ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatians voted Sunday in a nationwide referendum on whether to join the European Union — a test of how much the debt-stricken 27-nation bloc has lost its appeal among potential new members.
Several pre-vote surveys suggest that between 56 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, a €48-billion ($61-billion) foreign debt and a 17 percent unemployment rate — will revive due to 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," Croatia's 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 that Croatia will only lose its sovereignty and the national identity it fought for in a civil war for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
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 have 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 around €150 million ($193 million) in pre-accession assistance since 2007. It is to receive another €150 million for 2012 and €95 million ($122 million) in 2013.
"Clearly all that funding will be stopped if the Croats say no in the referendum," Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said.