In recent months large numbers of Ukrainians braved first the cold, and then snipers, protesting and waving the blue star-spangled flag of Europe. This has angered leaders in the Kremlin and triggered the dramatic crisis over Crimea. It also left many in the EU confused how to respond. Should the EU, or future Ukrainian governments, withdraw their commitment to association and deeper integration in order to placate a grim and threatening Russia? Is Ukraine’s still undefined “European perspective” worth the risk of offending Russia?
In fact, by defending their right to ratify an Association Agreement with the EU – and the prospect for deeper integration in the future – Ukrainians kept open the single most promising path for a poor country like theirs to change their fate. Here is why.
Leave aside for one moment geopolitics. Focus on the situation of ordinary citizens, the lives of average households living between Lviv and Kharkiv. The most basic fact about Ukraine is that it is poor. In fact, Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe; only Moldova, Georgia and Armenia are poorer. The Gross National Income per head in Ukraine is lower today than it is in Kosovo, which is the poorest country in the Balkans. See the table below:
Poverty gap: EU, Balkans and Ukraine
Gross National Income per head, current US$ at market exchange rate 2012
European Union (28 countries) Turkey Bulgaria (poorest EU member) Macedonia Kosovo Ukraine Georgia Moldova
Now look at the table below. It shows the forty-six richest countries in the world in 2012. The measure of wealth used here is Gross National Income per head (at market exchange rates, taking the average exchange rate over three years), using data published by the World Bank.
To be rich or poor is, of course, a matter of comparison. Here – following the example of Oxford economist John Kay – I take as a reference point the richest country in the world and consider countries to be prosperous if they have at least one eighth the Gross National Income per head of the frontrunner. In 2012 the richest country in the world was Norway, followed by Switzerland and Denmark.
Table 1: The world’s richest countries in 2012
Gross National Income per head, current US$ at market exchange rate
GNI per head between one half and
one quarter of Norway
GNI per head between one quarter and
one eighth of Norway
Netherlands Japan Austria Singapore Finland
Belgium Germany Kuwait (2010) France
United Kingdom Hong Kong SAR, China
United Arab Emirates (2011) Italy New Zealand (2011) Spain Israel (2011) Cyprus
A few things are remarkable in this list. First, most of the forty-six countries were already prosperous half a century ago (North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia). The biggest exception to this is a group of petro-states (Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain).
Most emerging economies are not yet members of this club: not China, not Brazil, not India, not Turkey. Russia barely makes the list. Becoming prosperous relative to traditionally wealthy countries is very hard. It takes decades of stable growth. Still only a minority of the world’s population lives in these prosperous states: in 2012 about 1.3 billion people, out of an estimated global population of 7 billion.
Second, note all the countries highlighted in bold in the list above. They are the members of the European Union: twenty-four of forty-six countries! Luxembourg and Malta (not included in this table because they have less than 1 million inhabitants), would also qualify as rich. This means that all but two of the members of the enlarged EU of twenty-eight are currently members of the club of the world’s rich countries. There are only two exceptions: Bulgaria and Romania. If the past is any guide, one should expect these two countries to join the club of the rich within another decade.
Third, the most promising strategy to become part of this exclusive club is to make the effort to join the European Union. To see this, compare the above 2012 list of the world’s richest countries with that of 2002 below. This list contains forty-one countries, home to 1.1 billion people.
In the decade between 2002 and 2012, Mexico and Lebanon fell out of the list of the prosperous. And only seven newcomers broke through: two petrol states (Russia, Venezuela); Chile; and four European countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
In 2002 thirteen of the forty-one richest countries in the world were members of the EU. Even then, many of the newcomers, countries that appeared among the rich for the first time in 2002, had focused for years on joining the EU.
Table 2: The world’s richest countries in 2002
Gross National Income per head, current US$ at market exchange rate
United Arab Emirates Denmark Sweden United Kingdom Netherlands
Hong Kong SAR, China Finland Austria Ireland Belgium Germany
Fifth, once an EU member joins the club of rich nations it remains there, despite severe crises later. Portugal, Spain, Greece remain in the club of the prosperous top forty. Other countries, which are on their own, such as Mexico or Argentina, have dropped out of the list.
