Exclusive: Croatian MP Stephen Bartulica praises PM Orbán, criticizes Croatia’s euro membership, and vows to defend social conservatism

Croatian MP Stephen Nikola Bartulica speaking at CPAC Hungary in Budapest
By Thomas Brooke
13 Min Read

A lot of our readers don’t know about Croatia and are not very familiar with the political situation there. Your country’s leader, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, is described as conservative by a number of publications. What is your take on this description?

Well, in my mind, he doesn’t fit that characterization, so I would not describe him as conservative. He’s a moderate Christian Democrat. His party belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP) group in Europe, but he himself, I would describe as an enthusiastic Eurocrat. He devoted much of his previous diplomatic career to lobbying for our EU membership, and he’s very close to the European Commission. I think one of his main allies now in Europe is Macron, so I don’t find him to be a politician of strong convictions.

He tries to play the EU game and is eager to please Brussels by being a reliable partner. So unlike Hungary or Poland, he would not dare to contradict or push back on policies advocated by Brussels. He doesn’t have, in my view, the self-confidence to do that. So, unfortunately, we have a current government that is enthusiastic about everything European. 

He introduced the euro on Jan. 1, something that was not absolutely necessary, and I believe the timing was very poor. Our economy has not been sufficiently reformed in order for Croatia to benefit from euro membership. But this is just one additional check mark that he’s now, I guess, accomplished, and I think he has ambitions for future politics outside of Croatia.

What is your prediction regarding Andrej Plenković then, do you think they’re looking for positions in the European Commission or other top spots in Brussels?

Possibly, it’s really what he desires in the future, I think. My own view is that EPP, the Christian Democrat group, is losing strength. So they’re not on the rise, and this new conservative bloc, I think, is the future. I’m trying to be ahead of the curve or push the curve in that direction. I think that’s where Europe is going, and especially after former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they’ve been severely weakened in Germany, so we’ll see what happens. I see myself in national politics, not outside Croatia.

What differences are there between you and politicians like Plenković?

My story is much different. I grew up in the United States, in Midwest America and Missouri. Both of my parents are Croatians, and so I came to Croatia in the early 90s during the war. I never imagined that I would ever be involved in politics myself, but eventually that’s what happened. I teach at a Catholic university, but have been involved more or less full-time in politics since being elected to parliament in 2020. I represent what I would say is a true conservative party called the Homeland Movement, which was founded just three years ago. I would describe it as a rising, emerging new conservative party that is badly needed in Croatia.

I’m an economic liberal myself and believe in low taxes, low regulation and free trade, but I am also socially conservative. So, I was very involved in the marriage referendum debate in 2013 where we were able to succeed in defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the Croatian constitution. This was by popular vote in 2013. I was very involved in that initiative, so I think culture matters, but of course, politics does too. 

Regarding this topic of Plenković being very supportive of EU positions, there’s the EU Migration Pact. This will probably come to a country-by-country vote. Where do you think Croatia will fall on this issue? Because the Croatian public is not generally very accepting of the idea of migrant quotas, but this could become a reality under the migration pact.

My sense is that the Croatian government will likely support this agreement. Croatia, as a country now in the Schengen Area with an EU external border, is vulnerable to mass migration, and I think the current government wants to avoid any future possibility of becoming a hotspot for migrants. So under this arrangement, they would be then resettled (away from Croatia).

So, I think Plenković sees this as something that would relieve pressure on Croatia in some future scenario of massive numbers of migrants coming. But the public opinion in Croatia is much closer to that of Hungary and Austria than of more liberal Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands. 

Well, that opinion is changing in Scandinavia.

It’s changing, but I think they’ve been imprudent in their migration policy in the past, and now they’re paying the price, and Croatia obviously wants to avoid that. 

So what is your opinion on the EU migration and asylum pact? 

