They are the two most memorable words for texts that are best forgotten: Gibberish and Gobbledygook.
“Gibberish or gobbledygook refer to speech or other use of language that is nonsense, or that appears to be nonsense. It may include speech sounds that are not actual words, or forms such as language games or highly specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.” (Wikipedia)
As Glenn Seaborg explained one theory in 1980 in “Our heritage of the elements”:
“… gibberish comes from the name of the famous 8th-century Islamic alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān, whose name was Latinized as “Geber”, thus the term “gibberish” arose as a reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon often used by Jabir and other alchemists who followed.”
Jabir ibn Hayyan alias Geber
There is no particular reason why texts about economic development should be either gibberish or gobbledygook. And yet, quite a lot of what was written by the European Commission on the economic development in the Balkans in recent years might qualify.
“The economic upturn throughout 2013 and the first quarter of 2014 came abruptly to a halt in the second quarter of 2014 mainly as a result of the heavy spring floods. Accordingly, GDP growth slipped into a negative territory by 0.5% y-o-y after expanding by 3.2% in the previous quarter. Going further, preliminary data for the third quarter released by the statistical agency indicate GDP growth to have marginally turned positive (0.6% y-o-y). Similarly, high-frequency indicators for July-October 2014 point towards a modest revival of economic activity with the country-wide industrial production up by 1% yo-y, before turning negative again in November. In particular, the mining and quarrying sector as well as the utility sector registered the largest output contraction y-o-y, -1% and 10.7%, respectively, while the manufacturing sector posted the largest output increase (4.4%). The slump of domestic demand in the second quarter of 2014 started to reverse in July September with the growth of retail sales speeding up by 2.1% y-o-y and even accelerate in October-November to 7.8% y-o-y, well above the expansion of 4.6% in 2013.”
Already at first glance this breaks the basic rule of writing well: the writer is making the reader work too hard.
At second glance, once one begins to analyse this paragraph, it turns out that its meaning is elusive … or, in plain language, this makes little sense. Read this once, twice, three times, and then ask yourself: what has been happening in the Bosnian real sector in 2014, compared to 2013? There was a flood, and the economy suffered: but what do all these quarterly variations add up to? (Note that this paragraph is all the quarterly report tells the reader about the Bosnian real sector in late 2014.)
“Consumer prices started declining in December 2014 (-0.5% y/y) and continued on a downward trajectory by February (-0.2% y/y). The decline in the price index was almost completely influenced by decreasing prices of transport and education. On the other hand, 65.7% of the CPI components have actually been increasing; most notably food 2.1% y/y, energy 7.4% y/y etc.”
The reader understands that 65.7 percent of the prices of the components of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) have increased (one assumes in February), and (one assumes) 34.3 percent of the prices have not. One learns that there have been (monthly) decreases in the “prices of education” in January and February 2015, though what that means is elusive. There is no explanation which costs of education are included in the Consumer Price Index. Or why any of this matters and to whom. And what the etc. at the end refers to.
The economic sections of progress reports, which the European Commission publishes every autumn to evaluate accession countries, have also been written by ECFIN. The following paragraph is from the 2013 annual report on Macedonia. It invites readers to meditate on the meaning of words and numbers:
“Fiscal discipline was relaxed in 2012, and the quality of public spending deteriorated further. The general government budget deficit reached 3.8%, thus overshooting even the revised deficit target, which the authorities had raised by 1 percentage point to 3.5% in autumn. Another budget rebalancing reduced mainly investment spending, due to severe revenue shortfalls. Total expenditure as share of GDP rose from 31% in 2011 to 34% in 2012, and is estimated to reach 35% in 2013. The primary government budget deficit rose to 3.1% of GDP in 2012, compared to 1.7% in 2011. Capital spending was almost unchanged in 2012 compared to 2011, at 12% of total expenditure, or just over 4% of GDP, projected to decline to 11.3% of total expenditure in 2013, or 3.9% of GDP. The share of social transfers in total expenditure declined slightly in 2012, to 44.7% from 45.2% a year earlier, and is projected to stay largely unchanged in 2013. As a share of GDP, social transfers increased somewhat, to 15% of GDP, up by 0.4 percentage points.”
This creates an illusion of meaning. The reader is offered fourteen facts:
General government deficit target (2012)
Revised general government deficit target (2012)
Actual general government deficit (2012)
2.5 per cent
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2011)
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2012)
Total expenditure as share of GDP (2013 expected)
Primary government budget deficit (2011)
Primary government budget deficit (2012)
Capital spending as share of total spending (2011)
Capital spending as share of total spending (2012)
Capital spending as share of total spending (2013)
12 percent (4 percent of GDP)
11.3 percent (3.9 percent of GDP)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2011)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2012)
Social transfers in total expenditure (2013 projected)
What does all of this mean? The reader learns that
Fiscal discipline was relaxed and that “the general government deficit grew more than expected”; (two ways to say the same thing)
The reason for this: a severe revenue shortfall.
In response to this shortfall the government REDUCED investment spending but “capital spending was unchanged.”
Meanwhile total government expenditure ROSE.
And the share of social transfers in expenditure DECLINED.
So what actually happened in Macedonia?
The government did not collect as many revenues as it had planned. It then reduced investment spending. Social transfers declined as a share of expenditure. Total government expenditure rose. What type of spending increase explains the remarkable increase (by 3 per cent of total GDP!) in government spending? On this, there is nothing. We learn that the “quality of public spending deteriorated further,” a point that is never explained.
Lucid writing on economics
During such meetings I also quoted positive examples of good writing. Oxford professor and FT columnist John Kay on markets. My friend Felix Martin on money. The Dutch Central Bank, describing the “faltering Dutch economy” in its 2012 annual report (page 15). You do not need a PhD in economics to understand the annual reports by the European Central Bank either:
“The economic and financial crisis has reduced euro area potential output via two main channels: lower investment and higher structural unemployment.
First, during the most severe phase of the crisis, investment rates declined considerably, with financing conditions, such as terms and availability of credit, worsening in particular. Increased economic and political uncertainty and an unfavourable economic outlook made it more difficult to assess investment projects and lowered the expected rate of return on investments. High indebtedness of non-financial corporations in some euro area countries also made deleveraging necessary, further reducing credit demand.
Second, the crisis has also led to an increase in short to medium-term structural unemployment rates, indicated by the rise in long-term unemployment and an increase in skill mismatches. The unemployment rate of low-skilled workers has increased more than that of high-skilled workers, largely because the crisis triggered a sectoral relocation in many euro area economies, in particular a shift away from the construction sector. As it may be difficult for low-skilled workers dismissed from one sector to find jobs in other sectors, and as their human capital progressively erodes with the duration of unemployment, structural unemployment rates may remain elevated for an extended period.”