Take the case of Greece. Its recent economic plight has been seen by some as evidence of the limits of the European Union’s ability to bring about convergence.
Here is the story of the Greek economy, seen through Gross National Income per head since 1980 (Greece joined the EU in 1981). Greece’s GNI dropped in the first years after accession, then grew sharply, most spectacularly after 2000. Between 2010 and 2012 it dropped again: but this is still (despite the obvious hardship) a crisis in a country that has remained one of the most prosperous in the world (and the richest in the Balkans by far).
Historically, rich countries have formed contiguous geographical blocks. This remains true. Growth spreads through intense contact and exchange between neighbours. Of course, proximity alone is not enough: policies and institutions must allow for integration, as common standards facilitate beneficial exchange (in EU jargon the adoption of the so-called “European acquis”). Integration also encourages mutual learning and economic interaction.
These tables have strong implications for enlargement policy. The protestors on Maidan, Kiev’s central square, were right: the most promising strategy for ordinary Ukrainians to live a better life is not to stay on the sidelines or to look East, as they had done since gaining independence in 1991, but to integrate with their Western neighbours.
EU integration is not a magic wand. In the case of Greece it has taken a generation to become prosperous. EU integration also does not prevent future crises. But as a generational strategy to catch up it has worked, again and again, for countries from the Atlantic coast to the Baltic Sea. This is because it is a process based on openness and on meeting standards, on learning from the most successful economies in the world and on receiving feedback from them.
Ukrainians, like Finns or Austrians during the Cold War, might well decide to remain neutral in terms of military alliances. NATO is also unlikely to offer Ukraine the kind of security guarantee it has offered to the Baltic States. However, no one interested in the welfare and long-term stability of the Ukrainian people can expect them to renounce the possibility to follow in the path of Poland or the Baltic states when it comes to EU integration. This also holds true for Moldovans and Georgians.
This is not a matter of geopolitics, spheres of influence, or the prestige of leaders: it is about better lives for millions of households. No one can legitimately ask Ukrainians, Moldovans, and Georgians to give up their European perspective just to please the Kremlin. It would be far too big a sacrifice, with consequences for the next generation.
This article is part of a research project on the future of Europe funded by ERSTE Stiftung in Vienna.
The inspiration for the tables above came from Oxford economist John Kay, one of the leading economists in the United Kingdom. His website: www.johnkay.com. I also strongly recommend his book The truth about Markets for a stimulating introduction to modern economics for non-economists: www.johnkay.com/books.
 These tables omit countries whose population falls under 1 million people: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Bermuda, Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus in 2002 (but not in 2012), Equatorial Guinea, Greenland, Iceland, The Isle of Man, Malta, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao SAR (China), Malta, Palau, San Marino, Seychelles, St. Kitts and Nevis. These tables also omit Qatar; although it has a population of over 1 million and its GNI per head in 2011 was 76,010. However, the World Bank has no GNI per head figures for Qatar for either 2002 or 2012.
 Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators: Size of the economy (population data for 2012) http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/1.1
These publications were followed by many reactions.
A number of EU foreign ministers wrote to me to say that they fully agreed with the arguments. So did senior staff in the European Commission. So did senior diplomats in a number of EU member states. There have been a lot of Media reactions.
We argued that given other priorities facing Bosnia – social and economic reform being primary – focusing on this issue to the exclusion of almost everything else was simply not a good use of the time of the country’s leading politicians. Nor did it make sense to step into the fray in the way this had been done by the European Commission.
Since we published our reports the debate has started to move, but only very slowly.
Doubts among EU member states have grown.
The European Commission has since given up trying to mediate (we suggested this already in October, arguing that it was extremely unlikely to succeed).
We learned that lawyers working for the Council of Europe were asked to check whether our arguments were legally sound, and that they concluded – internally- that they were.
