18 January 2008

…. continued from Peddling Ideas Around Schuman I (Brussels in January: Coweb)

EPC and the future of screening

Graham Avery Judy Batt Jacques Rupnik

Institutions like EPC are another fixture in the Brussels policy landscape. I have come here quite often in the past, for debates and presentations. Last year I was invited to join EPC’s international advisory board. This time the occasion to come was the ECP “task force” on the Balkans.

EPC is, to those not familiar with Brussels, the equivalent of an intellectual club for Brussels policy-makers: they can come to listen to arguments and debates without really having to leave their offices (the Residence Palace, where EPC is based, is right across the road from all the main EU buildings). But EPC also aims to generate ideas. This is why a small group of Balkan experts had been invited to come together a few times this year and debate. Chaired by Graham Avery, some 10 experts took up the offer.

Again Alex and myself distributed our most recent reports. Again we tried to challenge some conventional wisdoms about the Balkans (particularly about Bosnia this time). And once again we had a specific proposal which we sought to put up for debate: the notion that screening for all the countries of the Western Balkans should begin later this year, even before the start of full accession negotiations. For details on this proposal see my next entry on Rumeli Observer; let me make a more general point about the spreading of policy ideas here.

My first observation: policy proposals are often most effective when their origin is forgotten. One of the attributes of a successful think tank is not to be possessive about “ideas”: the more an idea, analysis or policy proposal becomes part of a new “received wisdom” the more likely it is to be adopted. A policy proposal for real change needs to become part of a new consensus. For this to happen the gatekeepers in public policy debates (journalists and policy analysts) need to find it convincing.

The EPC meeting was a gathering of such gatekeepers. There are others in other places. In fact, like a wandering circus, seminars and conferences on the Balkans take place across Europe every few weeks (or more). I sometimes wonder why “the future of Kosovo” needs to be discussed by a similar crowd of people every other month in another European holiday destination (Paris, Athens, Rome, Vienna ….). However, in the end the intellectual activity that takes place (or does not) at these events matters. This is true for better or worse: when such meetings generate no ideas, or the wrong ones, the consequences will also usually be felt before long …

Compared with other sumptious gathering this EPC task force meeting is a frugal affair. A small group, exchanging ideas over sandwiches, with the vague notion to “contribute to the debate” on the future of EU policy. What exactly we would contribute is left open, it is only agreed that there would be some paper at the end, still to be determined. Participants prepare presentations for each other and then discuss them. I volunteer for a presentation in February on lessons for the Western Balkans from the Eastern Balkans.

Who are the members of this group? There is the chair, a former senior commission official in charge of enlargement, Graham Avery. There is Judy Batt (now based in Paris), Jacques Rupnik (from Paris), Tim Judah (based in London), and others. These are all familiar faces. I had recently met Jacques in Tirana at the Albanian ambassador’s conference (see The gate-crashing principle), Judy in Belgrade a few months ago and Tim in Pristina. I narrowly missed him at an event in Georgia, and would have seen him at another event in DC next February, if I would have accepted the invitation. This indicates the nature of this loose network of Balkan watchers: as a group, people who work on the Balkans in policy institutes across Europe probably meet at least as often as their political counterparts from European foreign ministries. And like them, the thing they do is talk.

Does this kind of talk matter? There are many bad conferences, badly prepared speakers, repetitive moments at conferences around Europe. However, listening to Jacques explain the latest thinking in France about the future of enlargement, hearing Tim’s first hand information about his latest encounters with diplomats and politicians in Belgrade, learning from Judy about whatever her latest trip to the region revealed about the mood in Belgrade or Podgorica is always of enormous benefit. So is seeing their reactions to concrete ESI proposals.