(ECB, 2014 Annual Report, page 23).
Fortunately, during 2014 awareness of the problem posed by unclear writing on economic trends has increased in many EU policy circles. There is good reason to expect that future writing by the European Commission (and ECFIN) on the economies of accession countries will be less impenetrable. (It may also be worth considering a thorough reform – or even a discontinuation – of these quarterly reports: http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/db_indicators/cpaceq/index_en.htm)
PS: To add one useful example when it comes to writing about economic trends in the Balkans – certainly for the economic section in the next Kosovo progress report of the European Commission – look here:2015 Kosovo NERP.
Every organisation that is around for long enough develops its own jargon. One question that we in ESI ask ourselves often is whether a given draft “can be understood by a perceptive fourteen-year-old.” Does it meet the fourteen-year-old test?
The logic behind this is simple: whether we write about the Bosnian constitution, rural poverty, election monitoring, the furniture business in Turkey or the European statistical system, we try to communicate with people from many countries with different backgrounds. We imagine a group of readers consisting of a Bosnian minister, a Turkish journalist, an Italian diplomat and an American NGO activist. We assume that our readers are experts in their fields, experienced and pressed for time. We do, however, assume that they are as impatient with bad writing as we are.
A literate and curious fourteen-year-old already knows a lot about the world and is eager to learn more every day. What she is not yet familiar with is the jargon in any field. She is also likely to ask what a certain concept actually means when it is first encountered, whether “human capital”, “free and fair elections”, a “functioning market economy” or “annual GDP growth.” Or what the purpose of any text or discipline is.
Marc Bloch – great writer
In his book The Historian’s Craft Marc Bloch, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, put himself in the position of a father asked by his child: “What is the use of history?” And then he sets out to answer this simple but certainly not childish question in a book written while he was already part of the French resistance in 1942. (He was later arrested and shot by the Gestapo).
When the stakes are real, there is no time for any but important questions to be addressed. And to always aim, even if one falls short, for the elegance and simplicity of masters like Bloch.
To write in “Fourteenish” is thus to write for a broad audience of concerned readers; eager to learn but impatient; for readers interested in a wide variety of issues on which they cannot always be experts; for readers who always ask: “What is the point?”
As William Zinsser put it in his classic On Writing Well – required reading for anybody drafting policy papers – “writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say?” And writers must remember:
“In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article, because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours.”
One of the ambitions of this blog is to begin to “translate” policy papers on different issues, in particular texts on economic development and EU policy, into Fourteenish.
PS: If you come across any text – a policy paper or an academic report – which you believe deserves to be held up as an example of a particularly badly or well written text, please send it to email@example.com.
Sometimes you meet a person that is a force of nature. A person of convictions, with the modesty that comes from true charisma and the confidence that comes from not having to pretend. A person inspiring others by personal example, making words like engagement, citizenship and dignity shine in all their splendour. Somebody who makes you feel proud to belong to their generation. And who makes you wonder whether you are really doing enough yourself.
In recent weeks I felt this sense of awe working on old and new European dissidents. Meeting Khadija Ismayil and other human rights defenders from Azerbaijan, has this effect. So does rereading the writings of Havel, of the Russian Memorial generation of human rights defenders, of Adam Michnik and other Poles of his generation.
And so does meeting the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, to talk about what is possible in local politics at a moment of deep crisis. In a city shaped by decades of deep conservatism and fear of neighbours, from the Cold War to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and later. 72 years old, chain-smoking, with an ear-ring and tatoos, for decades a succesful entrepeneur, a recovered alcoholic, a long time civic and environmental activists, and now twice elected mayor of Greece’s second city.
I tell the tragic story of Soviet dissidents like Sergei Kovalev, who went to jail under Brezhnev, then became government human rights officials, and in 2014 face renewed pressure from their state. It is a tragic story with no happy end, with Russia like that fabled creature from Greek mythology, the Ouroboros: a snake that devours itself. Often history is like this. Too often.
Ouroboros – societies sometimes resemble this ancient creature,
Then I meet with Boutaris for an interview. This was already a rich and memorable Sunday. It only got better.
Boutaris explains the value of civic engagement, voluntarism and how he strives to make his city embrace a multiethnic past. He explains how even conservatives silently tell him that they approve of his open support for gay pride … though lack the courage to say so openly. He explains why opening to Turkey, Israel and Jews across the world is vital for his city, given its history. And why having a Holocaust museum (at a cost of an estimated 25 million Euro, the design has already been done) will be so important.
How he is happy to have a Durres Park in the city now, and hopes to build many more links with other Balkan cities. How reaching out to Izmir is vital – proposing to have “days of Izmir” in Thessaloniki, and “days of Thessaloniki” there. Why having a Muslim cemetary is the most obvious thing in a city like Thessaloniki. How “Turks are our bothers and Europeans are our partners.” And how, as a Vlach, he recognises the common regional heritage when he visits the village of his ancestors in today’s Republic of Macedonia near Krusevo.
He explains how it is possible to cut the public administration (from 5,000, when he came into office in 2011 to 3,500 today) and reduce the deficit, while moving towards green urbanism and a different traffic policy. How he is encouraged that the number of bicycle shops has gone from 2 to more than 20 in a few years. And how much remains to be done. How he has worked to encourage budget flight connections and direct links by ferries to his city, with increasing success. How this has resulted in sharply rising numbers of foreign visitors.
How his political goal is to make people proud of this, their liberal and open city. With the new slogan “I love my city and adopt my neighbourhood.” How he hopes city employees will be able to walk in the streets and citizens will respect them for their honesty and competence.
Remember: this is Greece, the EU country in its deepest economic and social crisis in decades. This is the country where the self-proclaimed fascists of Golden Dawn won 16 percent in recent local elections in Athens. With a prime minister who made his name by fostering nationalism in the early 1990s. A country all too often described in the foreign press as a hopeless case, a patient at best, an ungrateful recipient of aid at worst.
But this is also now the Greece of Boutaris and the cosmopolitanism of the new Thessaloniki.
When he became mayor, he tells me, Thessaloniki had a number of big taboos, including Turkey and the Jewish history of the town (where Jews were the largest ethnic group until 1912 and the port was closed on the Sabbath). Not long ago the City Council declared Mark Mazower, author of the great book Salonica, symbolically a persona non grata – for having described the multiethnic past of the city. This was the time when the local bishop called on people not to vote for Boutaris.
Now Boutaris looks forward to the day when citizens of Thessaloniki will be proud of the history of their city, as described in Mazower’s book. The book ends with the observation, true for all of Europe:
“As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.
