Paradise Lost? From Smyrna to Skopje to Berlin (part 1)

I have spent the past month travelling through the Balkans (Skopje, Tirana, Pristina, Belgrade) and visiting Sweden, Bratislava and Chisinau. I presented on and drafted texts about a lot of different issues: debates in Greece and Macedonia about identities; debates in Turkey about Turkish Christians and their rights; debates in Germany about Islam and Turks; Swedish, Slovak and European debates on the future of Balkan and Turkish enlargement. In all these seemingly unrelated debates there was one common thread, however, always leading back to the question of what is at stake in the future of EU enlargement today: why enlargement matters.

For some time I have wondered whether the current discourse on the importance of South East European enlargement, its significance for the European project (and not just for the 20 some million people of the Western Balkans) has not become stale, unconvincing, full of wooden language and cliches.

If EU enlargement is to go ahead and not to turn into an agonizing technocratic exercise, in which very few people actually believe, a different narrative is needed. European leaders and thinkers have lost the vision of enlargement, and it is vital to recapture it (on the charge that this might be too elitist a way to think about this political project more later).

To try to explain this let me start from where I sit at this moment: in a cafe on the pier of Izmir, looking out at at the Aegean Sea and Mount Pagus.

Gerald Knaus

The Destruction of Smyrna

If you arrive today in Izmir, the leading city of Aegean Turkey with 2 million inhabitants, the standard guidebooks tell you little. To quote what I first read, arriving here three days ago: “despite a long and illustrious history, most of the city is relentlessly modern – even enthusiasts will concede that a couple of days here as a tourist are plenty”; this is a city “not entirely without interest” due to its natural setting and ethnological museum. No wonder most of the tourists who flock to the Aegean coast do not pause here on their way to Ephesus or the coastal resorts.

However, there is one way to make any visit to Izmir unforgetable. Chose a day like this Sunday, when sun sets gloriously over the mountains of the Bay of Izmir. Then pick up Giles Milton’s gripping account of the fate of this city in the early 20th century: Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922 – The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance.

One century ago Izmir, then known as Smyrna, boasted 11 Greek, 7 Turkish, 4 French and 5 Hebrew local daily newspapers; it had a Greek population of some 320,000, at least twice that of Athens at the time; it was famous for its large Jewish, Armenian, European and Turkish quarters; and it was reknown for a cosmopolitan business elite which included multilingual Levantine families (to find out more about who these go here: ; a city which had

“long been celebrated as a beacon of tolerance – home to scores of nationalities with a shared outlook and intertwined lives. It was little wonder that the Americans living in the metropolis had named their colony Paradise; life here was remarkably free form prejudice and many found it ironic that they had to come to the Islamic world to find a place that had none of the bigotry so omnipresent at home.” (Giles Milton)

Even skeptics, of which even then there were many in Europe, were vulnerable to the appeal of Smyrna:

“Visiting European intellectuals were fascinated to observe such a racially mixed city at close quarters. When the Austrian savant, Charles de Scherzer, had visited Smyrna in 1874, he brought with him a most negative image of the Turks, yet he went away with all his preconceptions shattered. “In matters of religion”, he wrote, “they are – contrary to their reputation – the most tolerant people of the Orient.”

And yet, as we all know, one century ago cities like these – fin-de-siecle Czernowitz or Vilnius, Wraclaw, Vienna or Prague, late Ottoman Thessaloniki or Istanbul – lived under a dark shadow, cast by the dominant ideology of the age: romantic nationalism.

Early 20th century Smyrna was a majority-Christian city located in majority Muslim Anatolia, a land increasingly torn by religious and ethnic hatreds. At that time European leaders were about to “turn off the lights” for a century and allow a descent into collective madness. Those decisions were taken in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow and Paris, but they directly impacted on Istanbul, Athens and the people of Smyrna

In today’s terms Smyrna was “multicultural”: many communities living side by side, interacting, mingling, while preserving with some pride their own identities. It was multicultural at a moment in European history when the future belonged to nationalists, promising ethnic purity, the creation of nation states, and the need to assimilate or expel minorities, not to tolerate differences and live with them. It was an age which looked at pluralism with suspicion, where minorities were increasingly looking nervously to their mother countries for protection, and were simultaneously viewed by their co-citizens as fifth columns and security threats.

