- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2012

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatians voted Sunday in a referendum on whether to join the European Union — a test of how much the debt-stricken 27-nation bloc has lost in its appeal among aspiring new members.

Several pre-vote surveys suggest that between 56 percent and 60 percent of those who take part in the vote will answer “yes” to the question: “Do you support the membership of the Republic of Croatia in the European Union?”

Those who support the EU say their Balkan country’s troubled economy — burdened by recession, $61 billion  foreign debt and a 17 percent unemployment rate — will revive with access to wider European markets and job opportunities that the membership should bring.

“It’s a big moment in our history … we are joining more successful countries in Europe,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said after casting his ballot, adding that he expects a “Yes” vote in the referendum.

Opponents say Croatia has nothing to gain by entering the bloc, which is fighting off the bankruptcy of some of its members. They say Croatia will only lose its sovereignty and the national identity it fought for in a war for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

About 11 percent of the voters had cast their ballots four hours into the referendum, the state electoral commission said. That is nearly 5 percent less than during parliamentary elections in December, when a left-wing coalition ousted the conservatives.

“I voted against because I don’t think we’ll do well in the EU,” said university student Matea Kolenc, 23. “I heard a lot of bad things about the EU, its economic situation and what it has to offer.”

Croatia signed an EU accession treaty last year and is on track to become a member in July 2013 if Croat voters say yes and all of the bloc’s states later ratify the deal.

The Balkan nation started negotiating its EU entry six years ago, but since then, the popularity of the bloc has faded, as Croats realize that EU membership would not automatically lead to prosperity.

In a sign of deep divisions in Croatia over the membership, police clashed Saturday in downtown Zagreb with a group of nationalist protesters who attempted to take down an EU flag.

“We won’t have any say in our own affairs any more,” Natko Kovacevic, one of the organizers of the protest, told the crowd carrying banners reading “No to EU” and “I love Croatia.”

Croatian officials, who launched a pro-EU campaign ahead of the referendum, warned that a “no” vote would deprive the country of the much-needed accession funds and that even the payment of pensions for retirees and war veterans could be in jeopardy.

Croatia has received about 150 million euros ($193 million) in pre-accession assistance since 2007. It is to receive another 150 million euros for 2012 and 95 million euros ($122 million) in 2013.

“Clearly, all that funding will be stopped if the Croats say no in the referendum,” Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said.

Eldar Emric contributed to this report.

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