The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendez-vous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past …”
As Boutaris tells it, being open to the past and to others is simple good sense: “if you accept differences, life is better”. This explains his support for gay pride in this orthodox city, and how he sees attidues changing. He talks about this priorities for the second term: moving towards a green city, a city in which “rich people are proud to take public transport” instead of poor people required to have a car.
When we made the 2008 ESI film on Thessaloniki Boutaris was still in opposition. Now he has been twice elected. The first time by the narrrowest of margins (some 300 votes). The second time with a clear and strong majority and 58 percent. In some elections ever single vote matters. Civic engagement matters. Having convictions matters. And fighting for them for decades can bring results.
If Bosnia had just one mayor like this in one of its big cities, ideally young and full of eneregy, so that he or she could then go on to show what is possible: the country might be a different place If only Greece or Turkey had more independents, former entrepreneurs and social activists, entering politics like this.
Thessaloniki, thank you for the inspiration. It is great to be back.
“The mayor’s greatest legacy, however, may be the city’s much-improved performance in tourism. However, his unconventional approach has made him some enemies among traditionalists. Between end-2010 and end-2013, Thessaloniki achieved 19% growth in tourist arrivals according to data from the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), compared with a decline of 13% for Athens over the same period.
To a great extent, this has been achieved through approaching a “traditional enemy” such as Turkey as a potential tourism market, leading to allegations that the mayor was “serving foreign interests”. Mr Boutaris is unapologetic about his bid to present Thessaloniki as a Balkan “melting pot”, stressing the city’s multi-ethnic history, a place where Greeks, Turks, Jews and Slavs lived together until the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Turks left, the Greeks from Asia Minor arrived and the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. The attraction of Thessaloniki to Turkish visitors stems from the fact that it is the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish state. In addition, the Boutaris administration has made much of the fact that for centuries Thessaloniki had a large and vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. In broadening the city’s tourism profile, a previously rather claustrophobic city is starting to become a more open one, embracing its multicultural past.
The rebranding of Thessaloniki based on this new perception of its past has managed to increase the influx of visitors from Turkey and from Israel. Overnight stays at the city’s hotels increased during the past four years by 226% for Turks and 358% for Israelis, reaching 80,000 and 50,000, respectively, by the end of 2013. Coinciding with a period of deepening national economic crisis, the tourism revival has been welcome. The shift in public opinion in the city has been radical, and previous detractors now firmly support a similar rapprochement with all neighbouring countries … “
Here is a nice book for the summer: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson writes:
“We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition.
But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.”
Since good ideas are the results of networks, any think tank’s success to remain fresh and innovative over a period of time depends above all on the quality of its networks. Any series of interesting reports are the result of the effort of many individuals collecting spare parts, and many long nights trying to cobble them together.
This summer it is fifteen years since we set up ESI in Sarajevo in summer 1999. Since then we have been tinkering with ideas.
The real birthday: launch meeting in Sarajevo in summer 1999.
By now we have produced a few thousand of pages of writing under the ESI logo.
Are you still short of summer reading? Then take a quick look at any of these, perhaps one strikes your interest.
Some recommendations were picked up directly by decision makers. In 2001 we wrote a report – in cooperation with Martti Ahtisaari – recommending that the Stability Pact for South East Europe focus on regional energy integration; our second recommendation then, to focus on visa liberalisation, was picked up much later by the European Commission.
In 2002 we called for a big summit on the Balkans under the Greek EU presidency, advocating also that “the states of the Western Balkans could join Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey within the responsibility of a post-2004 Directorate for Enlargement.” And we worked closely with friends in the Greek foreign ministry at the time preparing ideas for the Thessaloniki summit.
For more than a decade we shared our writing experience with others: with ESI fellows, and in capacity building seminars to help new think tanks emerge, from Albania to Kiev. Quite a number have emerged, and prosper today.
In Kosovo we published on the impact of migration on households and families (Cutting the Lifeline), on economic development in Peja and Pristina, on the failure of privatisation and on the future of Kosovo Serbs, arguing against the Spirit of Lausanne. Currently we are working on schools and education policy in Kosovo.
All of this was possible because of donors who believed that by funding our research, they could contribute usefully to policy debates. Here are the five most important ones in recent years: ERSTE Stiftung. Open Society Foundations. The Swedish government. The UK government. And Stiftung Mercator.
If this inspires you and you want to join us as a Junior Fellow, please apply here! We look forward to hear from you. (In August the ESI office in Berlin handling applications shuts down. However, you can send in the meantime send any complete applications to me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
How long does it take for the whole proud city of New York to be swallowed by nature?
In his magical “The World without us” (a good christmas present for friends, by the way) Alan Weisman makes a thought experiment: he imagines a world without human beings and asks what would happen, among other things, to the urban landscape of Manhattan. His conclusion is that “the time it would take nature to rid itself of what urbanity has wrought may be less than we might suspect.”
Without the pumps being maintained, which every day keep 13 million gallons (49 million liters) of water from overflowing the subway tunnels these tunnels would quickly fill up: within half an hour water would reach a level where trains can no longer pass. Within 36 hours the tunnels would fill up completely. Within 20 years the steel columns which support the street above the train-lines would buckle. By then the city would be well on its way to revert to a forest (click here for his slideshow):
“In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate. Where they do, rain leaks in, bolts rust, and facing pops off, exposing insulation. If the city hasn’t burned yet, it will now … Within two decades, lightning rods have begun to rust and snap, and roof fires leap among buildings, entering panneled offices filled with paper fuel … Red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons nest in increasingly skeletal high-rise structures.”
There are a number of serious points in this tale.
First, decline is not a “problem” that human ingenuity can “solve”. All we can do is keep going: once those pumps go off, all the wisdom and craft that have gone into the New York subway system cannot prevent it to come to a halt within hours. Second, although crises and decay are not exceptional moments but the stuff of life itself what constitutes a serious crisis very much depends on the perspective of the onlooker. The collapse of Manhattan might be a serious example of decline for some, but as ornithologist Steve Hilty told Alan Weisman “If humans were gone at least a third of all birds on Earth might not even notice.”
Turning from birds to humans and from Manhattan to Brussels – and keeping in mind those two points (1. things are always in decline and 2. assessing how serious it is depends on where we stand) – the real concern I hope to share with you today is whether it is true, as a recent gathering of smart people discussed in Vienna, that today – at the end of the first decade of the third millenium – “Europe” is “in decline”?
