Engineer Duje Kovai, who has worked in the shipyard at Split for 40 years, asks: “Why does Europe want to stop Croatia building ships?” He has no answer. The country has a long coastline and history of sailors, fishermen and shipbuilders, but EU membership will probably put an end to one of its oldest industries. The yards had to be completely privatised before Croatia officially joined the EU on 1 July.
Croatia had five shipyards, dating back to the 19th century: Uljanik in Pula, and 3-May at Rijeka, Kraljevica, Trogir and Split. They were the economic backbone of the coastal regions. Ships built in Yugoslavia used to sail the world, and for decades Dalmatia’s shipyards rivalled those of Trieste and Saint-Nazaire. Shipbuilding was key to the political imagination of the socialist years: Josip Broz Tito had worked as a mechanic at Kraljevica in the 1920s. Split’s history is linked with the shipyard: the famous Hajduk football club — which is to Croatia what Olympique de Marseille is to France — was founded by shipbuilders who joined the Communist partisans when Dalmatia was annexed by the Italian fascists in 1941.The termination of all public subsidies is stipulated in chapter 8 (Competition Policy) of the accession treaty admitting Croatia to the EU, and the European Commission has been monitoring the implementation of the “restructuring” programme. “All over the world, states help shipbuilding,” said Zvonko Šegvi, president of Split’s shipbuilders’ union. “In Italy, the Fincantieri shipyards are entirely in public hands; in France, the state is still a minority shareholder in the biggest yards such as STX-Chantiers de l’Atlantique. Even in South Korea, the world leader in naval construction, the state subsidises shipbuilding. What’s acceptable in every other country is forbidden in Croatia in the name of European integration.”
A few months before EU accession, the state put its shipyards up for sale. But this proved more difficult than expected: debts were underestimated and some potential buyers were put off by the requirement that they shoulder 40% of restructuring costs. Kraljevica didn’t find a buyer and went under. Only the privatisation of the small site at Trogir seems a comparative success: one pier will be turned into a marina and chandler’s yard, and shipbuilding will continue. It was bought by a Croatian businessman, Danko Konar. The state will contribute €60m ($80m) to its restructuring over five years, and the agreement includes cutting the workforce from 1,200 to 900. Slavko Bilota, an engineer, hopes though that as older workers retire new ones will be taken on.The yards in Split were purchased by the DIV group for the nominal sum of 500,000 kunas ($88,600). DIV, which is owned by the businessman Tomislav Debeljak, has not put forward any serious plan for getting them back in operation, and announced in June that almost all of the 3,500 workers would be laid off: 1,500 of these will be rehired on short-term contracts, but the selection criteria are unclear. DIV has also promised to recruit 500 former employees, also on temporary contracts.
Split is not going down without a fight, and DIV has brought charges against union leaders for alleged acts of violence and has had them banned from the site.The identity of Istria is likewise inextricably linked to the Uljanik shipyard at Pula. In this tiny region of 200,000 people, shipbuilding accounts for nearly 30,000 jobs, direct and indirect. Production has continued and the order book is full, despite a reduction in state aid since 2006. Uljanik even made a bid to buy the 3-May shipyard in Rijeka. But the future remains uncertain. The site is attracting attention for its touristic rather than industrial potential: the islet on which the shipyards are located is in the middle of Pula bay, visible from the promenade and the town’s Roman amphitheatre. For now, Pula’s tourist future is focused on Muzil, a former military base built in 1859 for the Austro-Hungarian fleet and used by the Yugoslav then Croatian navies until it was closed in 2007. Pula residents currently stroll, bathe, fish, and picnic on the site, which also hosts alternative festivals, but there are plans to privatise it and turn it into a tourist complex with a 2,500-bed hotel, golf course and marina.
The planned demise of the shipyards will complete Croatia’s deindustrialisation. But can the country rely on tourism? The coastal regions have the highest unemployment, with 22% officially out of work overall, and a third of those under 25. Many young people get by on casual work on the black market, earning as little as $250 a month. Zvonko Šegvi says Croatia is joining the EU “without any real preparation … our economy has been devastated, and all we can do is provide services to the rich countries in the north. In the EU, Croatia is going to be a second-rank country, like all the other states in the south.”