Mention the word “Europe” in Britain today and bad news is sure to follow. Whether it is money wasted or good deeds frustrated, most reports from Brussels or Strasbourg are guaranteed to inspire the deepest gloom, except among the increasingly confident Eurosceptics for whom it is all grist to the mill.
It comes as a jolt, then, to be reminded that, in the opposite corner of our continent, Europe is seen as a force for good and as a goal worth striving for, which is where Croatia comes in, because today this former Yugoslav republic joins up as the club’s 28th member. This is a remarkable development given that this is a country that was in the news two decades ago for all the wrong reasons. Then it was still in the throes of the bloody war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a conflict or series of related conflicts that filled a beautiful country with cemeteries, drove millions of people from their homes and gave rise to a grim-sounding new term, “ethnic cleansing”.
If the celebrations in Croatia marking this milestone are somewhat muted, that is all to the good, because it shows that the new members of the EU are more realistic about what they can expect than some of the countries that joined earlier. Certainly, the Croats harbour no illusions about the EU as a rich folks’ club whose poorer, newer members can expect to achieve overnight prosperity through handouts. They accept that the EU is a troubled association in which only one country, Germany, appears to be forging ahead with confidence while most others are economically becalmed, or, like Italy and Spain, teetering on the precipice of something worse. But if it is not the prospect of hard cash that has tempted Croatia into the EU tent, what is driving the momentum? Incredibly, from the perspective of Britain, where the EU has become a byword for waste and over-regulation, the word “Brussels” has opposite connotations in the Balkans. There it is more beacon than threat, standing for higher standards of governance than people can expect from their own leaders, if left to their own devices. Most people in Europe’s south-east corner calculate that they will be governed more corruptly, with more political influence over the courts and media and with fewer checks and balances in general if Brussels bureaucrats aren’t wagging reproving fingers at their national leaders.
This popular confidence in the transforming power of the “EU magnet” is not misplaced. If nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred are no longer the powerful forces in the Balkans that they were, it is largely down to the healing effect of a joint striving towards a shared European goal. This common desire to cross the EU finishing line has been a powerful motor driving regional reconciliation.
None of this, of course, will shake the conviction of Britain’s Eurosceptics in the righteousness of their anti-European crusade. The EU may have a useful part to play in war-torn south-eastern Europe, they will say, but that does not mean it has anything to contribute to our story. For those who do not share the Eurosceptics’ jaundiced view, however, Croatia’s entry into the European club – hopefully to be followed in the next few years by Serbia – is good news, and not just for them. It is a welcome event for all who still believe in the European project in some form and who can see that beyond the rows about reform there is still something worth building on and sharing. As the celebrations in Zagreb show, the European flame may have dimmed in Britain but it burns bright elsewhere.