Note that even as we pose the question, we can see what is wrong with it. Of course Europe is in decline if we look at it from the biological perspective. And as many have recently pointed out, with seriously raised eyebrows, the mere fact that there are less of us (Europeans) in the future than there are today suggests that there is something to this biological perspective. Pointing to Europe’s low birthrates, one concerned American, Robert Samuelson, writes in the Washington Post in June 2005 (title: “The end of Europe”) that
“in a century – if these rates continue – there won’t be many Germans in Germany or Italians in Italy. Even assuming some increase in birthrates and continued immigration, Western Europe’s population grows dramatically greyer, projects the US Census Bureau …”
And not only the Census Bureau. As Rainer Munz, a leading European demographer, told our group at the very outset of our seminar, demography is about slow processes which advance with a degree of inexorability: thus “we can see ahead for the next 45 to 50 years” (which for many of us is the rest of our lifespan), and what we see is this: for the period up to 2050 “without immigration, the population of western and central Europe would have declined by 57 million by 2050.” The working age population would shrink by a striking 88 million people!
This is obviously going to cause some problems: retiring at age 60, or 62 (as recently proposed by the French President, triggering major protests), is not going to be an affordable option, if we want to maintain even a rudimentary welfare state and old age pension system. To maintain their living standards Europeans will have to work longer; more people will have to work (including more women); and Europe will need to remain open to immigration from parts of the world where there is still (for now) population growth. The only countries in Europe with a growing domestic population are small Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Ireland and Turkey (where population growth will also come to an end in the foreseeable future, however).
All of this, so Robert Samuelson, ensures that Europe is “history’s has-been”: wherever they look, Europeans see their way of life threatened. At the same time they remain immobilised by their problems. European do not want more migration. They also do not want to become more competitive by adapting the American way of running their economies (i.e. reduce regulations and taxes). Therefore, “Europe as we know it is slowly going out of business.”
This sounds ominous. Of course, there are things that could be done for Europeans to remain in business, Rainer Munz tells us. The average age for people to retire in Austria today is still only 58: this could and should rise. Many more women could work (in some European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, they do). People could decide to have (some) more children. We could consume less in old age. And there could be more immigrants. But even if all of this happens, there might still be less Europeans in 2050 than now, and less people adding to Europe’s GDP.
So Europe is in decline. And this means inevitably a loss of influence also on the global stage. As Robert Samuelson concludes:
“Ever since 1498, after Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened trade to the Far East, Europe has shaped global history, for good and ill. It settled North and South America, invented modern science, led the Industrial Revolution, oversaw the slave trade, created huge colonial empires, and unleashed the world’s two most destructive wars. This pivotal Europe is now vanishing …”
But hold on, I wonder: what does it really mean to say that pivotal Europe has shaped history “for good and ill”? Let’s ask ourselves three naive questions:
1. Clearly “Europe” (and “European influence”) is an abstraction? Throughout the 19 century European Empires were actually bitter rivals, fearful of each other. Even if they had global Empires, as countries such as the Netherlands or Belgium had until the middle of the 20th century in Asia and Africa, these European nations were extremely vulnerable in the face of hostile neighbours (and were indeed invaded a few times by some of them in the 20th century). Also, the colonial era ended many decades ago (which was not obviously a loss to the world, or to European citizens, but that is a different debate). During the cold war, peace in Europe was in part the result of the fact that Europe’s most powerful previous trouble-maker (Germany) was divided, with Nato and Warsaw Pact troops, armed to the teeth, staring at each other across the Fulda gap. Clearly the average Central and East European had little global influence then either (or should he or she have felt pride that some citizens of the world were in awe at the combined military machine of the Warsaw Pact?).
In general, when did the average Portuguese or Spaniard, Austrian or Swede last feel that her opinion, or the leaders elected by her, had more global influence than they have today? Is the late colonial era really the yardstick by which to measure declining European influence? (at this stage of our musings we might notice how very Anglo-Saxon, or rather British, so much current thinking about European decline is: it assumes first that European colonialism was more or less a civilising and beneficial force, and second that the end of world power status was relatively recent. Few Poles or Greeks would recognise themselves in such a narrative).
2. Has the influence of the European Union also declined in recent decades? If we look at it as a concrete “European” geopolitical entity the story of the past three decades suggests otherwise. The EU has grown substantially as a result of successive enlargements, from some 300 million people to more than 500 million. Arguably, the EU today has more potential clout than the European Economic Community had at any moment during the Cold War. Or than the EU had in the 1990s, when Europeans stood by helplessly and watched the Balkans burn.
3. What is so bad about getting older? Rainer Munz presents a striking statistic: “in the course of the twenty-first century, our life expectancy is likely to rise by another 20 years. If we extrapolate the pace of recent decades – a plus of three months per year – then the gain would even be significantly greater.” This means that de facto we do not live just 24 hours, but at least 25 hours every day – although we only get to consume the extra time at the end of our lives (which I certainly regret on many busy days).
In short, we all understand the problems caused by an aging work force. But we might also pause to note that behind this “cause of decline” stands a major positive trend: the dramatic improvement in the chance for all of us (Europeans of our generation) to live to old age. We are likely to see our children and grand children – if we chose to have them -grow older as well. Yes, we might be lonely in old age but this is our choice in a way it never was for previous generations. Let’s plan to work until we are 70. And let’s assume that we will need to change profession at age 40, again at 60 and still learn new tricks when we are 75. This will be stressful. But we will not be dead.
What all of this means is that we – European societies and citizens – have choices our ancestors never had before. We can chose what to do with our longer lives. We can chose to have children and (because others have fewer) these might have to worry less about finding work. We certainly have to worry less about them going off to fight in a major war.
We can also chose to shape a credible EU that at least retains the global influence it has at the moment (and whose leaders do not indulge in fantasies inspired by a supposed Siglo de Oro of European imperialism of the kind “if only Europeans could – like Hernan Cortes in 1519 – set out and conquer a nation of seven million Indians with a few hundred adventurers”). Of course, Europeans will disagree on how such an EU should look like. Therefore changing anything will have to be incremental and slow. This will be true for reforming the Euro. This will also be true for future enlargement. It has generally been true in the history of European integration.
And, above all else, we should think hard how to best meet the challenges which we know we are going to face: further immigration, (somewhat) more diversity, and the obvious fact that a growing minority in our aging European societies are going to be Muslim. We could chose to go down the Thilo Sarrazin route: to deplore, as the former Bundesbanker did in a best-selling book (“Germany abolishes itself”) the fading of an era when most of Berlin’s population was Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian, to judge by the new rhetoric which even far-right anti-Islamic parties across Europe have cynically started to embrace) and white. Judging by this reference point it is those countries which never had or are unlikely to soon have large religious or ethnic minorities that are going to inherit the future … Only: where does this theory place aging Japan? Most of the multicultural rest of the world? Africa, Brazil, India, China, Indonesia? Multi-ethnic countries which grow and homogenous countries which do not? Or we could see the challenges or growing societal pluralism as a sideproduct of our success: as a result of peace and prosperity.