However, until today Bosnia remains stuck, held hostage by this condition.
In our first report we gave three reasons why we believed that the Commission was not treating Bosnia fairly. We believe they are still valid 5 months later:
This is not an issue of institutional “racism”. Apartheid South Africa had a racist electoral system. Bosnia does not. Neither does Belgium or South Tyrol, although in both countries legislation requires citizens to declare a community affiliation for certain purposes, similar to Bosnia. However, only in Bosnia is the ethnicity of any individual not defined in official documents. By leaving it up to any individual to determine how to self-identify – and allowing any individual to change this self-identification in the future – the Bosnian system is more liberal than either Belgium’s or South Tyrol’s. Unlike in Cyprus, it is also not tied to any objective criteria such as religion or the ethnicity of parents. In fact, in 2004 the EU endorsed community-based voting and praised the UN Annan plan for Cyprus based on the very principles that Bosnia’s constitution embraces.
Bosnia is not violating fundamental human rights.
The issue at stake in the election of the Bosnian presidency – the most complicated issue to resolve – is not a violation of any rights enumerated by the European Convention on Human Rights itself. It is a violation of Protocol 12 of the Convention, which extends the applicability of non-discrimination from “the rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention” to “any right set forth by law”. This protocol has so far been ratified by only 8 out of 28 EU member states.
This is not an issue of Bosnia systematically violating its international obligations. Bosnia’s record implementing European Court of Human Rights’ decisions is better than that of most current EU members.
For all these reasons, we noted, non-implementation of the Sejdic-Finci decision cannot justify blocking Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for EU membership. The very reforms that the EU expects from Bosnia have not been asked of other EU applicants, much less of its own member states.
Interestingly, our arguments were also taken seriously by another think tank focusing on Bosnia, DPC, which published a whole paper to address the arguments we made.
The title of the DPC paper is a bit complicated: “Legal Misunderstandings, False normative Hopes and the Ignorance of Political Reality – A Commentary on the recent ESI Report “Lost in the Bosnian Labyrinth”.
It is clear what is being meant: ESI got it wrong. However, if this was easy to understand, the same could not be said for the rest of the argument (found here: http://democratizationpolicy.org/uimages/DPCPolicyNoteNewseriesSejdicFinci.pdf).
So I sent an email to DPC on 20 November 2013 to take our mutual understanding of the issues one step further. Here it is:
I just read the DPC paper on our ESI paper on Sejdic Finci.
It is flattering to have a whole policy paper devoted to our paper, but there are some arguments in the text which are perhaps not totally convincing?
I quote a few passages and make a few remarks, wondering what you think.
1. “the paper appears to be an effort to provide an ideological framework for the EU to move beyond its continuing failures in BiH that have enabled local politicians to undo many of the highly-touted reforms put in place prior to 2006, when the EU assumed policy leadership.”
This is puzzling. The author first appears to argue that the EU has failed since 2006, and that our paper provides an “ideological framework” to “move beyond its continuing failures” .. but then he implies that this is bad? How can moving “beyond failure” be a bad thing? And what is an ideological framework here?
(Which “highly-touted” reforms have been undone? This is never explained, just stated.)
2. “ESI compares this case to voting and selection processes in other EU member states, including Belgium, Italy (South Tyrol) and Cyprus, and concludes that similar provisions (sometimes even stricter) are also applied in other EU member states. These states however, are not sanctioned by the EU. Legally speaking, this assessment is correct. However, the devil is in the details.”
If this is “legally speaking correct” – here we agree – how can “details” make it legally incorrect? Or is it “legally correct” but “politically incorrect”? How can that be?
3. “while the Belgian and the South Tyrolean examples also demonstrate some form of discrimination, it is nevertheless a form of positive discrimination. The aim of the power-sharing arrangements in both countries is to allow for minority groups to participate in decision-making. Hence, the legal framework has to be understood in the context of the intended aims of power-sharing mechanisms. In the case of Brussels, it is a mechanism to engage Flemish speakers in the officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking city, and in the case of South Tyrol it gives representation to German and Ladin speakers.”
