For Croatia – the last to join of the EU’s 28 members – Brexit has prompted fears of the union’s disintegration.
“Is this Brexit pantomime for real?” a Croatian government official asked me after my speech this week to an international tourism conference in Split on the Dalmatian coast. “Actually, it’s just become a circus,” I replied, thinking of Rory Stewart launching his campaign in a Big Top like a clown. He didn’t get the joke.
For the Croatians, this isn’t funny. The last of the EU’s 28 members to join, six years ago, they are petrified that Britain could start the disintegration of the whole enterprise if we leave.
The EU is a boon and boom for Croatia, like all the new member states from former communist Europe.
With its stunning Roman remains and Diocletian’s palace, Split is the heart of a burgeoning tourist trade. The private yachts are a bit too glitzy for me – 15 of them moored outside my hotel with a huge one dominating the skyline until it set off for the island of Hvar, a yacht paradise or hell according to taste.
But no one begrudges the Croatians their success. It’s not just what the EU has done for Croatia and it’s neighbour Slovenia, the first of the former Yugoslav states to join back in 2004. It’s what it represents: a reassurance against any recurrence of the medieval, almost unbelievable war and genocide that followed the break up of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980 and the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s reign of terror thereafter.
This terrible chapter is still not closed. While the EU has worked wonders for Slovenia and Croatia. But neighbouring Serbia is not in and Putin and his clients are playing dangerous games. Bosnia and Kosovo remain desperately precarious. It could go horribly wrong – again.
It brings home with real passion – and tears when the stories are told of what happened in the former Yugoslavia – why the EU is the best peace project, maybe the only serious one, in the entire history of Europe.
No one had a chance to do more good in the Balkans than Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary when accession negotiations for Serbia were at a critical stage. Yet on the very day he should have been chairing the West Balkan peace and reconstruction conference last year, he resigned – to support a no-deal Brexit which is probably the most dangerous and damaging policy any prominent British politician has proposed in relation to Europe since Chamberlain described Czechoslovakia as a “far away country of which we know nothing”.
Johnson’s key leadership campaign pledge, that he would leave the EU whatever the state of play at the end of October, takes his public immorality to new heights. It’s a lie as big as the “£350m for the NHS” on the side of the bus.
The obvious question is – would Johnson resign at the end of October if we don’t leave then? Since there is an overwhelming parliamentary majority against no-deal and there won’t be a new deal, rarely if ever has there been a campaign pledge so certain to be betrayed by one so practised at betrayal.
Unless, that is, he is destined to be prime minister for only three months, which would give him the shortest and most disastrous tenure of No.10 in modern times. Actually, I quite like that idea. It would kill Brexit stone dead.
But we shouldn’t take the risk. Any temptation to make light of these great events was dowsed in Croatia when I was told the history of my hotel in Split.
Now it’s all sun, sand and cocktails. Twenty-five years ago it was a refugee centre and hospital for women and children fleeing from the genocide in Srebrenica. While Europe did nothing.