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A fascinating and informative BGIPU visit to the next country to join the European Union

The delegation received an excellent IPU briefing in London before heading to Zagreb, with contributions from the FCO, European Commission and the British Council, which was complemented in Zagreb by the helpful insights of the UK Embassy experts at a working breakfast and rounded off with a debriefing session at the airport with David Slinn from the ranks of the ever reliable worldwide cadre of UK ambassadors. He also intimated that the Lords’ recently published report on EU Enlargement had gone down well in the Twittersphere!

Our visit to Zagreb was timely, given Croatia’s imminent entry into the European Union as its 28th member. Our party’s interests ranged widely in the educational, cultural, community and civil stability fields. Trade, tourism, economic matters featured strongly with a natural UK bent. The sub-set of Scottish (and Yorkshire!) interests played well against complementary Croatian regional concerns.  My own interests on the EU and economic aspects of Croatia’s entry were well catered for.

Educational links
Our party visibly benefitted from the presence of Professor Grahame Wright, Emeritus Professor of International Business in the University of Abertay. He led for us in the search to develop valuable educational, cultural and business links between Scotland, the UK and Croatia as it now opens up within the EU.

The foregathering of experts, including a go-ahead local Mayor and Deputy, led to a useful swapping of ideas on promoting educational exchanges and business opportunities within regional communities in Croatia. Sustainable energy (a winner in Croatia with its plentiful forests, water and sunshine!), the provision of business services (surely a UK export opportunity), the fostering of (quality) touristic opportunities associated for instance with local music festivals especially in Croatia’s reliable warm summer season were all recurring leitmotivs of our short stay in terms of mutual co-operation whether business or cultural in hue between our 2 countries. Our meeting with local representatives and the Council of Europe Centre for Expertise closed with promises of practical, mutual co-operation. Only the inability of UK students and businesspeople to master foreign languages threatened to undermine these enterprising ideas for student exchanges. The tiresome, tongue-tied state of us Brits is only partially mitigated by the Croats’ apparent universal facility in speaking English.

Although the European Union is now fast becoming and English-speaking Union, it is not clear to me that we UK politicians or our educational and business establishments have developed a positive strategy to take advantage of the fortuitous ubiquity of English. Nor have we a rational, national plan to improve our language skills to compensate for our embarrassing silences and hesitations in the face of a Dobro Dan! Or Come stai?

An evening of Terpsichorean accord
A local Scottish Club evening followed which provided further chances of deepening cultural understanding! To the delight of our Croatian hosts, two of our number danced the light fantastic defending the honour of Scotland in performing well-executed jigs and reels!

Meeting the President
A courtesy call on Ivo Josipovic, President of the Republic of Croatia, in former Marshall Tito’s breath-taking lair in the hillside outside Zagreb proved fascinating.

An accomplished modern classical composer, the President stepped beyond presidential platitudes. He forcefully averred that “During the accession process, we became a better society” an accession made significantly tougher, as a result of the earlier inadequate examination of Bulgaria and Romania’s entry credentials. But, the President willingly implied, the act of applying for EU membership obliged Croatia to effect the reforms so badly needed to help them become that “better society”.

Reforms included the onslaught on major corruption (though petty corruption was still alive locally, we later learned, a hangover from communist times), the democratising the political system and the strengthening of human rights. But the main problem remained the economy and unemployment, especially amongst the young, a phenomenon common throughout the EU.

Nigel Adams MP asked the President about cutting red tape and loosening employment law to jumpstart the Croatian economy. The President highlighted the delays caused in poor business administration, long legal procedures and a changing tax system as more significant.

I asked about Croatia’s readiness for entry into the Euro, an obligation under the acquis, especially given that Croatia currently runs the Kuna linked to the Euro. The President thought that that wouldn’t happen for at least 5-6 years.

Finally, the President thought the regional situation was such that entry into the EU  was the principal motivating factor for the other West Balkan neighbours, rather than just joining NATO.

Ministerial calls
Our meeting with Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic was one of the most impressive! He plunged in without waiting introductions, given the shortage of time. But he just told us what we needed to hear! In the Q & A that followed his tour d’horizon he showed equal mastery of facts and figures.

Policing 1300 Kms of borders was challenge enough, as well as providing 46 boats for maritime coast duties on the Adriatic. Some 25 asylum-seekers entered Croatia each day!