Where does this debate on the decline of Eurabia leave the US? There was, after all, also an American Sarrazin, another elderly man with grey hair, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, making a rather similar case. Not about Islam only, which he did already in 1993 (in his bestselling and terrible “Clash of Civilisations”), but about the challenges posed to America’s national identity by … Hispanization! Huntington warned a few years ago that Mexican immigration
“looms as a unique and disturbing challenge to our cultural integrity, to our national identity, and potentially to our future as a country.”
This challenge to US identity is of a quasi-military nature:
“In almost every recent year the Border Patrol has stopped about 1 million people attempting to enter the US illegally from Mexico. It is generally estimated that about 300,000 make it across illegally. If over 1 million Mexican soldiers crossed the border, America would treat it as a major threat to their national security and react accordingly. The invasion of over 1 million Mexican civilians is a comparable threat to American societal security, and Americans should react to it with comparable vigour.”
Thus, while Latinos are the problem in the US (for Huntington), Muslims are the problem in Europe (for Sarrazin and many, many others), and both for the same supposed reason: they cannot be integrated into mainstream culture! in the US it is Anglo-Protestant Culture which is under siege … in Europe it is the Abendland which is set to decline. Thus Europe is doomed just as California (which was one of the whitest states in the US) is doomed, and arguably both are in decline since the 1960s … Some years ago former CIA director William Colby warned about the future emergence of a “Spanish speaking Quebec in the US Southwest.” Stefan Luft, a German author, makes the same claims for Germany’s cities. So then both the US and Europe are doomed …
This theory – Muslim migration causes the decline of Europe – is also developed in Walter Laqueur’s “The last days of Europe“, another book which starts with demography and ends with the near certain failure of integrating Muslims. For Laqueur the best place to observer the death of old Europe is “Neukolln or Cottbusser Tor” in Berlin. He sees a dark future for a doomed continent which is all the more dangerous because it is still hidden: “on the surface, everything seems normal, even attractive. But Europe as we knew it is bound to change, probably out of recognition for a number of reasons …” A similar theory of decline is developed by Bruce Thornton in Decline and Fall – Europe’s slow motion suicide (2007) and in Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (2009). And these were books written before the global economic crisis or the latest troubles of the Euro …
Islamisation is, of course, only one (if for many the most popular) explanation, besides aging, why Europe in the early 21st century is supposedly in decline. Different authors present different arguments, so let us look at a few more “causes of decline”:
there is the theory of Huntington presented in the foreword of his book “Who are we?” that “so long as Americans see their nation endangered, they are likely to have a high sense of identity with it. If their perception of threat fades, other identities could again take precedence over national identity.” Hm. While I can see how this could be applied to today’s Europeans, less likely to go to war than at any point in history, interesting policy conclusions follow from this analysis …
there is the identification by Walter Laqueur of another crucial reason for the “aggressiveness” of Muslim communities in Europe in particular: “Sexual repression almost certainly is another factor that is seldom if ever discussed within their communities or by outside observers. It could well be that such repression generates extra aggression …”. We learn: a Europe which is less sexually repressed is less aggressive. This seems intuitively right, except that in the aggregate Europe was probably never in its history less sexually repressed than today (certainly this seems to be true for Berlin …) and yet, its decline is still not stopped by the neo-pagan attitudes to sexuality. And where does this theory leave China or the US, clearly some way behind most Europeans on the scale of licentiousness?
there is the claim in an article (Europe’s Determination to Decline) by Bjorn Lomberg that it is Europe’s commitment to deal with climate change which explains its looming decline: unilaterally reducing carbon emissions will cost the EU “$250 billion a year by 2020”:
“Unfortunately it seems as if Europe has decided that if it can’t lead the world in prosperity, it should try to lead the world in decline. By stubbornly pursuing an approach that has failed spectacularly in the past, Europe seems likely to consign itself to an ever dwindling economic position in the world, with fewer jobs and less prosperity”
Even being successful in attracting tourists is a sign of decline for some! This is the Venice-Disneyland theory of the last days. Walter Laqueur writes:
“Given the shrinking of its population, it is possible that Europe, or at any case considerable parts of it, will turn into a cultural theme park, a kind of Disneyland on a level with a certain sophistication for well-to-do visitors from China and India, something like Brugge, Venice, Versailles, Stratford-on-Avon, or Rothenburg ob der Tauber on a large scale … This scenario may appear somewhat fanciful at the moment, but given current trends it is a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Tourism has been of paramount importance in Switzerland for a long time; it is now of great (and growing) importance in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and some other countries.”
Surely it is a worrying sign of decline if too many other people would want to come and visit your hometown or country?
The end is near…
During our seminar on European decline Wolfgang Petritsch pointed out that in fact some countries in Europe were not doing too badly even at this particular moment in time: Scandinavia for instance. Others added Germany, Poland, Central Europe in general. Looking at this list makes it obvious that identifying simple causes of decline (high taxes? openness to immigration? Protestantism? Catholicism?) is almost as hard as identifying simple causes for success. But if our theories are not simple, how are we going to sell our books?
It is an akward fact for declinists that most Europeans live better today than either their parents or grandparents or great grandparents (not to go back even further). Let us certainly heed the call of Timothy Garton Ash in a recent article (Europe Wake up!):
“The eurozone is in mortal danger. European foreign policy is advancing at the pace of a drunken snail. Power shifts to Asia. The historical motors of European integration are either lost or spluttering. European leaders rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic while lecturing the rest of the world on ocean navigation.”
But Tim also notes, in the same article, that “for standard of living and quality of life, most Europeans have never had it so good. They don’t realise how radically things need to change in order that things may remain the same.” This sums up the nature of the current crises perfectly. It also explains why most European voters do not look for a Churchill.
It is banal but it remains true: every generation faces crises. Greeks face a very serious crisis, for instance, and much will depend on the way its leaders (and voters) respond to it. It may indeed enter a period of decline, paying a price for many years (or decades) of overspending. And yet, while all this is true few Greeks would probably chose to go back to the social problems of the 1960s (when a different crisis ushered in a military coup and seven years of torture and authoritarianism), to those of the 1940s (a time of war and invasion followed by civil war) or those of the 1920s (when following a split of the country and a lost war over two millions displaced needed to be resettled in an impoverished nation).
Let us admit then that Europe is indeed in crisis and undergoing decline. But so is – depending on what criteria one choses – much of the rest of the world, if not now, then soon enough. In any open society a sense of crisis, and the threat of decline, is as enduring as the sense of hope and the awareness that good policies might improve things. And certainly both complacency and misleading crisis talk (such as identifying Hispanics or Muslims as the core problem threatening national identities) could lead to bad policies.