All of this was already clearly apparent in Anatolia at the time, where hatreds were fueled by the military defeats of the Ottomans in the Balkan wars in the early 20th century.

When the Ottomans lost control of all of Macedonia during the six-week long Balkan war in autumn 1912, a large number of Muslim refugees was expelled from the Balkans. This led the leaders of the Ottoman Empire to cast aside all ideas they might have had as late as 1908 about creating an Ottoman citizenship, and to embrace instead an increasingly racist and exclusivist vision of their state as a land of the Turks.

Anatolia’s hatreds erupted again during World War I. And they exploded into a savage war with the 1919 Greek invasion to annex Western Anatolia and the atrocities committed by the Greek invading army, dreaming of recreating a Byzantine Empire. This is a complex, but familiar story with one key theme: the idea that brutalities were permitted to destroy multiethnic life in order to create modern nation-states.

And thus it came that in September 1922 multicultural Smyrna literally went up in flames. 70 percent of the city burnt down following the reconquest by Turkish soldiers. The entire Christian population fled in terror. The destruction of Smyrna coincided with the uprooting of all of Anatolia’s Greek population.

And just as many of the Muslim refugees who had streamed into the Ottoman Empire following the Balkan wars had come from Macedonia, so many of Anatolia’s (and Smyrna’s) Greeks were directed to settle in Greek Macedonia following the tragic loss of their homeland.

More on that, and on the relationship between the debate on multicultural democracies and enlargement in Europe today, in my next entry.

Obama, Wulff and Christians as enemies of Turkey

US President Barack Obama speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009
US President Barack Obama speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009.
Photo: White House / Chuck Kennedy

On 5 April 2009 US president Barack Hussein Obama came to Ankara and delivered a speech in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. In addition to praising Turkey he also touched the issue of the position of Turkey’s Christians:

“Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full measure of contributions from all citizens”

German President Christian Wulff speaking to the Turkish Parliament on 19 October 2010.
Photo: Bundespräsidialamt

On 19 October 2010 German President Christian Wulff came to Ankara for the first time ever to address the Grand National Assembly. He noted the importance of Turkey as a partner. He also touched the sensitive issue of religious freedom. First in the context of the German debate on integration: in Germany, he said, Muslims were able to practice their religion, pointing to the growing number of mosques being built there. Then he continued:

“At the same time, we expect that Christians in Muslim countries be given the same rights to practice their beliefs in public, to educate new religious leaders and to build churches.”

This is, in fact, one of the most baffling problems of Turkey today.

Given that Turkish politicians are (rightly) noting that the EU should not be discriminating against people or indeed countries just because they are Muslim it is all the more remarkable that so little is done to improve the position of Turkey’s Christians. This seems one area where it should be easy and painless to do the right thing for Turkey’s citizens without paying a big domestic political price. In addition this would be a real boost for Turkey’s international image: initiatives such as opening the Halki Seminary (near Istanbul) for Orthodox clergy, addressing the Patriarch by his official name (Ecumenical) or allowing the small groups of Christians the right to set up churches or register associations would be widely noted and praised outside the country. So why is this proving so hard?

One answer is “technical”. As Orhan Kemal Cengiz noted in an article this week:

“Due to amendments made within the framework of EU harmonization laws (2004-2008 amendments), restrictive provisions in the Law on Associations and the Law on Foundations were eliminated and non-Muslim groups achieved the means of obtaining legal personality, even if not in an entirely satisfactory form. Whereas there were previously verdicts indicating that foundations and associations could not be established on behalf of a congregation, today some foundations and a number of associations in various provinces established by non-Muslims are in operation. While this unquestionably represents a step forward, it cannot be said that these associations and foundations fully meet the needs of the congregations in question. Turkey’s laws and legal practices are in conflict with the main model in Europe, which is that religious communities and institutions are recognized as such and “allowed to register and obtain legal personality, without having to go [indirectly] by way of other institutional arrangements.””

“In its present state, the legislation that provides for non-Muslim groups to gain legal personality is confusing and open to potential abuse. In reality, granting non-Muslim groups the possibility of establishing an association limited to the purpose of “founding a church” creates ambiguity regarding the legal status of these associations.”

But the real explanation – and the reason behind these technical problems – is political.