The trafficking of drugs and people along organised crime’s favoured SE European Balkan route for was the Minister’s foremost task. The Minister replied to Ann McKechin’s inquiry about how sex-trafficking was being tackled that Croatia was adopting and following common EU practice. Much investment in personnel (including some 120 million euro for the on up-to-date equipment) had been part-funded by EU pre-accession money.

It was pleasing to learn that continuing exchanges with UK legal and border control authorities had prospered with specific programmes in 2003 and 2008 aimed at improving crime analysis tools and courtroom practice.

But the two biggest changes in practice the Minister explained was deeper sharing of information with neighbouring countries’ police and border authorities.

The second change was the fact of Croatia’s imminent entry into the EU, makes it now a desirable country of destination and not just of transit for illegal immigrants. Croatia’s ambition to enter Schengen within 2 years was supported by 120 million euros EU funds. The money also helps Croatia graduate into the EU’s Frontex Border programme, securing the EU’s encircling borders.

Our Chair, the Earl of Dundee, made the welcome comment that UK/Croatian exchanges were indeed two-way. We have much to learn from Croatia as they from us. The instance of the reduced numbers of recidivists from Croatian prisons was particularly instructive. Croatia clearly invests more resources or strategy in releasing prisoners back into the community than in the UK.

The impressive Deputy Foreign Minister, Hrvoje Marusic confirmed that the 70% plebiscite vote in favour of joining the EU was still being supported strongly.  Marusic is a young and modern politician who will confidently sit beside his EU ministerial contemporaries.

The remaining problems to entry were being tackled with despatch. Resolution of the Slovenian bank dispute was accomplished during our visit, although its details were as yet unpublished. And the dispute concerning Bosnia & Herzogovina’s access to maritime waters was a top priority.

The Minister was keen to remind us that Croatia would not be required to post-accession monitoring – the first new entry to skip such scrutiny. The EU’s making a mess of the Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accessions’ process meant that Croatia’s credentials wear tested to the hilt. The Minister made light of such beady-eyed scrutiny, invoking solidarity with new EU partners and acceptance of Croatia’s new EU responsibilities.

Interestingly, in the light of Slovenia’s hesitation to admit its neighbour to the EU Club, Mr Marusic asserted that Croatia once inside the EU would not invoke any (trivial) bilateral dispute as a legitimate reason for baulking other Balkans neighbours from coming into the EU.

Indeed, what was really heartening was to learn that Croatia had set up and funded a Centre for Excellence, an organisation designed to facilitate entry of other Balkans neighbours by offering the Croatian experience of its EU application process. This is a generous gesture which it would be good to know more about as it develops over the next few years!

Meeting with Foreign Secretary, Vesna Pusic
At this moment, Deputy PM and Foreign Secretary Mme Pusic swept into the room for an excellent cameo appearance. (I had had the pleasure of meeting her in the Lords last year).

She reiterated all that her deputy had intimated and confirmed the purpose of the Centre for Excellence. “After all”, she said, “Once Croatia is in the EU, it isn’t geographically going anywhere. We will still be a neighbour amongst neighbours!”

An insight into her pragmatic mind was illustrated by reference to a dispute of contaminated milk traded across borders. Instead of disputing countries going head-to-head, inflexibly backing their own agricultural scientists (as had happened in the past regionally), it was so much more sensible to agree an independent arbiter from a mutual neighbour nation.

During this elongated meeting, Fabian Hamilton, wearing his Turkey/UK APG hat, asked about relations with Turkey, whilst Ann McKeckin sought Croatia’s approach to Climate Change. The replies were instructive. Croatia will conduct diplomatic life under the wider umbrella of the EU in the future. This in turn will serve a small country well in terms of using scarce diplomatic resources wisely and well. As one of the EU’s big states, used to having a unique UK view on most things, we sometimes fail to appreciate the protection afforded to smaller states of being within a bigger and democratic family.

This also partly answers the sometimes simplistic astonishment that Eastern and Central Europe have so readily thrown off the yoke of soviet tyranny only to embrace another embryonic pan-European entity. Clearly, these former Soviet states do not regard the EU as oppressive!

Mme Pusic reinforced that point confirming that Croatia would indeed acquire real influence in the EU by being part of that wider grouping. (We later learnt that a Croatian Parliamentary mission was planned for Mongolia, which rather contradicted for applying scarce resources judiciously!)

