Brexit and the Balkan Tangerine Farmer

The U.K. points to Croatia's border with Bosnia as an example of the EU's past flexibility.

A police officer stands at the border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia, near the Croatian town of Metkovic

Photographer: Elvis Barukcic/AFP

Zoran Jerkovic, a Croatian engineer with a sideline growing fruit, might seem an unlikely addition to the Brexit debate.

The 50-year-old lives in Metkovic, a town of 16,000 people that became part of the European Union when Croatia joined in 2013. While neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina remains out, the EU agreed to a system of permits allowing locals unhindered travel across the border. Jerkovic goes back and forth to tend his crop of tangerines.

British Prime Minister Theresa May argues that, despite the EU’s hard line rhetoric, examples like this show that the bloc has shown imagination in dealing with tricky border issues in the past and there’s no reason why the Irish question should be different. Keeping open the Republic of Ireland’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) frontier with the U.K. province of Northern Ireland is one of Brexit’s crucial divorce terms.

“This kind of border regime seems to me quite applicable to the situation in Ireland,” Vesna Pusic, Croatia’s former deputy prime minister, who signed the law, said. “It’s almost impossible to organize life for people who have jobs, families or fields on the other side of the border any other way.”

The similarities don’t end there. The Balkans and Northern Ireland have been theaters of bloody sectarian conflict, the former with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the latter with the “Troubles” between predominantly Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists starting in the early 1970s.

The U.K. and Ireland joined the EU together in 1973 at a time when tit-for-tat bombings were escalating. Border controls largely melted away in the 1990s as both economies were part of the single market and the Good Friday Agreement led to a sometimes uneasy peace.

The EU, which still provides aid to Northern Ireland linked to keeping peace, says its frontiers must be respected after Brexit and is pushing the U.K. for solutions to keep the border open.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s point person for Brexit, last week visited a farm on the Irish border and pointed out that he couldn’t see where one jurisdiction ended and the other started. “Certainly the cows especially couldn’t see it,” he quipped.

May counters that there are answers out there. Buried in Britain’s paper on Ireland last month, is a reference to the Neum corridor, a 9-kilometer strip of land in Bosnia and Herzegovina that extends to the Adriatic Sea, splitting the Croatian mainland. The EU agreed to relax some of its rules to allow traffic to flow freely through the area.

The hotels in the vast tourist town of Dubrovnik are mostly supplied by trucks taking the 20-minute drive on the one major road through the corridor. Some 90 percent of the goods transported are from the EU, with the more relaxed regime applying to cargoes worth less than 10,000 euros ($11,750).

Read More: How Ireland's Border Became a Bigger Brexit Issue

Locals living in an area of 5 kilometers or less from the border can get a permit, lasting for as long as five years. It allows them to easily cross back and forth along the frontier, using special routes or designated lanes at ordinary crossings.

Another example lies further north on the Baltic Sea. Poland, an EU member since 2004, and Russia allow residents of the enclave of Kaliningrad and the Polish cities of Olsztyn, Elbląg and Gdańsk to obtain special cards permitting repeated travel between the two countries.

“The overall point is that, yes, the EU can be quite flexible,” said Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast. “The EU always carries the advantage of its size and scale, so the external player benefits only if it is willing to be compliant with the EU’s standards and requirements.”

That said, easy access is not the same as open access. Croatia had to build new border posts, is still required to perform some checks, and is building a bridge – with EU funds – across a bay in the Adriatic so traffic can avoid entering Bosnia at all.

Still, Jerkovic is thankful for the EU’s flexibility. Before the collapse of former Yugoslavia, Metkovic had not seen border checkpoints since the times of the Ottoman empire.

“People from both sides of the border have intermingled for centuries,” Jerkovic said. “Marriages are mixed, we have fields and family and graves on both sides.”

— With assistance by Hayley Warren

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