In order to anwers this question ESI has set out to do extensive research over the past two years, which is going to be published soon on our website. We focused on two groups in particular, both tiny in terms of numbers: Turkey’s Orthodox Greek community (largely in Istanbul) and Turkey’s tiny Protestant community.

One of the most striking things in this matter (which will also be explored more in our report) is the position of the Turkish Armed Forces, supposed guardians of Turkish secularism. In May 2009 Emruhan Yalcin, a retired captain in the Armed Forces and graduate of the Turkish Land Forces Academy, who has spent some years in Germany in the 1990s, published a whole book on the Halki Theological School in May 2009. Its title: “The Last Crusader Fortress” (Son Hacli Kalesi). The final chapter of the book is as clear: “Why the Theological School on Heybeliada should not be opened”. For Yalcin the reopening of the Theological School “has to be evaluated as a political demand symbolizing Hellenic and Orthodox aspirations” Religious education of “men who are enemies of the Turks” will

“transform Istanbul under the roof of a cultural and tourism centre into a Vatican-style religious city with the status of a state, dividing Turkey and building on the divided parts, following the framework of the “Megali Idea”, a Great Byzantine Empire.”

This is not, however, an isolated view at all among men of Yalcin’s background. The view of the orthodox patriarchate or of protestant missionaries as a serious national security threat is taught to generations of conscripts in Turkey’s military as part of their ideological training. In March 2006 the editor of mass-daily Hurriyet, Ertugrul Ozkok, complained openly about this in an op-ed addressed to Yasar Buyukanit, then the commander of the Turkish Land Forces:

“several commanders appointed by the general staff … openly mentioned that the Phanar patriarchate is an enemy institution seeking to destroy Turkey. … In these speeches it has been mentioned that Christians are continuing their missionary activities by which they aim to destroy the Turkish state. It is openly mentioned that those who support the European Union are traitors.”

This is striking indeed: Turkey, a founding member of the Council of Europe, a member of NATO and a candidate for accession to the EU has a military that teaches young Turks that Christians are trying to destroy the Turkish state!

Such views are not only prevalent in the Armed Forces, of course: it is noteworthy, however, how in Turkish civil society, in the media, in academia and in the arts such views are increasingly challenged. This too is a sign of a deeper change and it dates to the most recent years. This also means that Wulff’s views on this issue will be welcomed not only by Turkey’s minorities. Recent years have seen legal changes to improve the position of Christians. They have also seen a new debate emerge attitudes and policies behind discrimination in the past decades.

It is noteworthy that the almost complete destruction of the Greek population of Istanbul took place in a period of peace, in a Turkey already member of both the Council of Europe and NATO. It was the result of specific politics pursued and expressing a specific mindset.

In 1940 there were still more than 100,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. In 1965 the Turkish census asked (for the last time) questions about the mother tongue of people living in Turkey. It found that there were then 127,037 who spoke Greek (48,096 as their first and 78,941 as their second language). In 1965 there were still 42 Greek primary and 6 Greek secondary schools, attended by 6,002 pupils.

Table: Istanbul and its Greek population

Total population

Greek orthodox

















(1980) 2,773,000




1,200 – 5,000

By the end of the 1970s the total population of Greeks in Istanbul had fallen to below 8,000. In 1991, the year Bartholomew became patriarch, the number of students in all Greek schools in Istanbul was 415. Today it stands at 220.

Note that this means that even if recently things improved, there is an obvious need for the state to be more proactive. In fact, there is a risk today that both the Greek community and the Orthodox Church might disappear in Istanbul by the time the Turkish republic celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023.

Patriarch Bartholomew. Photo:

This week the German President will also meet with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. They are likely to get on well. Perhaps Christian Wulff will then also be able to quote Bartholomew when he returns to Germany, to convey his message that Turkey’s aspiration to be accepted as a full member of the European Union is also in Europe’s interest. In September 2008 the patriarch told the European Parliament:

“Turkey is a country that belongs to the big European family. … We are interested in this as citizens as well as a religious minority. … For accession to the European Union, some set criteria and European values must be respected. In Turkey, we can see efforts being made in this direction, to modernise the country and to fully implement the EU regulations in the national law.”

When a journalist asked him “do you think the process to bring Turkey closer to the EU can help its modernisation?” he responded:

“I am sure it can. In addition, I think the fact that we are a country with a very large Muslim majority should not be a problem, because the European Union sets itself as a reality that respects cultural and religious diversity.”

