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Cycling through Croatia

...and discovering the "Balkan quagmire"

Croatia. Photograph: Julian Sayarer

I cycle with the world economy stuck in my head. The total value of global derivatives, an insurance market for things that may or may not come to pass, is twenty times bigger than all global output. About 1 per cent of all the world's shares are owned by Norway's sovereign wealth fund. A two pence coin is made with more than two pence worth of copper. In the early 90s, the Tokyo real estate market was worth five times the world economy. The temperature has been up around forty all down the coast of Croatia, punishing heat, like riding through a hairdrier. I cycle down the last hill of a deserted stretch, into the town of Karlobag. Boats are bobbing at anchor, a quay beside deep water. Take off your shoes and shirt. Jump. And the world economy and that too too solid flesh it melts away into the cool waters of the Adriatic.

Croatia is like an escape within the escape, an EU stopgap. Next year that changes, Croatian accession comes in July 2013, a recent referendum settled any last minute jitters that the Croats might have been having. With the unfortunate arrogance that persists in some western Europeans, one journalist spoke of the referendum as a choice between progress or Croatia as "Balkan quagmire". As I ride south the heat increases and the figs ripen on the trees that line this coast, you can smell pigs roasting on spits, you break from the sun by jumping into the clear, cobalt waters of that ever-present sea. If Croatia is a quagmire... well... then quagmires are all right by me.

I rode here five years ago... it was just as perfect then, the difference now is that idiots like me went back to the UK and shot their mouth off about how beautiful Croatia was. EU or otherwise, Europe has arrived in Croatia. German and Dutch supermarkets have appeared in out-of-town retail complexes, the bank of Split has been absorbed by France's Societe Generale group, each major city has its own wireless network. Western Europeans - from Brits to Italians to Germans and Swiss - are everywhere. There are billboards at the roadsides - "In emergency - dial 112" - written in English. On this coast of road trips there must be a lot of cars, campfires and drinking sessions that go out of control with the words "what number is 999 in Croatia?" I watch tourists take photos of their meals as the plate is set down, like a prayer of grace for the digital age, uploaded to Facebook after they finish eating. A Croatian waiter tells me Croats are reserved people, intolerant of tourists... he jokes that people would only be happy if tourists arrived at the border, handed over €500... and went home.

The attitude to the EU is similarly cool. 65 per cent of Croats voted 'Yes' to membership, but only 40 per cent of people bothered to vote... a clear sign that voter apathy is not only the prevail of affluenza societies in the west. I ask everyone their thoughts... 'no opinion', 'don't care', 'doesn't concern me' . A fifteen year old girl serves me a sandwich at her family's kiosk. She tells me she is "too young for things like that", and assuming it outlives her, will now lead the rest of her life inside the EU. It's a striking contrast that up ahead waits Greece, where frustrated people still just about believe life outside the EU will be worse. Here in Croatia the people are told life inside the EU will be better... and are skeptical. Whatever the circumstances, everyday folk generally tend to doubt that change will be in their best interests. Back in Trieste I met an Italian-Croat who bemoaned that EU membership means his family will have to pay tax on the Croatian home of his deceased grandfather. He was unsure of details, but to me it sounded like the change was more likely caused by the new tax regime of Italy's Mario Monti. His feelings underlined two pertinent EU trends. People are unsure how the EU actually works, but will still blame it for making their lives worse. Croatian nationalists question the wisdom of signing over their autonomy to Brussels, when two decades ago Croats were dying to preserve their independence. Try telling a nationalist that domestic culture is more alive in a euro-toting French boulangerie or Italian cafe than on most pound sterling high streets of clone town Britain.

Not everyone agrees with the nationalists. Elder Croats with keen memories of Yugoslavia and its wars seem to take a pride in being admitted to the European club. Along the borders, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro are a long way from any meaningful chance of accession, and for many Croats there is no difficulty in choosing between association with their neighbours or Europe. Croats are not losing any sleep over which side of 7 per cent Spanish bond yields go... in the Balkans a crisis is not measured in basis points. EU leaders will be relieved that the Croats voted accordingly, Croatian accession will maintain the idea of the EU as a vision of the future worth belonging to, a political project with the longevity to outlast the market's whims. If 4 million people in the Balkans had been accepted to the EU, only to decide that French and Germans had nothing to offer them... as snubs go, it would've been pretty monumental.

The question becomes more complex if you move away from the understanding that the EU equates to progress. At a roadside near the Bosnian border I speak with an economics student from Zagreb, selling watermelons for his holiday. He points to his grandmother's field and slaps a melon... "that is where this comes from, but..." and he drills a finger on his forehead, "Balkans are crazy... we import melons from Greece! We could grow everything here... but instead we import!" For him, the EU means finance given to Croatia to grow food with western corporations who will then profit from exporting the food whilst Croatian taxpayers repay the loans. "Croatia... will be like a field for Europe... just a field."

If global finance offers little hope for Croatia, a barman suggests that at least the difficulties of life under  capitalism are helping everyone get along better. The markets will be the new strongman, holding different ethnicities together instead of a Tito. In my cycle down the coast there is one fifty mile stretch more important to me than the others. I leave the tourist road and head inland towards Benkovac. Five years ago I went that way as a wrong turning, found roadside fields marked throughout with signs warning of landmines. This year I go there out of curiosity, and though you can still see the houses that were peppered with gunfire, I find only one remaining sign post. It's been uprooted, and is rusting in the long grass. The fields have been cleared and ploughed, black vines are twisting from out of the earth, tiny bunches of grapes trickling downwards through the fullest green of leaves shot through with sunlight. I try to avoid sentimentality... and yet... it's really nice to see vines buried in earth that once held land mines.

I leave Croatia across its southern border, riding into a 48 hour stint that will take me to Greece via Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. In informal world politics, the best way to judge relations between two countries are the roads that connect them... nobody improves passage to places nobody wants to go. As I head inland, away from the coast, the road into Montenegro is being rebuilt and resurfaced. Progress has definitely been made in the Balkans... it's a poke in the eye for Clash of Civilisations, a timely reminder for Europeans that to achieve its potential a nation has to start picking the right fights, not revisiting old ones.