What does Lajcak really want to achieve in Bosnia? (Judy has become one of his outside advisors). What is Tim’s latest impression of the political dynamics in Belgrade? (where Tim goes all the time). How genuine is the new French rhetoric about enlargement? (Jacques explains that it is real, having discussed this on a panel recently with the Minister for Europe in Paris, Jean-Pierre Jouyet). How might the idea of an early screening in the Western Balkans be received by the Commission? (I note with relief that Graham Avery finds the idea interesting). Etc …

Malcolm Gladwell has written about the “law of the few” in the spreading of ideas, distinguishing between connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors are people who know lots of people. Salesmen are those “with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing.” Mavens (a Yiddish word which, Gladwell tells us, means one who accumulates knowledge) are people “who read more magazines than the rest of us, more newspapers, and they may be the only people who read junk mail”:

“What sets Mavens apart, though, is not so much what they know but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention.”

Mavens are “really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.” This is perhaps the best way to describe this EPC meeting: as a gathering of Balkan mavens.

Connectors in Brussels

L. Keith Gardiner notes in an article written in 1989 (Dealing with Intelligence-Policy Disconnects) that policy analysis “cannot serve if it does not know the doer’s minds; it cannot serve if it does not have their confidence.” He also writes that

“most policy-makers probably would welcome analysis that helps them to develop a sound picture of the world, to list the possible ways to achieve their action goals, and to influence others to accept their visions.”

This calls for “colorful, anecdotal language”:

“analysts strongly prefer to transmit knowledge through writing, because only writing can capture the full complexity of what they want to convey. Policy consumers, however, tend to seek what can be called “news” rather than knowledge; they are more comfortable with a mode of communication that more closely resembles speech.”

This, then, is the third reason to come to Brussels (and do so regularly): one-on-one meetings with EU officials, with friends, like Heather Grabbe, from the cabinet of Olli Rehn, who is in charge of Turkey; old friends like Michael Giffoni, now heading the Balkan department in the Council (we worked together in Bosnia almost a decade ago). The Balkan team in the Slovenian permanent representation in Brussels. Ben Crampton, working on Kosovo in the council, another old hand from the Balkans (whose father, one of the leading historians on South East Europe, I had known in Oxford). Stefan Lehne, the director for the Balkans and East Europe in the EU Council …

Until the next trip …

The fourth task, finally, is the real bread and butter of our work, without which there would be nothing to share, no ideas to present, and no reputation to open any doors: sitting and grappling with the draft of future ESI reports with Alex. Sitting in her apartment in Ixelles we prepare a short intervention for the upcoming debate on the future mandate of the OHR (which will be discussed at the PIC at the end of February). We discuss the Austrian debate on Turkey (a report which has been depressing me for a few months now). We talk through in detail our upcoming report on the German debate on Turkey. And then there is another amitious report on Central Bosnia to finish ….

In the end the whole trip to Brussels lasts a mere three days. As I leave a new long list of dates has been fixed which imply coming to Brussels: a presentation in February to the EPC taks force; a presentation of the Balkan film project with the Slovenes; a presentation on energy policy in the Balkans at EPC; a meeting with Olli Rehn; another one with Javier Solana; a brainstorming with Peter Feith, the future head of the International Mission in Kosovo, and his senior team. Thus the cycle of trips to the European capital never ends …

For the past seven years I have come to Brussels every few weeks.  These trips are all similar: walking between the buildings which surround Schuman square,   the Charlemagne (home to DG enlargement), Justus Lipsius (home to the European Council), the Berlaymont (the refurbished headquarter of the Commission) and the Residence Palace (home to the European Policy Centre, EPC, and to many NGOs and international media); entering various cubicle offices, spending time between meetings in the Greek cafe behind Charlemagne, giving power point presentations. 

This three-day trip (Monday to Thursday) was no different.  However, having promised to describe how a think tank works in practice let me share the impressions of these days: an ordinary week in the life of a peddler of ideas.

I came to Brussels to give a briefing to Coweb (see below); to participate in a brainstorming organised by the European Policy Centre, an NGO; to meet EU officials to find out more about policy towards Turkey and the Balkans; to set up meetings with Olli Rehn and Javier Solana; and to work with Alex, my Brussels-based colleague, on the upcoming – and likely controversial – ESI report on the German debate on Turkey. 

Presenting, brainstorming, persuading, interviewing, drafting: this is the bread and butter of a think-tanker. 