Zagreb Tourist Board
During our lunchtime meeting with senior Croatian Tourist Board representatives, I conversed with their senior lawyer who had trained at King’s College in London. He spoke of the ambitious designs to improve an already successful and established tourism industry in Croatia. Located principally on the Adriatic Coast, the Croatians were open to broadening the base of their most successful ‘export’ industry. Zagreb, though dubbed a poor man’s Vienna, nevertheless has fine (art nouveau/art deco) architecture, museums, hotels and improving restaurants. Indeed, in future years, you could see Zagreb comfortably welcoming and receiving the rest of Europe in Croatia’s first ever EU Presidency!

Justice Ministry
The meeting with the Justice Minister, Orsat Miljenic, was useful. Croatia was trying to rationalise its national court system, populated as it was with too many small, local courts, and trying catch up on a backlog of some 800,000 cases.

Dealing with problems of where to try people with dual nationalities was a major test. But thanks to the hugely increased co-operation amongst the Balkan states, including the Slovenians and Bosnian & Herzogovinians, these matters were being addressed. “We can’t change our neighbours, but we can hope to improve our relations with them!” we were affirmatively told.

Competition and the Economy
Helpful civil servants met us in the absence of the Minister at the Economic ministry discussing some of the problems affecting Croatia. An example was Croatia’s debilitating uncompetiveness – it lies 84th in global lists.

EU Market Commissioner Michel Barnier’s recent visit checked on Croatia’s preparations for the challenge of the Single Market, including the commitment to privatise the bloated Croatian Shipyards. UK FDI in Croatia was disappointingly low at 1.5%. (Nigel Adams convened a useful meeting later with an interesting venture capitalist who spoke of some of the difficulties of buying and investing in local, exhausted assets.)

The pressing problem of climbing youth employment was a concern shared throughout Europe, but there was some optimism in young Croatians embracing the fast-developing Digital Single market (an objective shared strongly with the UK!).

European Parliament Budget Chair, Alain Lamassoure was also in Zagreb, listening to the Croatians concerns about the shrinking EU Budget in the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2014-2020. But the promised 11 billion euro was apparently secured for Croatia as was the budget line established by the triple-A-rated European Investment Bank with the domestic Croatian development Bank.

In shrinking the EU 7 year financial framework, it is sometimes forgotten that developing and completing the Single Market negates an established British policy, created by Lord Arthur Cockfield, Mrs. Thatcher’s Single Market Commissioner in the 1980s.

EU funds are typically focussed on improving the domestic transport system, especially the underfunded railways and the road system, to the advantage of Croatia but also to the EU’s Transport system (TENs), hence the principle of European Added Value.

The evening was spent at the famous Writers’ Club with representatives from many strands of Croatian society including at my table a documentary maker from the European Stability Initiative , a vigorous entrepreneur with retail interests in London, a university man and a spokesperson from the LGBT community.

Programme within the Croatian Sabor
Wednesday was devoted to meetings with Parliamentarians, including the Speaker, Josip Leko an experienced politician, who received us warmly.

I encouraged him to attend the forthcoming and crucial EU Speakers’ Conference in Cyprus in April as vital decisions will be taken about the balance of power between the European Parliament and the 27 (28) National Parliaments in furtherance of the Lisbon Treaty’s devolution of scrutiny powers of the respective parliaments.

One of our best meetings was with the Chairs of the European Integration Committee and Foreign Policy Committee. The young and dynamic Daniel Mondekar, Chair of the Committee and the host of tyhe Visit, set the appropriate tone by declaring that “Croats are highly European!”

Fabian asked about relations with neighbouring parliaments and received an affirmative reply and the example of the recent joint meeting held with their Slovenian counterparts.

We met Croatian colleagues currently shadowing the European Parliament; we learnt that in April Croatia would elect some 10 MEPs to fill the gap between now and the EP elections in 2014. The Croats would then need to appoint their first EU Commissioner. I sensed they would give it greater thought than we do in Westminster. (Even the EP has the power rightly to pass judgement on our UK Commissioner. Why doesn’t Westminster?)

Our meeting with the Committee on Human Rights and National Minorities was more perplexing. As Parliament was in recess, there were certain minorities not represented; moreover the Chair seemed to be at odds with the remainder of his committee on the topic of separate and bilingual schools for minority groups. To us British parliamentarians, the heated exchanges on this issue sounded all too familiar. Indeed, the fact that one of our interlocutors was the spitting image of one of our own former Westminster MPs added to the semi-surreality to the exchanges.

