Why Dubrovnik is in trouble when Croatia joins the EU.
In July 2013, Croatia is due to become the latest country to join the European Union. It’s a move that’s not universally popular in Croatia, although it’s not universally unpopular either. As a general rule, those who have greater contact with the rest of Europe – especially in business terms – are in favour of joining. Others can’t understand why the country would fight for independence from Yugoslavia to relinquish that independence and potentially end up in the same situation that is currently in.
Dubrovnik, however, faces a very peculiar problem – and a quick peek at a detailed map (like this one) will show what that problem is. Croatia is a ludicrously-shaped country. It makes no sense at all. It looks a little bit like a tatty boomerang, and Dubrovnik is on one tip of it. The city is already fairly detached from the other major urban centres in Croatia, but a historical quirk means it’s about to become more so.
Before Dubrovnik was conquered by Napoleon in 1806, it was an independent republic. Its great rival was the Venetian Republic, which controlled most of the coastline to the north of Dubrovnik. There was a constant fear of attack, so Dubrovnik built the city walls and coastal defences that make the city such a draw card for tourists today.
But what if the Venetians came by land? Well, Dubrovnik came up with a novel solution to stop them. Croatia’s coastal strip is very narrow, and it is bordered to the east by Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the time of the Dubrovnik Republic, this was part of the Ottoman Empire – which was Dubrovnik’s major trading partner. Dubrovnik paid hefty “tributes” to the Ottomans every year to ward off any thoughts of conquest, and another gift was a crafty way of holding off the Venetians. In 1699, Dubrovnik decided to give a fairly useless 15 mile strip of coast to the Ottomans. The logic was that while the Venetians would happily march through Dubrovnik’s land, they wouldn’t dare do so through Ottoman territory. By giving away what is now Neum, Dubrovnik had given itself a handy buffer and a highly effective guard dog.
As the region passed into Habsburg hands, then became Yugoslavia, this geopolitical oddity didn’t matter. But since Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have become independent, there has been a need to set up border posts. Anyone driving from Dubrovnik to, say, Split has to go through four separate border checks. At the moment, those border checks are none too strenuous – most people with Dubrovnik plates are just waved through.
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Come July 2013, the European Union is unlikely to tolerate this cosy arrangement. Any cars going through Neum will not just be going back into Croatia at the border – they’ll be going into the European Union. And, from 2015, they’ll be going into the Schengen area that allows for passport-free travel to almost every other EU country.
Essentially, Neum becomes sandwiched between two key frontiers. Anyone arriving in Neum through Bosnia and Herzegovina will be able get into Croatia and then across virtually the whole of Europe without another passport check. That’s excellent news for drug dealers and people smugglers if the border stays as lax as it currently is.
It won’t stay that lax. Every passport will have to be checked and scanned at each border post – a physical process that will take at least six minutes for a car of four, and a hideous length of time for a bus. Any cars with non-EU plates – especially those from Albania – are likely to undergo stringent checks that will take up huge amounts of time and manpower.
Lengthy tailbacks will be guaranteed, and then the same will happen again on the other side. For anyone living in Dubrovnik, it will be a nightmare. For tourists wanting to branch out of Dubrovnik to head north in Croatia, it will be a major headache.
Two solutions have been put forward. One is to build a bridge, linking the Pelješac Peninsula to the Croatian mainland just to the north of Neum. Construction of the bridge started but has stalled, becoming mired in financial, ecological and political issues. There’s not the money for it, it could damage the sea life and Bosnia insists the bridge has a high enough clearance to get big ships through.
On a purely practical basis, such a route will add a seemingly unnecessary detour, and will become utterly redundant when Bosnia and Herzegovina joins the EU a decade or so down the line.
The other option is to build a road corridor in Neum’s hinterland – essentially a highway with high fences either side. This would be the cheaper option, but would require an awful lot of horse-trading with the Bosnians.
Whichever solution is chosen, it is not going to be ready by July 2013. And probably not for a year or so after that. Dubrovnik will effectively become an exclave island of the EU, isolated to the point where flying towill end up making more sense than driving up the road to Split.
For Croatians outside Dubrovnik, of course, this really isn’t an issue. The politicians in Zagreb have more important things to think about. For the bulk of the visitors to the city, it isn’t an issue either. But in terms of getting goods to Dubrovnik by road, and visitors driving down from Central Europe, the border checks at Neum are going to add a significant obstacle to the journey.
That deal with the Ottoman Empire doesn’t seem quite so clever now.