How better could Turkey advance its intereststhan by embracing both the message and the man, who is after all also a Turkish citizen, born in Turkey, who even served in the Turkish military?

And what could be a better message for Wulff to take back to Berlin and to share with his Christian Democratic friends?

UPCOMING ESI REPORT (soon to be found on the ESI website):

  • Turkey’s Greeks in Istanbul
  • Turkish Protestants and the Future of Ultranationalism

"Multikulti is dead" and other ideas which are bad for the Balkans

Multikulti is dead – or is it not? Shop window in Berlin-Neukoelln.
Photo: flickr/Schockwellenreiter, Gabriele Kantel

This is not promising.

A few weeks ago Angela Merkel’s reaction was to reject the anti-Muslim populism of former Bundesbanker Thilo Sarrazin; later she defended the observation by German president Wulff on German national day that “Islam is part of German reality”.

Now, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently feels that it is time to make some rhetorical concession to the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment washing across Germany. Speaking to young members of the CDU, one reporter noted, she explained that

“the so-called “multikulti” concept – where people would “live side-by-side” happily – did not work. Mrs Merkel’s comments come amid recent outpourings of strong anti-immigrant feeling from mainstream politicians. A recent survey showed that more than 30% of Germans believed Germany was “overrun by foreigners”.”

This follows statements by Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, CSU, that it was “obvious that immigrants from different cultures like Turkey and Arab countries, all in all, find it harder”. Or Thilo Sarrazin’s statement that “no immigrant group other than Muslims is so strongly connected with claims on the welfare state and crime”.

There are many things that can be said about this debate, which is rapidly emerging as one of the most important for the future of a number of European societies. ESI has in fact put together a picture story with some facts and figures about Turks in Germany in 2008, which you find HERE (which we are going to update soon in light of the current debate).

But let me concentrate for one moment on two aspects of this debate which have not yet been discussed much.

1. What does all this mean for the future of EU policy towards Turkey and the Balkans? I put the question also to Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, today at a gathering of East European leaders and thinkers in Visby (since the meeting was off the record you have to infer the answer from Carl Bildt’s general positive attitude towards enlargement – as he often puts it, in Europe “Muslims are our neighbours – European neighbours and literally neighbours where we live in our homes”)

When countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria or France appear to witness rising islamophobia (defined as the sentiment, apparently shared by almost half of all Germans, that “Germany would be better off without Islam”), it seems natural to expect that this could affect perceptions of applicant countries with significant Muslim populations. Or that it might also have an impact on the German debate on Turkey that (German) Turks are rapidly becoming the least popular group of foreigners; all the appreciation for the successful multicultural national football team – and its new star Mesut Ozil – notwithstanding?

According to one recent survey of 1,600 young German Turks and 20.000 young Germans, a total of only 9 percent of German Turks said they felt uncomfortable with the idea of having German neighbours. At the same time, 38 percent of young Germans said that they felt uncomfortable with Turkish neighbours. This makes Turks the least popular group of foreigners, as one article in Sueddeutsche Zeitung notes:

“Damit rangieren Türken auf dem letzten Rang der Beliebtheitsskala, hinter Schweden, Italienern, Schwarzafrikanern, Juden und Osteuropäern. “Die Türken wünschen sich mehr Kontakt zu den Deutschen, aber die Deutschen zeigen ihnen die kalte Schulter”, sagte Pfeiffer.”

(“This makes Turks come in at the very end of the popularity scale, well after Swedes, Italians, Africans, Jews, and East Europeans. “Turks want more contact with Germans but the Germans show them a cold shoulder”, Pfeiffer says [Christian Pfeiffer is the head of a research centre for criminal sciences that carried out this survey].)

