Damir Grubisa – Croatia’s Europhile professor

“We had to learn what democracy is, what tolerance is, how to get rid of our past.”


On 22 January 2012 Croatian voters had the opportunity to decide if their country should become a member of the European Union. Two thirds of those who cast their ballot backed Croatia’s accession to the EU. For many the decision was not driven by enthusiasm for the EU, but rather because they saw no credible alternative for Croatia.

Not so Damir Grubisa, an academic, author and former government official, and one of the most dedicated Europeans in Croatia.

Today, even in the face of one of the EU’s biggest crises, Grubisa remains a genuine Europhile. “The EU is a long-ranging project,” he says, sitting behind a desk crowded with books and student papers at his tiny, jumbled office at Zagreb University.

“[It is] a project to create Europe as an oasis of peace and an oasis of well-being for all of its citizens, using solidarity to help those who are lagging behind in their development in their economic welfare. And of course it’s also a beacon of democracy. These elements … make the European Union a unique experiment in the world. The temporary problems are not due to European integration, but due to the fact that European integration didn’t go further.”

Born in 1946 in the Croatian port city of Rijeka, Damir Grubisa spent more than half of his life in communist Yugoslavia. After graduating with a degree in political science from Zagreb University, he worked with the Yugoslav Union of Students, a group of young thinkers, the communist-controlled Union of Yugoslav Youth in Belgrade, and the Rijeka branch of the Croatian League of Communists. From 1975 to 1980 he lectured in political science at Rijeka University.

In 1978 Grubisa became undersecretary at Croatia’s Secretariat of Culture. After running the political education centre of the Croatian League of Communists in Zagreb from 1982 to 1986, he moved to New York to head the Yugoslav Press and Cultural Centre. While there, he earned a post-graduate degree in international relations from the City University of New York.

Back in Yugoslavia in January 1991, he became chief of cabinet of the Yugoslav federal secretary for foreign affairs, Budimir Loncar, a Croat. With the communist era over and the Yugoslav crisis sliding into war, Grubisa returned to Zagreb in August 1991 to head the section for analysis and planning of the Croatian foreign ministry. He then became chief of cabinet – and later, adviser – to minister Zvonimir Separovic and his successor Zdenko Skrabalo. At the end of 1992 he resigned and joined the state-run Institute for International Relations.

Grubisa began advocating Croatia’s integration into the EU in the early 1990s. Under Franjo Tudjman’s rule, however, the country went in the opposite direction. In terms of European integration, says Grubisa, the 1990s became a “lost decade”.

“Yes, Tudjman was for Europe, he spoke of the ‘return to Europe,’ but like the return to Europe of the Middle Ages, fighting against Turks and Orthodox Christians. He believed in Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations and was convinced that Croatia must be acclaimed for its credits in this fight. It was the idea of a Christian Europe where we …[Croats] will once again be the bulwark of Christianity …

Croatia’s political life was imbued with such forms of political pathology as populism, demagogy, political hypocrisy, political manipulation, of course political corruption and of course a very defused technique of political paranoia – everybody who is not with you is your enemy. It was a remnant of the past when political life was set up in an antagonistic model.

So we had to learn what democracy is, what tolerance is, how to get rid of our past. And this was a very difficult, a very hard process of growing up, coming of age …

We changed our attitudes radically and it was possible due to the influence of the European Union and of course due to the growth of conscience within the country –new generations and new political leaders wanted to get rid of that past.”

In 1993, Grubisa founded the European Documentation Centre, which set out to acquire, collect and distribute EU documents and publications. At the time, he argued – in vain – that at least one public library in each Croatian city should set up an “EU corner” for citizens and businessmen. In 1995 Grubisa proposed that each university faculty introduce classes on EU policies in its respective field. Likewise, this never happened.

In 2003, after a decade of work at the Institute for International Relations, Grubisa joined the political science faculty of of Zagreb University. He introduced European Integration to the curriculum and has since developed seven different courses. He also heads the “Center for European Studies,” which coordinates EU-related classes, organizes lectures, seminars and workshops. In nearly 10 years of teaching, he has helped cultivate a generation of young Croatians familiar with the EU and its policies.

In the run-up to the EU referendum Grubisa was one of the strongest campaigners for a “yes” vote (not least through his columns in the daily Novi list). He remains unrelenting in his conviction that Croatia must join the bloc.

“For Croatia, it’s absolutely important to join (the EU) because we are joining a community of values, a political community in which our international position will be stronger. We shall have more voice in deciding about the common future of Europe … Without the European Union, we couldn’t count on solidarity measures for instance as Greece and Italy and all the other countries.”

But according to Grubisa, the accession process itself has already worked to Croatia’s benefit.

“Sometimes there were some misunderstandings. But overall I would say that the European Union acted as a catalyst for the political, social and economic change in Croatia and it was very good because it created possibilities for a sandwich pressing upon our power-holders: the European Union from above and public opinion, media and civil society from below. It created a synergy that prompted our politicians to change, to adapt to the new realities and to adopt a more pro-European stance.”

Apart from his university job, Grubisa is a non-partisan member of the foreign policy advisory council of President Ivo Josipovic. From 2008 to 2011 he was an international relations adviser to the Social Democrat party. Today, he is on his way to becoming Croatia’s ambassador to Italy.

30 April 2012