How is this different from Bosnia where there is a Croat minority?
We note that all the current debates to find a solution to Sejdic Finci turn on how to help the Croats ensure that they can elect “their representative”. Is this so different from Belgium?
Note also that there are many other minorities, including the constituent (in Belgium) group of Germans or other EU residents in South Tyrol, who, in order to participate in some functions, have to declare that they belong to one of the categories presented to them. How is this different from Bosnia?
4. “A political system that is characterized by ethnically exclusive parties does not allow for flexibility.”
This is also puzzling, given that in Belgium all parties are either Flemish or Walloon, and in Bosnia, by contrast, Komsic was elected on the SDP ticket twice. A man from Ghana was the “Croat” ambassador in Japan for Bosnia. Sven Alkalaj, a Croatian citizen and Jew was also member of the government for a (Bosniac or Bosnian?) party. How then can Bosnia be considered less flexible than Belgium?
5. “. What ESI basically suggests is that EU’s conditionality, in particular the ocus on fundamental human rights, should not apply to BiH at this stage”
Where did we suggest this? Which “fundamental human right” should not apply?
6. “The Republika Srpska’s calls for secession have become louder, while Croats undermine the current constitutional framework with their demand for a de facto or de jure third entity. No reform that involves the current elites within the current framework will be able to cure these problems.”
How is this related to Sejdic-Finci? Here it seems that the RS is not the problem (and not even involved in the most recent rounds of talks). The solution that is likely to emerge in the end, and which would address the ECHR’s judgement, could well end up creating a Croat de facto electoral district in the Federation, no? Is this then good or bad?
And if it were true the current elites cannot solve this problem, what should happen instead? It is after all the current elites that are negotiating Sejdic-Finci implementation since 3 years. If they cannot agree and will not agree then everything just stays as it is now. Is this a solution?
7. “But this also means that the unwillingness to reform must be penalised and that Bosnian elites should be punished for non-compliance”
Who is to be punished over Sejdic Finci? Every party has made a proposal, and each proposal meets the conditions by the ECtHR … it is just that they cannot agree among each other on the one proposal to chose. Should all be punished now?
In short, we understand that there may be disagreements on how important Sejdic Finci is, but the irony is that a deal that might satisfy the EU and the ECtHR and that is actually in sight is one that makes the election of someone like Komsic less, not more, likely. Is this progress in your view?
And if any one of the proposals on the table now IS chosen in the end … would Bosnia”s constitutional or other problems of governance be solved in any meaningful way?
Was this worth the time and effort and resources spent on it for three years now? We doubt this. But if this is not worth it … why continue the current policy, where this has become the number one issue discussed by Bosnian leaders?
Thanks again for taking our paper seriously and taking the time to discuss it in detail, best wishes ,
I received a very polite response within a few days, promising some answers eventually. Since then I have not heard anything. Perhaps the responses will still come.
In the meantime we can just wait until all those in the EU – and inside the European Commission – who know that the current policy is counterproductive begin to speak out in public.
In October 1935 the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. In the same month the Abyssinians appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League condemned the attack. All League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy. Then all resolve faltered.
Sanctions were half-hearted. They did not include vital materials such as oil. Britain kept open the Suez Canal, crucial as Italy supplied her armed forces. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister met and presented a plan that gave large areas of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini accepted the plan.
The League’s involvement was a total failure.The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was replaced by the king of Italy. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia became Italian East Africa. The League of Nations was a corpse even before it perished. It had no more legitimacy.
The Crimea crisis and events in Ukraine today pose a similar threat to the credibility of other European organisations … created, like the League, in the wake of a devastating war with high hopes of launching a new era. And one organisation already in the crosshair of the dictator’s assault, already reeling, which Russia was able to join under false pretext and then proceeded to capture with the support of other autocrats in the East and accomplices from the West is the Council of Europe.
