Croatia has adopted the euro and joined the European Union’s borderless Schengen zone, two steps that its prime minister said represented a historic moment.
“Nothing is the same after this,” said Andrej Plenković, promising that joining the euro would better protect Croatians from financial crises, and joining the Schengen zone would make traveling easier and boost tourism.
Croatia became the 20th eurozone country on Sunday, at a time when inflation is high across Europe after rising food and fuel prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It is the season of new beginnings. And there is no place in Europe where this is more true than here in Croatia,” tweeted the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, as she arrived in Croatia to mark the occasion on Sunday.
Croatian politicians said the currency adoption and the removal of borders with neighboring Slovenia and Hungary were symbolic steps that marked the end point of the country’s post-independence journey.
“We opened our doors to borderless Europe. This goes beyond eliminating border controls, it is the final affirmation of our European identity,” said the interior minister, Davor Bozinović, who was at the Bregana border crossing with Slovenia to celebrate the end of passport checks.
Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and fought a war to cement its existence as an independent state, in which 20,000 were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Croatia was the most recent country to join the EU, in 2013. Slovenia joined in 2004, while the other parts of the former Yugoslavia – Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – are still in the early stages of negotiations over accession.
While some Croatians expressed fears that the switch to euros could lead to price increases, the general mood in the country was celebratory.
“Fantastic! Phenomenal!” ran a headline in the newspaper Večernji list, quoting travelers who used the border on New Year’s Day.
Some people had traveled to the border with Slovenia in the first hours of the new year to watch a small piece of history in real time.
“I spent years of my life waiting at border checkpoints, so I came here tonight to witness this moment, the moment after which I will wait no more,” Stipica Mandić, a 72-year-old professional driver, told Associated Press at the Bergana crossing. He had left a New Year’s Eve party and drove to the crossing to be there at the moment the checks ended.
A new sign at the border announces “free passage” in English, German, Slovenian and Croatian.
In Zagreb, Plenković treated Von der Leyen to a coffee on the city’s main square, paid for in euros.
“Our citizens and the economy will be better protected from crises,” he said.
Experts say the adoption of the euro will help protect Croatia’s economy at a time when inflation is soaring worldwide. The country’s new euro coins feature designs including the map of Croatia and the inventor Nikola Tesla.
The euro was already widely used in Croatia, with about 80% of bank deposits denominated in the currency and shops and restaurants in tourist areas accepting payment in euros.
“The euro was already a value measure – psychologically it’s nothing new – while entry into Schengen is fantastic news for tourism,” a tourism agency employee, Marko Pavić, told Agence France-Presse.
Analysts say joining the euro is likely to improve borrowing conditions in Croatia, pointing out that inflation in recent months has tended to be higher in EU countries, such as Poland and Hungary, which are outside the eurozone. Croatia’s inflation rate was 13.5% in November, higher than the 10% in the eurozone.
The tourism industry accounts for 20% of Croatia’s GDP, and the adoption of the euro as well as the end of land border controls with Slovenia and Hungary are expected to provide a boost to tourists heading to the country’s popular Adriatic coastline this year.
Croatia becomes the 27th member of the Schengen zone, made up of EU countries as well as Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
For some years, rights groups have criticized Croatian authorities for illegal pushbacks of refugees and migrants at the country’s border with Bosnia, with police accused of violence and abuse.
In a report last month, Human Rights Watch accused European agencies of turning a blind eye to, or even encouraging, such behavior in Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, all countries which have been keen for some years to join the Schengen zone.
“The EU Commission’s funding of border management in these countries enables continuing abuses,” said the report.
Last month, when agreeing to accept Croatia into the Schengen zone, a meeting of EU interior ministers rejected applications from Romania and Bulgaria. Austria and the Netherlands voted against the two countries, citing concerns that they were too soft on migration.