By Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh
At midnight on Sunday Croatia became the 28th country to join the European Union.
In the historic city of Zagreb, the flags and partying in Ban Jelačić Square carried on into the early hours as Croatians celebrated their entry into the powerhouse that is the EU, swelling its 504 million to 508 million people.
It’s an exciting time for Croatians. With a population just a little smaller than Scotland’s at 4.4 million, this is a country that endured horrific violence and persecution in 1995. Young people, just in their twenties now, recall fear and enforced relocation, the sounds of bombs and gunfire and the planting of landmines that still make many rural areas unsafe.
Ivana Milan is a post-graduate student at the Law Faculty of Zagreb University. Her story reflects the personal tragedies of so many people in the civil war: “My parents had just finished building their house in a small village close to Sibenik when the war began. My father had been in the army and was then farming. I was about seven and the whole family had to leave the new house and move into a hostel in Split for the next five years.
“When we went back to the house, it had just completely gone. There was nothing there any more. The Serbian rebels had moved in and then destroyed it. We had to start again, with the help of government funds, to rebuild that house. It took my father years to do that.”
Ivana’s home is still surrounded by landmines in the surrounding hills that are part of the family land. She is hoping that membership of the EU may help her country to finally clear that particular curse.
Croatia’s challenges are a world away from Scotland’s. Unemployment is high but much lower than in Spain and opportunities for access to competitive markets are limited at the moment. Membership of the EU can change that.
The acquisition of new European funds will help to build new businesses, employment and regeneration. The EU budget, already at €94.2 million for 2012-13, will benefit from an extra €60 million in EU Structural Funds during the six months from entry until December.
But perhaps more important are the range of opportunities that the EU will bring to Croatia, as well as the advantages that having a new member country will bring to the rest of us in Europe.
At a time when the EU’s own economy isn’t in the best condition, when scepticism about it is high and both Westminster parties are set on a withdrawal referendum, why does Croatia want to join anyway? Why is there a stream of other countries that see joining as an ambition and why does Scotland want to stay within the family?
For me the answers are obvious to Croatians: No customs controls at internal EU borders so no more lengthy waiting to get into Slovenia or Hungary or further on into the EU. Less hassle for the movement of both goods and people.
Easy people movement, access to more products of better quality and at a lower cost will bring consumer advantages. For instance, since 1992 the price of airline tickets has fallen by 40 per cent in the EU and roaming charges for mobile phone calls will soon disappear completely.
Families wanting to buy a house or a new car will get loans at a lower rate and there will be new opportunities for partnership and networking with similar industries within an enlarged EU.
The fundamental right of every EU citizen to work freely in any country within the EU is one of the many freedoms enshrined in the EU Treaty. That free movement will bring new skills into Croatia and allow Croatians in turn to bring their own skills into other EU countries. That helps match available skills with labour market demand.
Croatians are not going to race in their thousands to live and work in other EU member countries, but the in and outflows of labour will spread skills and opportunities right across the Union. That is good for everyone.
Avis Benes, who is in charge of the EU Information Centre in Zagreb, says: “As Croatians, we are so pleased to be a full member of the European family. I know that our future economic prosperity and our entire infrastructure is now on the road to a great reality.”
Change always brings anxiety. There will be many in Croatia who feel insecure about their future, but when they see what Europe brings, that will alter.
It’s a little like voting for Independence here in Scotland. Change is both exciting and it can be unnerving if you aren’t too sure of the facts. The current situation of being controlled by Westminster in so many ways just isn’t working for Scotland.
We must grasp our own future in our own hands and move forwards to a prosperous, fairer, democratic Scotland.
When First Minister Alex Salmond and 69 SNP MSPs came into Government in 2011, he said: “This party, the Scottish party, the national party, carries your hope and we shall carry it carefully.”
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh is an SNP candidate in the Euro elections