The bridge of contention

Courtesy of Al Jazeera Balkans

When I decide to start this blog and recalling the famous Andrić’s quote on bridges, I surely didn’t have in mind the monstrous Croatian project to connect its two mainland parts.

I am talking about a well known issue to Balkanologists, which has been recently brought up to the major media by SETimes.

The project of the bridge

What is the role of the EU in this inter-States issue?
As we all know, Croatia is about to become the 28th EU Member State, further expanding the borders of the Union, actually taking Slovenia’s place as the last EU “stronghold” before “No man’s land”.
As reported by SETimes, Croatia is willing to use the cohesion fund to finance a project which might hamper Bosnia and Hercegovina rightful access to the sea. It is my belief that the creation of a bridge to physically (and politically) “skip” BiH would not help neither Bosnia, nor Croatia and especially will harm the reconciliation process in the area. And lurch EU’s reputation in BiH (if needed…).

First of all, the United Nations Convention on the law of the see (Montego Bay)  apparently does not provide any lawful ground for an arbitrated settlement of the dispute. The territorial sea of BiH is entirely encircled by the internal sea of Croatia, thus creating an unprecedented case. Furthermore, as immediately noted down by Mladen Klemencic “Bosnia-Hercegovina does not have any port facilities on its strip of coast, all transportation will be directed to the nearest Croatian port of Ploce”. As we know, there is no theoretical right of peaceful passage in internal waters, unless bilater/multilateral agreements among States regulate such manner. However, since the project forecasts the construction of a bridge over the sea strip right in front of Bosnian territorial sea, it might be argued that the project would harm BiH rights to access high sea. Apart from fascinating legal theoretical rumination, it is clear that the only long term solution shall be based on a political, negotial agreement.

And here it comes the role of the EU.

Although BiH’s chances to join the Union in the medium term are proximal to 0%, in the unfortunate case the EU shall sponsor the bridge project, it will clearly further undermine its image, presenting a picture of EU as a “big brother”, willing to support who’s joining the club at the expenses of other, weaker States. Fortunately, it seems that DG REGIO Commissioner Hahn did not discuss any EU’s participation in the creation of the bridge. For now.

Even if the Commission will maintain a distant position from the project, it is clear that Croatia will do everything in its power to implement the infrastructure. It is necessary to find a more sustainable solution to the issue, bearing in mind the regional cooperation. I have passed through Neum more than once. Any traveller willing to reach Montenegro or Dubrovnik from Trieste will experience the unfortunate misadventure of crossing far too many borders. My love and passion for the Balkans, paired with a couple of coffees and the usual “traveling coma” typical of any Balkan busses customer, helped me sustaining the consequences of this ridiculous case of international law of the sea.

How to solve this issue? In my opinion the best solution would be an extraterritorial highway through Neum. Nothing new under the sun: extraterritorialities are common instruments in the hand of wise politicians to connect States. Given the lack of know how and the difficulties in finding resources from the Bosnian side, both States might find this solution profitable from the purely economic perspective. In fact, the construction of a high way shall result cheaper than then bridge, allowing travelers to shorten their trip.

Such a solution, however, lies on a broader normalisation of the relationship between BiH and Croatia. I humbly believe that 23km of Bosnian coasts are useless without dock facilities and clear and reliable access to the Mediterranean. Given the rightful and unquestionable Bosnian sovereignty over Neum municipality, it is necessary to find a common solution to what is, in fact, a common problem. Ideally speaking, BiH could offer part of Neum territory to be internationalised , in exchange of partial exploitation of Ploce port, based on an international agreement with Croatia. In this way, Bosnian rights over Neum coastline will be preserved, guaranteeing  the fruitful use of Ploce and allowing Croatia to build the highway within the extraterritorial regime hitherto created. Goods shall freely move from Ploce to Neum and from Neum to the rest of BiH without major delays. In the same way, Croatia would finally link Southern Dalmatia with the rest of the country.
The construction of the bridge is pointless and dangerous for two main reasons. The first is of a purely practical matter: in the moment Bosnia will join the EU and/or agreements regarding the permeability of the Croatian/Bosnian border shall enter into force, the bridge will be de facto useless. Furthermore, we shall keep in mind the volume of transports in the region, which, in my experience, do not justify the creation of such an expensive infrastructure. The second reason concerns political strategy and neighboring relations. Croatian attempt to build the bridge represents a brutal show off of political and economic power, which in the end denotes a politically obtuse and obsolete behaviour. Without undermining the importance of reconciliation, Zagreb and Sarajevo shall look at the bridge case as a chance to practically overcome nationalistic disputes, demonstrating political maturity and wise management of State resource.

In the end, the bridge case is one of the nth chances the Balkans have to show to the outer world (and demonstrate to themselves) that reconciliation is possible, necessary and it is not economically impossible (especially in the fields of common infrastructures).
Honestly, however, I do not expect a sustainable solution of the matter.

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2 thoughts on “The bridge of contention

  1. I like the idea of a regional compromise, I figure swapping Metkovic (river-port) for Neum (land transit). I don’t know if anyone in the area believes in compromise.

    • Thanks for comment! However, even though local politicians and Bosnian and Croatian citizens might be ready for a compromise about the issue discussed, I believe that no changes to the current borders shall be considered. It is not the first time I hear about “agreements” including swapping of territories from one Balkan country to the other, but I believe that in the unfortunate case something like that would happen, it would mark the failure of regional compromises, not to say that it really looks like a 19th century Bismarkian diplomatic practice… Which it is not very appreciated in that part of Europe, as you can imagine…

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