Coweb and the Balkan Ghetto   

Coweb is a group where representatives of the 27-EU member states come together to discuss and harmonise policies towards the Western Balkans. Officials meet once a week in the Justus Lipsius building, currently decorated with photographs of Slovenia.  Meetings are chaired by the country holding the EU presidency, currently Slovenia.  

(Alex and myself also brought two heavy boxes with the most recent ESI reports for each of the 27 delegations: the recent report on Doboj, the discussion paper on police reform in Bosnia, and the report on “cutting the migration lifeline” in Kosovo. ”Dissemination of ideas”, even in the age of the internet, is a sport that involves heavy lifting).

I had been invited to Coweb before; in fact, this was my sixth presentation since 2001.  The goal this time was make a case for progress towards visa-free travel for citizens of the Western Balkans. It is a cause which Slovenian officials want to see advance during their presidency.  It is also one which ESI has pushed for some years.  Now it looked like there was momentum for a real breakthrough.

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament had published an opinion in October 2007 where it had used harsh words to describe the “draconian visa regime” imposed by the EU on the Western Balkans: 

“Rather than serving its original purpose, notably that of preventing local criminal networks from extending their activities outside the region, it has prevented honest students, academics, researchers and businessmen from developing close contacts with partners in the EU countries.  A sense of isolation, of undeserved discrimination, of ghettoisation has prevailed, particularly amongst the youngest, which has undermined their European identity.  Europe is a prosperous society to which they would like to belong but from which they feel rejected.” 

The text goes on to “question the very foundations of the visa policy which the Union has hitherto applied towards the countries of south-eastern Europe” and concludes:

“The European Parliament, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs in particular, strongly advocate lifting as soon as technically possible the visa requirements for citizens of the region. In our view this should be a tangible sign that their countries belong to Europe ….”

The European Commission has also become bolder in calling for change. In its enlargement strategy paper in November 2007 it had announced that it wanted to start a dialogue with each country with a view to establishing road-maps defining the precise conditions to be met for lifting the visa requirement. 

In a confidential draft of a “Communication on the Western Balkans” (to be published at the end of March), which it had circulated among member states, DG enlargement proposed to begin a  dialogue on visa liberalisation with each of the Western Balkan states right away, to conclude these talks by July 2008.  These talks were to lead to specific road-maps: 

“They will set out benchmarks for the countries to meet requirements in areas such as border management, document security, and the fight against corruption and organised crime … the speed of movement towards visa liberalisation will depend on each country’s progress in fulfilling the benchmarks. … Once the conditions for each country are fulfilled, the Commission will propose to the Council the lifting of the visa obligation for the citizens of the country in question, through amending of Council Regulation 539/2001″

Adopting such a resolution would be an important step forward. However, the proposal remained controversial, both within the Commission and due to opposition from some member states, notably Germany.  For these member states even cautious steps forward – such as setting out more clearly what countries in the region needed to do  - went too far.  Spelling out the conditions in EU conditionality appeared to them too generous a concession.  

So what, under these conditions, was the point of my presentation in Coweb?  I saw it as providing support for the argument that there was indeed an urgency for the EU to act.  We have long argued that it was in the EU’s own interest to give a “tangible sign to the region” that it belonged to Europe. The recent (and not surprising) turn of events in Serbia adds urgency to the message.

I first set out that the Balkans in 2007 was indeed a very different region from the Balkans in 1997, making arguments familiar from ESI reports: that there is no evidence that a country like Bosnia is ”at the centre” of transnational organised crime, as is sometimes argued. That most outsider’s images about anarchy in Albania are outdated.  That introducing visa-free travel for Macedonians (2 million people), Montenegrins (600,000), Bosnians (less than 4 million people) or 3 million Albanians was taking a small risk indeed compared to granting it to Romania and Bulgaria in 2001 (which together have some 30 million inhabitants) … and that in the latter cases the importance of this step for their overall (successful) transformation cannot be exaggerated.  As Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, founder of the Romanian think tank SAR, once noted: 

“It was the lifting of the visa regime rather than the beginning of the accession negotiations that made it possible for the EU to earn the hearts of the citizens of the Eastern Balkans.” 