In the end one of our Greek seminar participants summed up the problem of European “crisis talk” best: perhaps a near permanent fear of decline is what any society needs in order to remain on its toes and adapt? Rather like those men and women looking after the pumps in the New York subway, aware that water is always there, ready to submerge their construction, we also must never feel secure. Like them, however, a state of near panic at all times is also certain to lead us to make many more bad decisions.
“I was very worried about the fate of the world, but I’m no longer worried about it. I think the world is going to be fine. Now whether the world as we know it is going to survive – that’s an open question.”
Indeed. And it always will be, says the pessimist in me. Or was this the optimist?
A while ago I wrote an article proposing, seriously, that Kosovo becomes the first European country to abolishe its summer vacations. You find it here. The argument was that Kosovo needs a BHAG (a big hairy ambitious goal) to change its international image and to focus on a major problem it faces in the field of education:
“A BHAG transforms or (re)defines a country’s image when it changes local realities in a way that even a critical visitor – the foreign correspondent of a leading international paper, for instance – will accept as impressive. The key is that the policy idea is both fresh and sound and can actually be implemented. It precedes public relations. It is about creating the good story that can later be told.
Which brings me to a Big idea which I believe Europe’s youngest and poorest society, Kosovo, might do well to consider pursuing. It is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s last book (Outliers), as well as by ideas I had preparing recent presentations on Kosovo and the state of the Balkans in Vienna, in Valencia (for NATO parliamentarians) and at Harvard. For these I had to reread ESI reports and new material on the state of Kosovo. It was not encouraging reading, to put it mildly.
So here is the basic idea: Kosovo urgently needs to convince first its own citizens and then the world that it is serious about addressing one of its most crippling structural problems, a wide education achievement gap with the rest of Europe. It needs to do so urgently; with the limited resources it has at hand, it also needs to be innovative.
The basic problem is clear: today Kosovars are less well educated and less prepared to compete in the common European market than almost any other society in Europe. School enrolment rates (including at secondary level) are low and have not improved in the past four years. Two out of three young people leave the education system without any qualifications. More than 10 percent drop out of compulsory education. The vocational training system is in dire straits. And there is a lack of money, even if spending on education has increased as a percentage of GDP: it does not help that Kosovo’s GDP is in fact one of the lowest in Europe.”
The proposal was the following:
“Kosovo should become the first country in Europe to abolish the long summer school vacation. Kosovo children should be able to spend more hours per day and more days per year in primary school than children anywhere else in the region. This additional time in school could be used to give Kosovo pupils one of the most solid basic educations in the region.
This proposal would address three major problems at once:
1. There is in fact a desperate shortage of space in Kosovo schools. As a number of recent reports noted, school infrastructure is stretched “almost to breaking point” (ETF country analysis, May 2008). The majority of schools in Kosovo operate in two shifts, and a significant minority even in three. Given the growth of Kosovo’s young population, demand for space will increase further.
So there is an urgent need to use space more efficiently. It seems a waste of resources to leave schools empty during the summer. It is also silly, given the need to import expensive energy, not to use the summer months for teaching as well.
2. At the same time, first shortening and then abolishing the long summer vacation could help young Kosovars catch up and – in some fields – overtake other European students, particularly when it comes to basic skills taught at primary school level.
One way to do this with limited resources would be to increase the number of hours and days students spend in primary and lower secondary school classes. Currently, due to space constraints, Kosovars probably spend less hours in school than pupils in most other parts of Europe. The goal should be to reverse this and to use any additional hours to increase teaching foreign languages and basic reading, writing and mathematic skills at an earlier age than in other countries in the region.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, citing the example of a public school in NY, the number of hours spent in school does matter a lot, particularly for those from a disadvantaged background.The tradition of a long summer vacation – “considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom” – is above all a problem for children from poorer families: it is vacation time that explains a large part of the “achievement gap” between richer and poorer children in different tests done in the US.”
Now I received a very interesting comment by Hazel Slinn. Let me share it with you, in the hope that this debate continues:
“Your analyis is broadly speaking correct. However, the lack of progress is not only due to the lack of a BHAG. The Canadian government invested millions (six, I believe) in trying to establish a teacher education system and improved matters with the Ministry of Education. Last week I was in Kosova and it was as if they had never been there. Heartbreaking.
I would add something to your analysis, something that seems to be consistently overlooked – where and how is the space to be made for training the teachers? The Ministry of Education is excellent at producing intiatives. They produced, with the help of the Canadians, standards for teachers, stages for development, requirements and so forth. Policy papers as far as the eye could see. These were given to regional and local education officials who could then brandish them at semi-qualified, poorly paid teachers as a threat, that if they didn’t get qualified by the next school year, or the one after that, then they would have no job at all. However, there was no release to attend training, no scheme for requiring that the university should provide courses for teachers at weekends, or as you suggest, during holidays. Heaven forbid, one should ask a university employee (professor or cleaner) to be present at work when they can be earning money elsewhere. One of my close friends has been enrolled at the University of Prishtina for almost two decades – paying admin fees ever since 2000. The political problems, the war, the lack of money, the lack of time have all prevented her from graduating, so she risks losing her job every September because she is still unqualified, despite being a dedicated professional in everyone’s eyes except the authorities. She is not the only one. And because she is not qualified she is paid a pittance.
The example of Poland should be followed. They had a BHAG, back in 1990. They set themselves the target of training 20,000 language teachers for the year 2000. They were so successful they actually trained more and their language teaching these days is a model for all to admire. How did they do it? The required those of us working in higher education to train teachers in the evening and at weekends. We were paid a little extra for doing it, but it was only for the period of the project. Teachers in school had their timetables blocked so they had all their classes Mon-Thursday lunchtime. Thursdays – Saturdays they were ‘Ours’ – to do with as we wished, well not exactly, to train on a three year programme leading to a degree. Many went on later to add a Masters, which was not required, but they got quite into it.
Kosova is tiny compared to Poland, so why don’t they want to offer their teachers some proper training? It’s easier to hold power over them and make them feel afraid if they remain unqualified maybe? Sooner or later I hope someone will hear my voice. I have been suggesting this scheme since I first worked there in 2000. I sang this song to the UN Department of Education when they were running the show, I have tried to get someone in the Faculty of Education to understand the need to train those who are already in school and I have discussed it endlessly with teachers who are exhausted, underpaid and feeling inadequate.
I hope your idea for a BHAG works – perhaps one day someone will hear my plea. I hope I haven’t ranted too much – I do feel very strongly about this.”
Today I will give a presentation at the Kennedy School on an issue that has become ever more interesting in recent weeks: what is happening in Turkey currently in the field of civil-military relations? For more details please go here.
