ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — At the stroke of midnight Saturday, Croatia switched to the shared European currency, the euro, and eliminated dozens of border checkpoints to join the world’s largest passport-free travel area.
It marked a new beginning for the tiny Balkan nation of 4 million that drew international attention three decades ago as the scene of a brutal war that left nearly a quarter of its economy in shambles.
Joining Europe’s ID check-free Schengen zone means Croats will now be among nearly 420 million people who can freely roam its 27 member countries without passports for work or pleasure.
Adoption of the euro will also offer Croatia the benefits of deeper financial links with the other 19 users of the currency and with the European Central Bank. It will also make travel and business easier, removing the hassle of currency exchange for Croatians traveling abroad and for the tens of thousands of tourists who visit their country each year for work or to enjoy its stunning Adriatic coastline.
As Croatian revelers took to the streets to ring in the New Year, the country’s Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic was at the Bregana border crossing with Slovenia to wish the best of luck to the latest travelers to be checked. passports there.
Slovenia has been part of the Schengen zone and has been tasked with safeguarding its external border since 2007.
Now, the task will be taken up by Croatia, which will continue to apply strict border controls on its eastern borders with non-EU neighbors Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.
“We open our doors to a Europe without borders. This goes beyond removing border controls, it is the final affirmation of our European identity,” Bozinovic said after watching the ramps at the Bregana border crossing being erected for the last time in the company of his Slovenian counterpart Sanja Ajanovic-Hovnik.
Stipica Mandic, a 72-year-old professional driver, shared the sentiment, saying freedom of movement without long waits at border crossings was his personal dream and the reason he left a New Year’s Eve party at his house and drove 20 kilometers. (20 km) to Bregana to see it come true.
“I spent years of my life waiting at border controls, so I came here tonight to witness this moment, the moment after which I will wait no more,” he said.
Around the same time, shortly after midnight, the finance minister and the governor of Croatia’s central bank went to an ATM in the capital Zagreb to withdraw euro banknotes and symbolically relegate Croatia’s former national currency. , the kuna, to history.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but to adopt the euro, the country had to meet a strict set of economic conditions, including a stable exchange rate, controlled inflation and strong public spending.
The Croatian kuna and the euro will have dual use for cash payments for only 14 days, but since people shop after the holidays in January, they will only receive change in euros.
Many Croats described the events of New Year’s Eve as proof that their country has completed a difficult journey into the European mainstream 31 years after fighting a war for independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia that killed 20,000 people. and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
“We used to dream about this and I am happy that I lived to see it happen,” said Zlatko Leko, a resident of the southern port city of Split. “I hope this means that we are finally part of Europe.”
Elenmari Pletikos-Solon in Zagreb agreed: “We have already been part of Europe, but dismantling the borders and switching to the euro is the final confirmation that we are fully integrated” with the European Union.
“I’m really happy. It will make a lot of things in our life so much easier,” she added.