Polish shipyards, only the one in Gdansk survived, which was privatized and sold to a Ukrainian investor. One was completely shut down, while the other was turned into an industrial zone: “I have to admit that the restructuring of shipbuilding was the hardest part of the entire restructuring of the Polish industry. The subsidies that certain shipyards received per employee amounted to as much as 24 thousand euros, which was twice as much as what they were earning. This was unsustainable and we had to prepare a plan of restructuring through privatization, which meant that the capacities of those companies had to be reduced significantly. We had a special law based on which we conducted the bankruptcy proceedings in the shipyards. The workers received compensation in the amounts ranging from 40 to 120 thousand kuna, and they were also given the opportunity to retrain. Those who had worked their entire lives in the shipyard were also provided psychological assistance.”

Sandra Bašić Hrvatin, media expert and Professor at the Faculty of Humanities in Koper stressed the need for protecting the public media services and referred to the non-existence of a media policy in the EU, i.e. to its being mistakenly equated with specific directives and acts, which results in a gradual disappearance of the media industry on one side, and in an increase in democratic deficit on the other: “We are left with the question of how to protect the public media service, since it is the only public good we have left. How to return it to the public, how to force it to perform the public service it is intended for, and how to demand from it to respect the basic three rules that it is founded on, which are not only to provide information and entertainment but the third one as well, and that is to educate. The educational function in most of the public media services was sold to consumerist appetites of the advertisers. Slovenia is one of the EU countries that have recently signed the ACTA agreement, a document which is currently one of the greatest threats to the human rights protection in Europe. She also said that the Slovenian ambassador who signed this document in Japan later apologized to the citizens of Slovenia stating that she was not aware of what she was singing, which is unacceptable.“

Damir Grubiša, Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences emphasized that it was high time the citizens finally stopped being treated as subjects, and that it was up to the government to include the citizens in the structural changes taking place: ”The first test will be the adoption of the budget, i.e. the application of the Code of Practice on consultation with the interested public, in which case the government will be able to prove its intentions of including the citizens in the decision making process. The level of competencies in the public sector should also be raised considering how a third of the public sector employees will be directly involved in European affairs.”

Due to the time limit set for the discussion, the Ambassador of the Republic of Slovenia, Vojko Volk, unfortunately did not have the opportunity to share his thoughts and suggestions publicly: “Those in Croatia who believe that EU membership brings about instant prosperity and solutions to many of their problems such as fight against corruption, freedom of the media, more democracy, etc. should be told the truth: EU has its benefits, but does not solve your problems! Everyone needs to solve their own problems primarily on their own.”  

Audio recording of the round table