Turkey’s current transformation – in particular concerning the changing role of the Armed Forces – needs to be put in a wider context, both global and European.
As I noted in the seminar here last week it is not long ago that military interventions in politics were everything but rare. In 1962 successful coups took place in Burma, Argentina and Syria; failed coups in Lebanon, Portugal, Venezuela and Turkey. The Times noted in 1960, following the first Turkish coup against an elected civilian government, that “this has been a good year for generals.”
Since the 1960s the Turkish military has been carrying out many more interventions. However, while the officer corps has remained isolated from wider changes in Europe as well as in Turkish society the international acceptance of any military intervention has declined significantly – in Europe it has now reached a point of zero tolerance.
A second interesting book focusing on Turkey is Gareth Jenkins’ Context and Circumstance: The Turkish Military and Politics. It appeared as an Adelphi Paper, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2001. While I find Gareth Jenkins writings on the Ergenekon trial unconvincing and at times misleading – more on this here later – his text on the Turkish military is a very good introduction.
Jenkins sets out the structural features and ideological motivations and historical references that have set Turkey’s civil-military relations apart from those elsewhere in Europe. As Jenkins notes at the very outset, his book wants to explain, not judge, an exceptional situation:
“the continued domination of Turkish politics by the country’s military appears to be an anomalous anachronism, even an anathema. As a result, discussions of civil-military relations often become coloured by moral judgements as military involvement in politics is seen as not only undesireable but almost an affront to a natural order. The purpose of this paper is neither to condemn not to justify the Turkish military’s involvement in politics; merely to try to understand and explain.” (p5, emphasis added)
At the heart of the Turkish exception is the ideological nature of the Armed Forces’ commitment:
“But what makes the Turkish military unique is that it sees itself as having an almost sacred duty to protect an indigenous ideology, namely Kemalism, the principles laid down by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk. This ideological dimension to the military’s perception of its role has meant that its definition of security extends beyond public order and Turkey’s political or economic interests to include threats to the country’s Kemalist legacy.”
Central to the world-view of the Turkish officer is the sense that both external and internal threats have enduring roots in Turkey’s past. An important element of military education is the Nutuk speech made by Ataturk, in which Ataturk describes Turkey’s enemies during the War of Liberation (1919-1922):
“Ataturk’s Great Speech of October 1927, the Nutuk, in which he summarised the Turkish War of Liberation, has a position akin to a sacred book and his pronouncements on a vast range of subjects are cited to support arguments as if they were virtual holy writ.” (p 32)
Jenkins notes that this is true not only for the Armed Forces but pervasive in Turkish society and in its national education system:
“Turks are taught, and most believe, that their country is under continual external and internal threat, both from other countries plotting to divide or acquire Turkish territory and from internal forces seeking to change the constitutional status quo. The result is often a virtual siege mentality, riddled with impossibly intricate conspiracy theories.”
“Turkish schoolchildren are taught that the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which, though never ratified and subsequently superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, foresaw the allocation of large tracts of modern Turkey to Greece, Armenia, Italy and France (the latter two in the form of mandates), and the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state, still represents the real intentions of the West towards Turkey.” (pp16, 17)
However, such views are particularly strongly represented among those who pursue a military career, where they form the core of the curriculum:
“The teaching of history in the military academies places considerable emphasis on the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Cadets are taught that the Ottoman Empire was eroded by a combination of foreign avarice and a paucity of patriots prepared to defend the homeland. (p 32)
In January 1999 the military academy in Ankara published a booklet calling for a second ‘War of Liberation’ against Islamic fundamentalism:
“Continual exhortations to identify with Ataturk and to see him as an immortal guiding presence effectively brings the past into the present. Indeed, cadets are explicitly taught that, although circumstances and methods may change, the external and internal threats to the country – threats which they are legally as well as morally obliged to repulse – are fundamentally the same as in Ataturk’s lifetime … international pressure to allow greater political pluralism appears reminiscent of Allied attempts to divide Turkey at Sevres.” (p 33)
Jenkins quotes General Nahgit Senoglu, the head of the Military Academies, who told the new intake of cadets in 2000:
“You will see that Turkey has the most internal and external enemies of any country in the world. You will learn about the dirty aspirations of those who hide behind values such as democracy and human rights and who want to take revenge on the republic of Ataturk.”
Such as threat perception also serves to legitimise the privileged position of the Armed Forces:
“The military’s role is further bolstered by public perceptions of the security environment, where external and internal threats are often inflated and distorted by conspiracy theories in which even Turkey’s NATO allies are secretly plotting to weaken and divide the country.1 In such a situation, it is to the military that most Turks turn […] .”(P 9)
Being educated as a military officer also includes other messages, writes Gareth Jenkins,
“From the moment that they enter the military academies officer cadets are told that they are joining an elite, […] with a sacred mission to protect Kemalism.” (p30)
Jenkins explains that the “strict military hierarchy starts in the military high schools and academies”, and even underlines that “military officials admit that the hierarchies and deference to authority in Turkish society, particularly within the family, play a significant role in enabling cadets to adapt to a military environment.” The “relative social isolation of the academies and the inculcation of a sense of being distinct from society at large inevitably combine to produce an increasing identification with their fellow cadets and the armed forces as an institution.” (p 30)
Jenkins writes that the Turkish military has “traditionally vigorously resisted any attempt by the civilian authorities to investigate allegations against serving or retired officers.” (p 29), refusing to
“cooperate with investigations into, allegations of corruption or human rights abuses involving members of the security forces, especially the gendarmerie, apparently because it believes that even an investigation would harm the image of the armed forces. For example, in spring 1997 the TGS refused to allow a parliamentary committee investigating allegations of collaboration between elements in the security apparatus and the Turkish underworld to question members of the gendarmerie. Similarly, it has refused to allow external investigations of allegations of the use of beatings, usually by NCOs or lower-ranking officers, to discipline conscripts, insisting that such cases must remain the exclusive prerogative of the military courts. (p 30)
Cook examines what he calls “authoritarian stability” in “military-dominated states”. In such systems democratic facades allowed officers to rule without having to govern. Cook notes that in Turkey for a long time “pseudodemocratic institutions give the military the respect and admiration of large majorities of the Turkish people. Although the officers are responsible for the political order, the presence of institutions resembling a democratic polity effectively shields them from any public dissatisfaction.” (p.106)
Cook quotes a Turkish officer telling Mehmet Ali Birand:
“We are opposed to anybody, no matter whether they are there by the grace of the ballot box or the votes of the National Assembly, who attempts to violate Ataturk’s principles. We have a right to act to this end in the interests of our own people, and for their protection.” (p 102)
He examines how “Turkey has been able to undertake an extraordinary and wide-ranging program to dismantle its authoritarian institutions” in recent years, a transformation he considers “extraordinary”: while changes to the structure of the National Security Council in 2001 were still cosmetic, by 2004 they significantly downgraded the formal power of the military to influence civilian decision making. So did other changes, including a constitutional amendment in 2004 that rescinded the military’s exemption from Court of Auditors’ oversight.
