In defence of the EU

Eastern Europe is the graveyard of empires. Rome failed on the Danube, Napoleon on the Dnieper. The epic struggle between the empires of Austria, Russia and Turkey in the first world war ended with the destruction of all three and the fragmentation of eastern Europe, giving rise to the word ‘Balkanisation’. Driving through the Balkans today, I am continually reminded that history has no full stops. Every empire leaves its ghosts to haunt its successors. Vienna, like London, is an imperial city without an empire. The ethnic antagonisms of the Balkans, which provoked the first world war, survived to divide Yugoslavia in the second and then destroy it in the

How to eat and drink your way around the Dubrovnik Riviera

‘I hope you’re hungry,’ crows a fisherman, setting down a plate piled high with freshly shucked oysters. They say you should face your worst fears head on. Well, here I am addressing mine – but I never thought it would be done in quite so idyllic a spot. I’m in Mali Ston, a small, picturesque town on Croatia’s Pelješac peninsula, about an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik. It’s 9.30 a.m. and many shops are still shuttered, but already Game of Thrones fans are out in force, taking selfies along the hillside’s 14th-century network of towers and fortresses. (The three-and-a-half-mile walls doubled as King’s Landing and the Eyrie in the fantasy drama.)

Diary – 8 March 2018

At the BBC early doors for the Today programme, to preview Corbyn’s speech advocating membership of a customs union. I suggest that ‘this is something Remainers can get behind’, but come off air to a torrent of denialism and abuse on Twitter. In a parallel universe, the people who feel existentially destroyed by being halfway out of the EU would have made this case passionately before the vote, instead of trying to rely on fear and platitudes now. In quick succession, the European Commission drops its bombshell, obliging Britain to impose customs controls across the Irish sea; then Theresa May delivers her speech applying for a kind of off-peak gym


Advocates of New Zealand often boast that the country is like Britain was in the 1950s. This is all well and good if 1950s Britain is where you want to go on holiday, but it’s not for everyone. In fact, some might argue the main purpose of the past half-century has been to make Britain less like Britain was in the 1950s. What, then, are the options for those who would rather go on holiday to the Italian Riviera of the 1950s? The answer, it turns out, is Croatia, which has pleasant weather late into the autumn, idyllic coastlines and a laidback glamour that seems like a distant memory on

Diary – 18 August 2016

Throughout our holiday, reports from Rio rippled in — last thing at night, first thing in the morning — a regular golden swoosh of heartwarming news. We are only an averagely sporty family, but these Olympics made us all happier. Across the media, there’s been a mild controversy about whether the remarkable achievements of Team GB say anything bigger about Britain — ‘We always punch above our weight’ — or very little; ‘Sport is sport and only sport, and that’s why we like it.’ But of course there are wider lessons. First, there was real, big long-term investment provided by the National Lottery and the foresight of Sir John Major.

Celebrations of song and humanity

‘All my life, always and in every way, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation.’ Ask any musician for a one-sentence summary of Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and they will probably tell you that he is Hungary’s national composer — a musical modernist who passionately championed his nation’s folk music tradition. David Cooper’s new biography seeks both to enrich and complicate that statement, questioning the definition of musical ‘nationalism’ in a country of such pronounced ethnic heterogeneity, at a time when borders were being drawn and redrawn, peoples created and destroyed, across Europe. The portrait that emerges is of no mindless patriot, celebrating his nation

It’s Nato that’s empire-building, not Putin

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Peter Hitchens and Ben Judah debate Putin’s empire building” startat=33] Listen [/audioplayer]Just for once, let us try this argument with an open mind, employing arithmetic and geography and going easy on the adjectives. Two great land powers face each other. One of these powers, Russia, has given up control over 700,000 square miles of valuable territory. The other, the European Union, has gained control over 400,000 of those square miles. Which of these powers is expanding? There remain 300,000 neutral square miles between the two, mostly in Ukraine. From Moscow’s point of view, this is already a grievous, irretrievable loss. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the canniest of

National Theatre’s 3 Winters: a hideous Balkans ballyhoo

A masterpiece at the National. A masterpiece of persuasion and bewitchment. Croatian word-athlete Tena Stivicic has miraculously convinced director Howard Davies that she can write epic historical theatre. And Davies has transmitted his gullibility to Nicholas Hytner, who must have OK’d this blizzard of verbiage rather than converting it into biofuel and sparing us a hideous Balkans ballyhoo. Certainly the play is conceived on a grand scale. Location: a Zagreb mansion. Timeline: 1945 to 2011. Characters: several generations of clever proles plus one dangling aristo. It opens on a note of sourness and corruption. A blonde Marxist stunnah seduces a top commissar who buys her off with the freehold to

World Cup diary: Was the ref playing for Brazil?

Suspicions that FIFA is an organisation given, occasionally, to a bit of corruption will not have been allayed by the first match of the 2014 World Cup. Brazil won with two goals from a player who should have been sent off, including a penalty which clearly wasn’t a penalty, while Croatia had a perfectly good goal disallowed and were denied a rather more clear cut penalty themselves. Incidentally, I say “Brazil” – and so do ITV. So do FIFA. And so does the OED, Wikipedia and Google. But not the BBC. The BBC says “Brasil”. Of course it does.

I don’t think it’s over in the Balkans

I returned last week from a short break in the Balkans; travelling by train in Serbia, walking from village to village over the mountains of northern Albania, an evening in a big Albanian town, a couple of journeys in Montenegro and a very short time in Croatia… so only a taste; nothing that makes me a Balkan expert; just a sniff of how things are. On that flimsy evidence, here’s a guess. I don’t think it’s over in the Balkans. Things don’t feel settled, don’t feel real. There’s an amazing railway from the Serbian capital of Belgrade to Podgorica, formerly Titograd and now the capital of Montenegro. In nearly 12

Welcome, Croatia

Croatia’s EU referendum was overwhelming — more than two-thirds of voters favoured the young state’s accession to the European Union. This is an important moment. For it shows that another part of Yugoslavia is intent on leaving its violent past behind and move into the European mainstream. Croatia and its newly-elected government still faces many problems — corruption, judicial favouritism and xenophobia among them — but the journey to a milder and more moderate society can now continue.   When Croatia accedes to the EU, probably next year, it will be an example to those states in the Balkans, like Bosnia, Albania and Serbia, that wish to join the EU

Crimes committed in a just cause

Last week, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found former Croatian General Ante Gotovina and a fellow officer, Mladen Markac, guilty of war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars. The news has been greeted with dismay in Croatia. Tens of thousands of war veterans and citizens rallied under the slogan “For the Country” in Zagreb’s main square, Trg Bana Jelacica, over the weekend to express their outrage against the verdicts. The Croatian government has followed suit, calling the verdict “unacceptable” and vowing to “do everything in our power to change it.” The verdicts are understandably difficult for some Croats to bear. Their struggle for independence against Serbia has,

Plucky Little Balkans

Many thanks to Christopher Snowden for alerting me to this little piece by Euan Ferguson in the Observer today. It begins with this photograph: Photo: Nikola Solic/Reuters As Euan says, only one small detail gives this photo any glamour at all: A whirl of tutus in a Zagreb cafe-bar during a break in ballet rehearsals: poise, and skin, and fabulous discs of swan-white tuile, and yet what are our eyes drawn towards? Exactly. A little paper tube, being happily smoked. The smell will be of black Balkan tobacco, yes; but it is also the smell of rebellion and the first successful example of people-power since the idea of smoking bans