The sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the NATO treaty in Washington in 1949 is now upon us. The organisation designed, in the words of Lord Ismay, its first Secretary General, to "keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down" has been a considerable success.
To mark the occasion, the two states that fought three wars within sixty years, France and Germany, are co-hosting the anniversary summit and inevitably the contrast between the last sixty years of general peace and the previous sixty years of horrific bloodshed will be a great part of the symbolism of the meeting.
However, there are two items of substantive business on the agenda and yet they too will be occasions of great rejoicing. On Monday the flags of two new member states will be raised outside NATO headquarters in Brussels after the formal ratification and acceptance of Albania and Croatia as NATO member states.
I have worked closely with the government in Albania and have visited the country several times. During my visits, I have been astonished at the dramatic, one might almost say "headlong" modernisation of a country that has had such a dark history. The cruelties of the insane and brutal dictatorship of Enver Hoxha were exceptional even in the annals of the crimes of Stalinism. To see such a state emerge as a vibrant, dynamic young democracy, despite many setbacks along the way, has been one of the most moving changes since the miraculously peaceful fall of Communism. Personally, as the Albanian black eagle rises to take its place with the other flags of the NATO states I hope that the old murderer Hoxha is spinning in his grave.
Yet it will be the raising of the Shahovnica- the "checkerboard"- flag of Croatia that will give me particular pleasure. I first began to work closely in Croatia when I was working with UBS in the early-mid 1990s. At that time, despite the ongoing military conflict, we were preparing the privatisation of the well known pharmaceutical company Pliva. At that time, and even for some years after the end of the war in June 1995, there were many signs with strict instructions as to what to do in the event of an air raid or enemy attack against Zagreb. Even on a pleasant late evening stroll taking the air in the bars of Tkalciceva street, the shortness of the hair of the young men reminded you that this was a City that had quite recently come within range of enemy artillery and that Zagreb had indeed faced attack.
The listing of Pliva on the London and Zagreb stock exchanges in April 1996 was an extraordinary success. I was proud to be part of the team that received deal of the year for this pioneer transaction. Shortly afterward we also led the first listing of Zagrebacka banka, and as the then chairman of the ZSE said to me at the time, "as far as financing in Croatia is concerned we can say that there are only two phases of market development: before Pliva, when we had no market, and after Pliva, when we did". Over the past years I have worked closely with several of the banks in the country and made a very large number of friends across a wide spectrum of activity, from business to politics, from culture to sailing. I have been able to pick up an understanding of Croatian and an appreciation for the determination and sense of humour of the Croatian people.
Since the election of President Stjepan Mesic- universally known as "Stipe", Steve- Croatia has been able to move away from the difficult times that marked the rebirth of the country. His relaxed and informal style reflects very well the laid back Croatian view of life. The President has proven a jovial foil to the more intense and serious approach of the Prime Minister, Ivo Senader. Despite the inevitable tensions of belonging to to two differing political parties, the Croatian Head of State and Head of Government have proven to be a highly effective lobbying team in their quest to gain NATO and EU membership for the country.
Despite this, it still seemed at one point that Slovenia might not be able to overlook the ongoing technical disputes between the two countries arising from the disruption of the former Yugoslav Federation that are only slowing being addressed. Yet in the end the generally friendly relations between Ljubljana and Zagreb overcame the problems. Sadly this contrasts sharply with the continuing disputes between Greece and Macedonia which has led to the Greeks maintaining their veto over Macedonian entry into NATO.
Although I see Croatian membership of NATO is a valuable thing in itself, since it will help the alliance reach out to the less stable parts of the Western Balkan region, it is fair to say that the non aligned and pacificist traditions the country also makes membership controversial. Although in many ways NATO membership is recognition that Croatia is a fully democratic state and an equal partner in the Euro-Atlantic partnership, there remain many in Zagreb who would prefer that the country stay non-aligned. Yet NATO,increasingly is also the defence counterpart of a prize that is far more widely supported in Croatia: membership of the European Union.
As I write the EU member states and Croatia have closed seven chapters of the thirty-five chapter treaty, while fifteen chapters are open and under discussion. Eleven chapters are being screened and the final two will await the completion of the others. Progress has been steady, but not spectacular and the original hope for entry in 2010 does now seem to have slipped to 2011.
In any event, it is quite clear that Croatia is well on track for EU entry, and the EU should gain its twenty eighth member state pretty soon (possibly at the same time as its twenty ninth member, should Iceland decide to apply to join the EU later this year and be accepted for fast track entry).
Of course Croatia will benefit from EU entry, but I can't help feeling that the European Union, as with NATO, will also gain from the deal. The ever growing stability of Croatia will help in turn to stabilise the position in the countries further south. Furthermore, Croatia brings a long history of contacts with the non-aligned world, the very history that makes NATO membership controversial, but can still help promote European values and interests in such places as Libya and Indonesia.
As the flag rises in Brussels on Monday, the renewed alliance has much to look forward to, but for me and I suspect for many others, it will be a moment of satisfaction as Croatia and indeed Albania takes a further positive step towards the future.