I think generally the question of asylum needs to be completely redefined. I will say that there’s no human right, no universal human right, to enjoy a German standard of living or a Dutch standard of living. This is a distortion of human rights. So, of course, we bear responsibility for what’s happening around the world, but a lot of the problems in the world are caused by Western governments, who are complicit in some of these things, for example, aid policy. Aid policy to countries in Africa and elsewhere often has conditions attached that include imposed artificial contraception, abortion, LGBT indoctrination; they connect this kind of thing to aid. And this is not helping these countries, and this is not what these countries need.

These countries need a future perspective where they can become self-sustaining societies and produce, for example, enough food for their own needs. And this is what the Western governments have failed to do despite spending billions and billions.

So, I think asylum needs to be reconsidered because as I said, we have to protect our own Western culture and think carefully about who enters our countries. And here I would say that Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, despite all the criticism, is correct in saying, in principle, the Hungarian people decide as a sovereign nation who can live in their country. I think my sense, being in Croatia, is that public opinion in Europe generally is going more in that direction.

And so, you’re here at CPAC in Budapest. What is your feeling about the current relations between Croatia and Hungary, and where would you like those relations to go in the future? 

Well, it’s complicated. We had a common king and were under the same kingdom for centuries. So, there’s a strong historic and cultural bond between Croatia and Hungary, very strong. The Croatians in 1102 recognized the Hungarian king, and there was an agreement, the so-called Pacta conventa. So, starting in the early 12th century, we basically tied our fate to Hungary as a nation in the Middle Ages. The roots are very deep. 

We unfortunately today have strained relations for reasons that are quite complicated, but have to do with more post-Communist transition and economics. One of our leading companies, a national oil company called INA Group, was acquired by the Hungarian multinational MOL Group, and this merger has not gone well. One of our former prime ministers, who was in power at the time, has gone to prison because of corruption in relation to this sale. So, it’s a messy story, but a lot of the blame is on Croatia, not on Hungary, but unfortunately, it has strained our relations. I would say that my party and myself, speaking for my own role as a parliamentarian, are inspired by what Prime Minister Orbán is doing at the European level, defending Hungary’s heritage and frankly Christian identity. This is obviously something the elites in Brussels find unacceptable. 

Regarding the topic of the euro being introduced to Croatia, I know that there was pretty significant inflation when that was introduced. What is the situation there currently? 

The euro was introduced in a hurried manner in January and at the time we had inflation, double-digit inflation. This just aggravated a bad situation. And so people generally are not pleased with the common currency. And again, I was against it. 

The government was deliberately avoiding a referendum on this question, was it not?

There was an initiative to push a national referendum on this question that was not successful, but I think the majority may have been likely opposed. The government pushed this through, and my own view is that we need to implement structural reforms and make our economy more competitive in order to benefit from the euro. This has not been done, so the currency itself has not changed the basic dynamics on the ground. I think the reality is that it will only benefit certain industries or sectors, for example, tourism. It’ll be good for tourism, but for the rest of the country, maybe people dealing with manufacturing or trying to export their products, it will be a problem. 

Do you think it will exacerbate the youth unemployment problem?

Yes, that’s our main problem. We’re losing our younger generations, the jobs are elsewhere. And I think the reality of the euro is that it has helped the strongest economies. So, it has been good for Germany and the Netherlands and Austria, countries like this. But for less competitive places like Spain, Italy and Greece, it has not been a good arrangement. I’m afraid that Croatia will fall into the second category. 

And finally, what is your party doing to build momentum? What is your strategy going forward? 

We’re trying to fight on two fronts. The first is trying to strengthen the social conservatism that exists in Croatia. So, we’ve defined marriage in the constitution. We’re trying to keep gender and indoctrination out of schools, for example. We’re trying to keep our culture healthy.

On the other front, I believe that the government should be doing less in the economy. So our state control of GDP is quite high, and we want to have the state do less and get it out of the economy and have a freer, more competitive economy. And I think Croatia can prosper under these circumstances. But it’s the conservatives that have to push this. The left and this party under Plenković are not interested. It’s more patronage, big spending, redistributing money and staying in power. That’s what they’re interested in, not in economic reforms. 

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