Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Croatia's troubled bridge project

  • Neum - Bosnia's only coastal town (Photo: Zlatko Unger)

An over-sea bridge linking southern Croatia to its northern tip across the Adriatic Sea could start being built by the end of the year, in a move that has powerful historical and political resonance for the region.

At the moment, driving by car from Dubrovnik up along the coast to the Croatian capital of Zagreb sees you forced to exit Croatia and enter Bosnia and Herzgovina (BiH).

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Just 20 kilometres later, after passing by Neum, BiH’s only coastal town, you are back in Croatia again. After having queued to get through two border checks.

This BiH corridor means that Croatia is split into two non-contiguous parts.

This split was a long time in the making.

Croatia itself has had a long and turbulent history and for much of it was divided into several parts, one of which was the Republic of Dubrovnik.

This was an independent country with its headquarters in Dubrovnik itself, a medieval city famous for its beauty (and now even more famous for having parts of TV series Game of Thrones filmed there).

It was a small republic, but with an exceptional naval force in the Mediterranean from 1358 to 1808 and the arrival of Napoleon’s troops.

However the bigger problem for the Republic was a powerful neighbour to the east, behind the hills. The Ottoman Empire was keen to get its hands on Dubrovnik.

Deft diplomacy as well as an annual payment of gold coins brought Dubrovnik its freedom.

Eventually however, the Ottoman Empire managed to outplay Dubrovnik and obtain access to the Adriatic Sea.

Neum corridor

It was and is a narrow corridor which during the formation of Yugoslavia became a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and so divided Croatia’s mainland.

After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia "Neum corridor" was not a big problem partly because that part of the BiH is inhabited by Croats.

Nevertheless the grandiose idea of a bridge that would avoid this corridor was mooted in 1997 – and with it the political bickering about whether it would be either feasible or affordable (costs are estimated at around €260 million).

The other problem was the BiH government which said the bridge would be an obstacle should it ever decide to build a port in the city of Neum.

In 2005 things started to move. BiH dropped it opposition and the then Croatian PM Ivo Sanader announced the start of construction (all seemed possible in the economic boom of the time).

But work stopped almost immediately. During the financial crisis there was suddenly not enough money for a bridge that is planned to be 2,400m long, 21m wide and 55m high above the sea.

By 2012, the centre-left government cancelled the project and started listing alternatives such as ferries or an underground tunnel. As idea after idea fell by the wayside, the government changed its mind back to the Peljesac bridge – named after the country’s southern peninsular.

Schengen area

The government has also found a new way of framing the issue. It wants to the EU to finance the projects arguing that the bridge would be the solution for when Croatia joins the borderless Schengen area.

Transport minister Sinisa Hajdas Doncic recently said he hopes at least 50 pecent, if not 75 percent, of the money comes from EU coffers.

But, wish-list aside, Zagreb has not yet started negotations with the European Commission on financing models.

EU transport commission Violeta Bulc on a visit to the country last month, indicated that it is up to the Croatian authorities to first decide what kind of financing model they want.

It could tap into three sources of funding – including the EU’s new €315bn growth fund – but each one comes with a different set of stings.

“Each of these mechanisms has its own rules and the Croatian government has to study them very carefully before it decides which of them is most appropriate,” said Bulc.

For his part, Doncic has already said that construction could start late this year or early next year.”

Now Croatians are wondering whether 2015 will really be the year that the bridge will start being built – some 20 years after the idea was first mentioned.

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