In my last blog, I was looking back at the changes that came about as a result of 20 years of the single market. But for Croatia’s 4.4 million inhabitants, the last two decades have seen change of an even more profound variety.
In 1992, the year I entered Parliament, war was still raging in parts of Croatia, the UN was deploying peacekeepers and its economy lay shattered.
But two decades on, Croatia is a country at peace and benefiting from record levels of prosperity. It is among the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, with a higher GDP per capita than some existing EU states and inflation below the EU average.
Today, the House of Commons debated a Bill on Croatian accession to the EU, helping to pave the way for it to join the Union on 1 July next year.
EU membership is a hugely significant step for Croatia. But this is also the latest step in the process of enlargement which has transformed our continent and has reunited what Margaret Thatcher in 1990 called “wider Europe”.
As at that time, the UK has taken a lead in pushing for continued enlargement. This alongside the single market, has been the real success story of the European Union. It has supported the emergence of freedom, democracy and justice in countries that lived without them for over 50 years.
This mission must and will continue.
Coming back to Croatia, I was last in Zagreb this summer and I saw the tough decisions that have been made to meet the strict requirements for membership, and how the country has benefited as a result.
Vesna Pusic, Croatia’s Foreign Minister, says herself that the prospect of EU membership has helped the country to build its institutions and stabilise its state.
This is not just a bureaucratic exercise. It means the development of justice systems that people can trust and of a business environment which investors will find attractive. So it’s about real benefits to real people.
I also used today’s debate to underline the lessons that we have learnt from previous accessions. EU membership involves a wide range of obligations and Croatia will need to meet the rigorous pre-accession criteria. After joining, there will also be immigration controls on Croatian workers for a certain period.
But this debate was a moment to celebrate how far Croatia has come, and what an achievement that has been.
In 1998, when she was made an honorary citizen of Zagreb, Margaret Thatcher, to whom I make no apologies for returning, described Croatia as a country capable of advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in the region. It was, she said, a worthy challenge for a proud people. And it is a challenge to which they have risen.