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Zadar: One Square Mile of Croatia

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Media captionZadar - "the perfect place to ponder Croatia's future"

For One Square Mile, Paddy O'Connell visits Zadar, an ancient walled city by the sea, to test hopes and fears as Croatia prepares to join the European Union.

For thousands of years, fishermen have set off from Zadar for the rich harvest of the Adriatic Sea.

There, bobbing on the channel in front of me, was a small boat doing exactly the same in 2013.

I waved and beckoned the skipper over. I hoped simple human curiosity would catch me a ride in a fishing boat.

Sure enough, as the spring sunshine flickered across the waves, the bow of the open white dinghy turned towards me.

Fishy business

"Would you take me round the walled city from the sea?" I asked, with help from Damir - our guide and producer - and about 20 euros (£17: $26).

Within moments I was afloat - the perfect place to ponder Croatia's future.

This country is about to become the 28th member of the EU, despite some stormy seas for the Union.

Listening to all the people I met, there are echoes of the hopes and the fears with which the whole European project began after World War II.

Just 20 years ago, the bitter war in the Balkans saw Zadar shelled and under siege from Serbian forces.

Drazen Gregurevic, now the deputy mayor, was a doctor in the city treating the wounded.

"People learn how to appreciate peace," he told me. "Croatian people know that the European Union is the guarantee for that peace."

But this latest EU entry was delayed because Brussels wanted more progress on sorting out a border dispute with neighbouring Slovenia - another former Yugoslav republic - and on hunting down alleged war criminals.

"It's important that people know the history of the Balkan war, and who the aggressors were, but we can still trade with them now, it's the only way," Mr Gregurevic says.

Over in the fish market, they're not so sure. Branka Cur and her family have been selling what they've caught for 30 years.

"I think [EU entry in] July will bring problems. Everything is open," she says gesturing at the beautiful fresh sardines and octopus. "I don't know, I'm not in the government, but we must protect our fish from other countries."

Buffeted down the ages

Complicated and contested EU rules allow fishing across the seas of member states. It is one of the principles of open markets, but with declining stocks, it is one of the examples of stress among the members.

But, with the sharing of some national rights comes the freedom to move across the other states to seek work or markets in return.

I spoke to Valerija Lenarcic, a student in the town.

"Croatia's much more than a place for tourists. We have potential that even we don't know ourselves, and the EU can help us find it out," she says.

It is time to brush up my history, because for thousands of years this country has been pulled between a fierce spirit of independence and the much larger empires that have governed Europe.

Arriving in a small bookshop I get out the maps in the history books. The Romans were here, the Venetian State governed what is now the Croatian coast with those fishing stocks, and even the Christian Crusaders even took the town on their way to the Holy Land.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled here for years and after 1945 came the Federation of Yugoslavia.

"The idea of political co-operation and sharing is beautiful," says Sandra Petricic, who came back here when the city was under siege in the early 1990s to seek her parents.

"Communism was a marvellous idea too, but we are only humans. In this time of recession in the EU, I'm not so optimistic," she says.

'Playing the triangle'

Because just as the 27 countries of the European Union face an economic crisis which has threatened political stability in some member states, it is amazing to think that Croatia is about to join.

The architects of the whole EU project came together after two calamitous wars in Europe in just 40 years. The hopes and fears that I heard in Zadar have echoes of those early blueprints for the EU.

The Europeans have tried war and division and that didn't work. So, they turned to trade and co-operation. But the stresses still show and that fight is back on between hope and fear.

Back on the Adriatic sea, bobbing on that white dingy on the blue waters, it is hard not to think of all that history, and all the current arguments within the EU and think that Croatians who are about to link up with all the other countries must be thinking ,"here we go again".

For Nikola Brasic, the architect of Zadar's Sea Organ - a seafront sculpture that uses waves to make sound - it is like orchestra playing together.

"Once as a federation we were second violin, and we weren't content with that position. I'm worried that the Croatian note won't be heard enough, and we'll end up playing the triangle," he says.

Like so many foreigners who have come to Zadar, I am sure I must come back to seek fresh answers and fresh inspiration by the sea.