Until a few weeks ago one could fear that the Azerbaijani presidency of the Council of Europe, set to begin a few weeks from now in Strasbourg, would mark the low-point in the history of this once proud organisation. And one might have hoped that, perhaps, it was still possible that the sight of a dictator at the helm of this club of democracies might produce a long overdue shock; wake up democrats across Europe, to pay attention to an institution once created to embody the values of post-war Europe (stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) and recently captured by autocrats from Europe’s east.
Until a few weeks ago I thought there was time to rescue these institutions. Certainly, that it was worth it Today there is good cause to wonder whether the Abyssinia moment has not now also come for Strasbourg.
Unless the Council of Europe reacts to the dramatic illegal occupation of one member state by another member state; unless PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – issues a strong and unequivocal declaration; unless member states in the Committee of Ministers now take effective actions against Russia; it is hard to see how this “spiritual union” of European democracies can survive as more than a bureaucratic corpse.
It is not hard to envisage a future for the OSCE in this new, harsher, Europe: it will return to being a forum for debates between dictatorships and democracies, similar to the CSCE after the Helsinki Accords were ratified in the 1970s. It has long been obvious that countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia or Azerbaijan are not democracies. The notion that they should participate in setting high standards for European democracies – which need these standards as much now as ever – debases everyone. Instead let diplomats meet in Vienna and talk (and exchange insults) about peace and common interests. Such a forum is useful as long as it does not serve to legitimize dictatorial rule as “democratic.”
The same is not true for the Council of Europe. Between the OSCE and the EU it has no future if it does not credibly defend the highest values of democracy. The demise of its credibility creates a void that also needs to be filled: most probably by the European Union, now called upon to define its own human rights acquis more explicitly.
The EU should make human rights central to its association agreements. It should spell out its “political criteria” much clearer, both for accession candidates and for its own members. It should find ways to cooperate with other genuine democracies, from Switzerland to Norway to Moldova in the East.
Of course it would be preferable to preserve the Council of Europe and see dictators such as Putin and Aliyev censured instead, until their countries change their ways. But this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead we will have an Azerbaijani presidency and not even symbolic sanctions against Russia after its aggression.
The Palace of Europe in Strasbourg
It is hard to see is how the Council of Europe can function much longer as a hostage of dictatorial and aggressive members. They pay an important share of its budget. They are bent on destroying the values it once stood for. And for some time now they have imposed their vision of the world with impunity.
It should also be noted that there would still be a lot worth rescuing from the burning house of the Palace of Europe, the Council of Europe’s headquarter in Strasbourg. Conventions, agreements, commissions, initiatives (such as the Venice Commission), all serving their members , all worthy of being preserved … but outside of the clutch of dictators. (The same is less obvious in the case of PACE, which appears increasingly superfluous next to the European Parliament on the one hand and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on the other).
The thread does not stop here, unfortunately. Other proud institutions might soon face a similar challenge: one is the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It has so far stood up, valiantly, to pressure from the East over its professional work on election monitoring. Why would Putin or Aliyev want credible election observation any more than rulers in Tashkent or Minsk? It is fighting tough battles over its budget. It soon faces a crucial choice over its future leadership. ODIHR’s independence and professionalism must be defended at all costs. In fact, should ODIHR be at risk of losing its credibility as a result of an ongoing Russian and Azerbaijani campaign, or should it be paralysed – then the EU and democracies like Switzerland should stand ready to fund it directly. To rescue valuable experience. To preserve it as the preeminent European election monitoring organisation, open to other European democracies.
It now seems only a matter of months before post-Maidan Europe will see a broader debate on the institutional architecture needed to preserve core values and safeguard the lessons from the 1930s and 40s. And we had better prepare for it. For it now seems increasingly likely that Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine might have a similar effect on European institutions as Mussolini’s troops had when they embarked on their aggression in East Africa many decades ago.
Council of Europe
ESI background analysis: how the Council of Europe is losing credibility