At lunch I was able to chat to one committee member representing the LGBT community in parliament. She also informed us of the 39/110 gender split of parliamentarians in the Chamber. This same woman had been a lively and clearly engaged environmental minister, speaking fluently on Croatia’s plentiful natural energy resources like forests, rivers, wind and coastal waters spurred a vital current debate as well as prolonged sunshine!). The lunch meeting with parliamentary colleagues was informative and convinced me of the impression I had formed that Croatia has many fine and modern politicians with whom we should deal as they share many of our habits of mind!

We learnt from the Chair of the regional affairs committee, of the diversity of the regions of Croatia requiring a tailored regional policy. One example was the retrieving productive agricultural soil in the Vukovar region by pursuing a careful but dedicated mine-clearance programme.

At a subsequent evening meal with MPs, I sat next to a Regional Party parliamentarian keen to devolve resources to the regions. We also met colleagues from the IPU in Croatia and the UK/Croatia Friendship Group.

Visit to the region of Istria
Our 3 hour drive from Zagreb to Istria gave us an opportunity to take advantage of the recent investment in the road system in Croatia as we passed through new tunnels and excellent motorways on our way to Groznjan. We were told that the driving time between Zagreb to Split had been cut from 5-6 hours to 3-4.

We were met warmly by the proud mayor at the tiny Town hall at Groznjan, a town of some 100 people which swelled to some 5-6000 visitors in the summer for the jazz and classical music festivals. The misty weather prevented appreciation of the area’s hillside beauty that had attracted incomers like Sir Antony Hopkins.

At Zavrsje, we witnessed revitalisation of a second rural community, using EU programmes. An excellent presentation listing the sensitive investment in the area took place in a skilfully rehabilitated village school. Typical of the investment was the conversion of dilapidated buildings to modest hotels which nevertheless retained the original façades. Our tour of a winery illustrated the enterprise of local people developing lively small businesses.

Finally we drove down to the coast to the long-established tourist town of Rovinj; we were given a warm and informative welcome by the Mayor, Mr Giovanni Sponza and his colleagues. Again the sensitive investment of EU funds was well described by local town representatives, local NGOs and hoteliers in the evening. The prevailing leitmotiv was that investment should not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

This contrasts with what we heard further south down on the Dalmatian coast around Dubrovnik where too many new hotels had been constructed quickly with little concern for quality that characterised Rovinj hotels. Our visit concluded with an excellent debriefing session with the UK ambassador the following morning.

This was a fascinating and informative visit to the next country to join the European Union.

Croatia still has much to do. Large scale corruption has been tackled; but petty corruption, a leftover from the communist period, remains. In like manner, local politicians in their local strongholds frustrate foreign investment so vital for Croatia. The lack of a developed civil service is similarly debilitating, especially the lack of bureaucrats with financial and accountancy skills.

I found a political class, largely distinguished by forward-looking leaders, in whom I believe we can place great confidence as they begin participating in the endless round of EU meetings. But these politicians still have a job at home in encouraging a more entrepreneurial society. The belief is still common that setting up a small business in Croatia implies that the entrepreneur was not clever enough to get a job with the State!

Croatia’s adopted role as portal for all the remaining Balkan states wanting to join the EU was very promising. Indeed, the creation of the Centre for Excellence is both generous and constructive in facilitating the neighbours’ applications.

The UK’s growing interest in Croatia is both right and proper and could be further deepened in terms of investment and trade. The Olympics had a strong effect in displaying a modern Britain; and David Liddington, the UK Europe minister, has made a good impression.

Importantly, Croatia may be persuaded to be a good ally to Britain as well as a vital go-between to future Balkans members in the EU. But that is partly dependent on the own UK’s future in the European Union

Indeed, I conclude with a salutary comment made to me, only partly in jest, illustrating the astonishment of our Croatian hosts that the UK appeared to be moving towards the exit door of the European Union. “Don’t leave the EU before we come in! You’ll miss a few good parties when Croatia is a full member!” Indeed, I fear we will miss much, much else! Perhaps the BGIPU should organise an inward visit to the United Kingdom to try and understand why it is we are the only country in Europe that contemplates leaving the EU, when everyone else is coming in!

Lord Harrison