Split’s young people hope Croatia’s European Union membership will lead to more job opportunities, even if those opportunities are found outside their homeland.
Split’s boardwalk is unusually busy for a Monday night. A band is playing a mix of Croatian and western music at an election rally, thousands are in attendance, talking, drinking and singing along. Nikola Kalinic and his friends are loitering, enjoying the free entertainment and each other’s company. He looks out to the sea and takes a swig from a bottle of Karlovačko, a Croatian beer. He talks about the local elections, which are quickly approaching. The promise of jobs and economic growth are are being echoed by each mayoral candidate in the city of 180,000 people, Croatia’s second biggest. Kalinic, a 21-year-old student, is skeptical, but offers a shred of optimism: “There is some change, but it’s a slow pace.” Maybe too slow.
On July 1st, Croatia will become the latest country to join the European Union. It’s been a long wait for the Balkan country of 4.3 million, which has been working towards EU entry for more than 10 years. But the timing is precarious. The EU is in a time of economic crisis – and so is Croatia.
Since the recession hit in 2008, Croatia has been in a downward spiral. Unemployment has risen by 10 per cent, with 18 per cent now jobless. Narrow that down to just youth, and the numbers get much worse: from 21 per cent unemployment in 2008, to 51 per cent today. Some young Croatians have left for Canada, Australia and elsewhere in search of work, and that could get worse once Croatia joins the EU.
Joining the union will allow Croatian citizens to move freely among member states in search of work, no visa required. While many countries will restrict Croatian access to these opportunities for the country’s first few years of membership, it’s already an issue being raised by politicians, experts and youth.
Much of Croatia’s industries have crumbled, especially along the country’s heavily-populated coast. Shipbuilding, which used to be a big economic contributor, is only a relic of its old self. Many cities, including Split, rely mostly on tourism. But that’s only a summer opportunity, which means many people are doing nothing for half the year.
“In the winter you can sit by the boardwalk midday, and all the bars are full with people drinking coffee, because nobody works,” says Ivan Kaštelan, a journalist at Split’s daily newspaper, Slobodna Dalmacija. “There you can notice how big unemployment is.”
Croatia’s economic problems are threefold, Kaštelan says. Bureaucracy, an ageing population and a lack of job opportunities for youth are all contributing to Croatia’s continued recession.
Kaštelan has a few friends who work at a small IT startup in Split. He says they work 12 hours a day just to break even financially, and they’re considered successful amongst their peers. Government paperwork, taxes and corruption are all limiting their financial opportunities, Kaštelan says.
There’s also the issue of older citizens staying at their jobs instead of retiring, which in turn leads to problem number three: limited work opportunities for young people.
There will always be restaurant jobs come summertime, but Split, like many other tourist cities dotting Croatia’s coastline, is struggling to provide work opportunities that match the skills of graduating students.
“You will invest your money to send young people to finish college, and your minds will go to Europe to work,” Kaštelan says. “The bad thing is I’m really not sure the government can do anything.”
Others acknowledge the youth problem, but are more optimistic. In the basement of Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Split’s biggest tourist attraction, a discussion about Croatia’s economy is taking place. The Roman palace is over 2,000 years old, but on this evening, it’s very modern. The event is being live-streamed, there’s a projector displaying a Twitter hashtag feed, and you can even grab a headset to listen to the debates via an english translator. Politicians, union leaders and NGO representatives pack the room as a woman stands off to the side drawing mind maps corresponding to the debates taking place centre-stage. “Is there a lost generation?” reads a quote on one white board. “We need to create jobs for youth!” reads another.
The prime minister of Croatia, Zoran Milanović, has just addressed the crowd. Hannes Swoboda, president of Socialists and Democrats — the event’s organizer — in the European Parliament and former rapporteur for Croatia’s bid for EU membership, steps to the podium. He talks about how Croatia’s education system needs to be reformed. Most of Swoboda’s speech is focused on a major talking point in his party: the importance of implementing a youth guarantee. In theory the guarantee would provide funding for young people to train for and obtain jobs that match their skills. The proposed guarantee would benefit those aged 25 and under in all EU member countries. But questions of how long this might take to implement, and how much funding will actually trickle down to each young person in need, remain undefined.
Kalinic is at the event. He agrees with some of what was said, but remains skeptical about of how the Croatian government plans to make the necessary changes. Many Croatian colleges lack practical training, he says, something the youth guarantee would partially address. Kalinic sees a Croatian future with a stronger technology sector. When he saw that a union leader that represents Croatia’s fading shipbuilding industry speak at the event, he was baffled. “People need to be aware that industry isn’t like it was before,” he says.
“It’s hard to make everything work as it should,” says Ana Skrobica, as she exits Split’s employment office, the HZZ (Crotian Employment Institute). She’s one of dozens seen entering and exiting the office in a constant stream throughout the day.
Unemployed Croats have to return to the office every month to remain on the government’s unemployment registry. This allows them to continue to receive free health care. Registering does not provide financial assistance.
An aspiring photographer, Skrobica, 22, is officially unemployed and living at home with her family. She has a part-time, unofficial job working on a ferry boat as a waitress, but the money she makes is not enough to be able to move out. Skrobica makes 3,000 kunas (€400) on a good month in the summer. An apartment would eat up at least half that, “And you can’t buy food for a month with 1,000 kunas — it’s impossible.” She barely earns any money once tourist season ends.
“I don’t know what [the government] should do,” she says, “but i don’t think this is working.”
Skrobica thinks joining the EU will do little within the country, besides sending its citizens elsewhere for work. Slovenia is an option she’s considering. “Croatia is in the same shit and you’re just leaving for something better – that isn’t a solution.”