In the reform of immigration policy commencing from 2003, Croatia has implemented the EuropeanLong-Term Residents Directive (adopted in 2003). In general, reform of immigration policy, induced by the prospect of European membership, was received with widespread unease among political elites who feared Croatia would turn to the country of immigration. Being dominantly a country of emigration and transit, Croatia has been until recently largely untouched by contemporary immigration movements experienced in the (Western) European states. Instead, after the gaining of state’s independence (1990), the immigration movements were low. With state focused on the process of nation-building, immigration and citizenship policies were used to include all Croatian ethnic members in the boundaries of new political community and exclude all others (i.e. other ethnic groups).
Focused on issue of homogenization in ethnic unity (understood in terms of descent), immigration policies in the 1990s were officially defined as a policy of return of Croatian emigrants. The notion of economic citizenship, established across the industrialized states, and privileging the best and brightest immigrants (i.e. those who were seen as best contributing national economies), hardly took roots in Croatia. Instead, crucial criteria for allocation of benefits stemming from membership in national community rested on the principles of ethnic belonging. Such logic was installed primarily through citizenship policies, which privileged ethnic Croat population and linked the majority of rights (socioeconomic, political and other) to the institute of citizenship. The “aliens”, including permanent residents, were excluded from a variety of benefits offered under citizenship.
Being itself a matter of difficult compromise among the Member States, the Long-Term Residents Directive instigated stringent model of economic citizenship, offering membership and rights to a limited category of migrants, depending on their socioeconomic status and skills. Forced to implement the Directive, but conceiving it “(too) liberal”, Croatian decision makers sought to install yet more restrictive interpretation of (already meager) immigration norms, aiming to keep immigration pressures low. In doing so, the elites embraced the economic reasoning and searched to avert immigrants from already week domestic labour market and indigent welfare funds. However, the economic reasoning has not led to re-consideration of the privileges offered to the ethnic Croat population. On the contrary, modest restrictions introduced to the rights of these persons in the course of Europeanization, were later corrected with re-invention of the instruments that aimed at their protection (such the law protecting “Croats without citizenship”).
In such context of reform, domestic system introduced heavily restrictive interpretation of the Long-Term Residents Directive, introducing deflections in areas where it was allowed but not demanded from the EU. While the long-term residents in Croatia now indeed enjoy (socioeconomic) rights comparable to the Croatian nationals, as recommended from the EU, the group of aliens who can benefit these clauses has been narrowed down to a fragment of skilled and wealthy migrants. Allowing a minimal number of working migrants per year (with few hundreds of working permits per year) the government effectively averts immigration from the state. With restrictive policies and unfavorable domestic context (high unemployment and poor standard of living), Croatia remains a country of low immigration rates (less than 1 per cent). Despite fears that the EU reforms would lead to population change (i.e. “substituting Croats with aliens”) expressed from political elites, it seems that the system managed to seize the European laws and preserve desired composition of the population and preferred model of membership.