Compare this to the experience of most people in the Western Balkans trying to “reach Europe”: while Albanian citizens could watch the celebrations surrounding the elimination of the Schengen border between Germany and Poland and Austria and Slovenia in December 2007 on their TV screens, they were then told in January 2008 that one of the very few countries in the world to which they could still travel without too many problems – Macedonia – was planning to introduce a tougher visa regime, in the name of preparing itself for the EU!  In fact the Western Balkans are today one of the most isolated regions on earth in terms of travel restrictions. 

This is a strong (and  memorable) claim.  Here is the evidence: take a look at the Henley Visa Restrictions Index, a “global ranking of countries according to travel freedom their citizens enjoy“.  Albania comes 184 out of 192 countries in the world in terms of travel freedom! Or compare the freedom of travel of other Western Balkan countries with those of their fellow Europeans: 

“Finnish citizens can travel to 130 countries without visa (2006). Belgians to 127. Austrians to 125.  Hungarians to 101. Romanians to 73. Serbs to 32. Bosnians to 25.” 

What signal does this send to the region, to Bosnia 12 years after the end of war, to Serbia 7 years after the fall of Milosevic?  Nor will visa faciliation - which entered into force in January 2008 – change the fact that half of all applicants for a visa in Albania in 2006 were in fact rejected and that the process of obtaining a visa remains burdensome and expensive for citizens across the region.  For this I could refer to an excellent analysis done by the Tirana-based think-tank Agenda.

At the same time,  while some things are better than they appear from the outside, other problems - including the dramatic erosion of EU soft power in Serbia and the unchanged social and economic crisis in Kosovo – are worse than they look.  

Few EU policies have done more to undermine the attractiveness of the EU model of society than its visa-policy: both directly (few people from the Western Balkans can actually go and see how EU countries, including new member states, develop) and indirectly (by increasing frustrations and cynicism about the rhetoric of “steady progress towards integration”).  The political price for this can be witnessed in Serbia.  Unless something is done it is likely to rise across the region.  There is also a high economic price: compare the development just in the past few years in two very similar cities, Novi Sad in Northern Serbia and Timisoara in Western Romania; or look at the economic fortunes of two groups of people living next to each other in Central Bosnia (Bosnian Croats, who usually have a Croatian passport and need not aquire a visa to travel, vs. their Bosniac neighbours, who do not).  In Central Bosnia most of the businesses are set up by Croats.  Having interviewed many of these entrepreneurs it is obvious that their ability to travel freely to Europe is a key to their success. 

In conclusion I suggested to put all countries of the Western Balkans on the “white Schengen list” immediately with an asterix (*).  The same was done for Romania in 2001.  Under this proposal the asterix would indicate that once conditions defined in country-specific road maps were met visa free travel would follow.   

This would send a powerful political message at a moment when the EU needs maximum leverage in the region (and risked loosing it).  It would support those (in the Commission and among member states) who call for precise roadmaps to be drawn up soon. It would increase the incentives for Western Balkan governments to implement reforms that reduce crime.  It would provide civil society in the region with a tool to push their own governments to address specific shortcoming (such as the lack of a credible civil registy in Albania!). It is a win-win proposal which costs little.

The presentation was followed by 30 minutes of comments and questions. There was quite a lively exchange of opinion (which I cannot quote).  Overall, however, there was broad support among a majority of member states to do something.  There was also resistance from a few others.  By the time Alex and myself left Coweb we could hope to have added a small pebble to the pyramide of arguments needed to change opinions on this matter. 

A few months ago in Novi Sad (October 2007) ESI had co-organised a brainstorming with think tanks from across the region on how to mount a campaign on the visa issue, bringing together institutions working on this across the region. Now we are getting ready to launch this campaign. Coweb is a good way to start, even if the intellectual and political battle is certain to continue. 

…. Continue: go to Peddling ideas around Schuman II (Brussels in January: EPC)  

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