In this transformation the role of the EU is decisive. Cook wonders whether there are any general lessons in this, but does not elaborate:
“It is fashionable, particularly among Arab elites, to say that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, but the lessons of EU-Turkey relations indicate that the United States and France can play a role facilitating conditions more conducive to democratic change in Egypt and Algeria. … “
Cook rightly underlines that the Internal Service Act (1961) remains intact, including article 85 which states that the “Armed Forces shall defend the country against internal as well as external threats, if necessary by force.” This is but one sign that Turkey’s democratic revolution is not yet complete. He lists the following institutional innovations as essential:
to subordinate the General Staff to a civilian minister of defence
to empower the Council of State and other parts of the judicial branch to overrule the Supreme Military Council
to overhaul the internal service codes of the armed forces, which justify the military’s intervention in politics
to alter the curriculum at military academies and staff colleges
I would add a few additional concrete steps to this essential list, including:
to clarify the limitations of the military judicial system
to finally implement Turkey’s commitment to allow conscientious objectors to do alternative service
to undertake the full regular auditing of military expenditures in line with the 2004 constitutional amendments
I share Cook’s fascination for Turkey’s recent transformation and his assuymption that it holds a lot of interesting lessons. He concludes on an optimistic note: even in the Middle East
“countries with authoritarian political systems are not necessarily fated to manifest nondemocratic politics in perpetuity – forever is, after all, a long time … the Turkish transition highlights how external actors can nurture a political environment more conducive to peaceful, democratic change.”
This is an issue I hope to explore more with my students in the seminar on intervention in coming weeks.
“Lilla Edet was so quiet a town”. This is the opening sentence of Andrew Brown’s book “Fishing in Utopia – Sweden and the Future that Disappeared”. I began to read the book the next day, as always looking for insights into this most fascinating of European democracies. Brown’s rhapsodic mediation, recommended by a friend, is above all about the author’s life: a book about unfulfilled dreams, silences and fishing. Its outlook is summed up in Brown’s epiphany, elegant, poignant and honest like the rest of his text, which also starts with his meditation on silence inspired by Sweden’s north:
“Huge silence, solitude, and the smell of trees – the very things that had made Lilla Edet torture me when I first lived there, were now, I understood, necessary elements in my life. … Soon the daughter whom I carried on my shoulders round a lake one perfect sunlit day would be grown up. Soon after that, in the way of middle-aged journalists, I would be sacked from something for the very last time. I understood my own life suddenly as that of a hooked fish, pulling with all my strength against a painful and bewildering destiny.”
Spring midnight in Sweden
Most of the destiny the author discloses unfolds in Sweden. Brown moved here in the 1970s for a marriage (which later ended in divorce). He first lived in Lilla Edet, a town in the South of the country where the creaking of the wheels of Brown’s bike was “always the loudest sound”. He then moved to an estate in Nodinge, a suburb of Goteborg, in 1977:
“the first thing that struck me was the loneliness. The roads within the estate were all closed to traffic but pedestrians always seemed scarce. The houses might be wonderfully warm, and the spacious kitchens of even the most basic flats were equipped with fridges, freezers, and separate coolers, which worked like larders, to keep food warmer than in a fridge, but much cooler than in a centrally heated room. But the public places always felt as cold as November … I have never lived in, nor could imagine, a place where people talked less to each other … faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy.”
Early on in the book Brown reminds readers of the very recent history of poverty in Sweden, describing the life of Anna, Brown’s Swedish mother-in-law:
“She was born in the middle of the 1930s depression, when very little had changed for poor farmers in centuries. Her parents and all their children lived in one room and a kitchen, on the ground floor of her grandfather’s house. They slept on straw mattresses, which they filled themselves … her mother had given birth to fourteen children in twenty years … “
Anna had left school at thirteen, as so many of her generation in Sweden had done:
“After school, Anna was sent out to a larger farm to work as a milkmaid. All the servants slept in the kitchen there, but when she was fifteen she was sent as a servant girl to a woman named Martha Jacobsson, who gave her a room of her own to sleep in.”
However, this is definitely not the message I took away from the book. It is in the present, not the past, tense that Brown makes Sweden seem most attractive. It is when Brown writes about what he calls “Stockholm-Sweden” that he becomes most positive: describing a “genuinely sophisticated, cosmopolitan and almost weightless place”. The Sweden of today that Brown describes is a place undergoing rapid change: open to migration, with more than 400,000 Muslims and Mohammed the most common new name for boys in Malmo.
The modern Sweden that Brown evokes is a place where popular phone-in-programmes express both “polite and earnest eccentricity” and a sense of what Swedes “mean by democracy: not a voting system, but a recognition of common humanity.” It is a place where alcohol is much easier to obtain than only a few decades ago, and where the system of state shops which sell it (the Systembolag) are today aimed at “selling not repelling”. There is crime, and more than there was in the past, but it is still not “Armageddon”, with rates much lower than in England. If Sweden is no longer “the promised land to which the world was tending in the Sixties” it is still, by almost any indicator, one of the most attractive and open societies in Europe today.
Skyline of Stockholm
(Amberin also noted with pleasant surprise that when she stepped out of the Opera Cafe restaurant in the centre of Stockholm a Swede came up to her and asked her for directions in Swedish, obviously assuming that she was a local – her parents are from Bangladesh and Turkey. This would not happen to her in every European country …)
Neither Browns’ descriptions of Sweden in the 70s nor his observation of the problems which Sweden faces today suggest that the past is better than the present. At one point Brown notes that “everything about the old weighty grey concrete Sweden seems to have dissolved into the air”. At the end of the book Brown recalls the past, when he used to spend “delightful hours lamenting the dreary stolidity of Sweden”, this while dining in a restaurant where potato cakes were “made as if woven out of straw, with sour cream and orange caviar” and where a person he met “had never once heared the word nykterhet, or temperance”.
Brown underlines that “when foreigners write in praise of Swedish politics, it is from Stockholm that they get their information or their understanding, and this is always influenced by the very great confidence of the ruling class that still run the place.”
Having met some representatives of this class during this trip – ministers, parliamentarians, businesspeople and civil servants – all explaining the broad consensus in Sweden in favour of a liberal migration policy, European enlargement, and striking the right balance between welfare and individual liberty, I found that this confidence might well be justified.