Ironically, at the same time, German newspapers in recent days have been full of concern about the phenomenon of “anti-German” racism on the part of these very same young German Turks. (If you read German then read this: “Racism – the silence of schools towards hostility against Germans”)

Now clearly this phenomenon – Deutschenfeindlichkeit – exists. It is a visible problem in certain schools and urban areas in Germany; anybody who has lived in some parts of Berlin, particularly Neukoellkn, knows this. At the same time, suggesting, as some have done recently, that this issue has until now been a “taboo”, not noted or discussed before for reasons of political correctness, seems bizzare, if one only recalls the heated debate which took place in 2006 when the film Knallhart – about Arab and Turkish gangs dealing with drugs mistreating a young German in Neukoelln – came into German cinemas:

“David Kross stars as 15-year-old Michael Polischka, who’s forced to move from posh Zehlendorf to run-down Berlin-Neukolln after his mother, Miriam splits from her wealthy lover, Doctor Peters. Though he quickly makes friends at his new school, Michael also finds himself the target of a gang of vicious bullies, led by the sadistic Erroll.”

Erroll, of course, is a Turk and the debate about the film focused on the aggressiveness and macho-culture of young German Turkish gangs. And yet, the survey data suggests that Deutschenfeindlichkeit is less prevalent than the opposite reaction: widespread anti-Turkish prejudice of young Germans. This excuses neither form of prejudice or racism – but it puts the current debate in some perspective.

However, if a growing number of young Germans (and perhaps Austrians or Dutch?) do not want to have a Turkish or Muslim neighbour, will this not also affect attitudes towards the EU accession of Balkan countries or Turkey?

2. At the same time, there is the question how European debates of this kind will influence inter-religious relations and debates in the Balkans itself. It seems only a question of time before some Balkan leaders appropriate this kind of discourse: for now, it seems easier to build a mosque in Republika Srpska than in Switzerland, which is quite a striking turn of events in light of the 1990s.

Is anybody in the EU aware what the impact of making this kind of talk acceptable would be in the Balkans? If “multikulti” is dead, what does this suggest for the future of multicultural or multiethnic and multireligious societies in the Balkans? There, these kinds of arguments were advanced not long ago by a very different (and sinister) crop of politicians.

ESI is currently writing a report on prejudice and discrimination against Christian Turks in Turkey. It is encouraging that in this area some bad practices and deep prejudices in Turkey are now being challenged. It would be tragic if the discourse about hostile civilisations and the impossibility of living together are now coming no longer just from intolerant Turkish (or Balkan) nationalists, but are the result of a wave of Islamophobia in Western societies.

There is some hope, however: for this debate shows that in some sense today BOTH Turkey and Germany, Europe and the Western Balkans, are struggling with similar problems. Coping with integration, which has both a domestic and a foreign policy (enlargement) component, is in fact crucial for the future of Europe. Coming to terms with the reality of different religions and groups coexisting is not just a challenge for societies in South East Europe today; and perhaps one day soon Germans and other Europeans might even learn something from Macedonians or Montenegrins about tolerance and living together? If Turkey and the Western Balkans would be members by 2020, then the EU will have some 600 million inhabitants, of which 100 million would be Muslims!

All this makes the recent constructive statement of Germany’s president – and previous similar statements by leading Christian Democrats such as Wolfgang Schauble – about Islam in Germany all the more encouraging.

Next week German President Wulff will travel to Turkey. It might be too much to hope, but would it not be wonderful if this would be also be an occasion for Turkey’s leaders to announce some initiative to show that in Turkey efforts are made to overcome prejudices against other religions? For instance a promise to make life easier for Christian churches or for the Orthodox Patriarchate? Would it not be best if leaders in Berlin and Ankara shame each other with their efforts to reach out to minorities and build bridges?

Prejudice is a clear problem; addressing it openly and then looking for solutions is the only way for progress. It is obvious that in this matter, as in many others, a more open, European and democratic Turkey is going to be a huge benefit not only for its own citizens but also for the current EU – and the same holds true for Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and the rest of the Western Balkans.

What is no less true, however, is that the struggle for tolerance and successful integration is just as crucial in Western societies. As Wolfgang Schäuble defined the goal in 2006, opening the German Islam Conference: “We want enlightened Muslims in an enlightened country.” One might add: “in an enlightened Europe.”

Further reading: in this context see also these earlier ESI publications:

The march of Balkan history? – Gerald Knaus 5th October presentation

On 5th October I was invited to the anniversary conference commemorating the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia one decade ago. It was a thought-provoking gathering with a wide range of speakers: Serbian president Boris Tadic, Bozidar Djelic, Mikulas Dzurinda, Vuk Jeremic, Eduard Kukan, George Papandreou, Francois Heissbourg, Goran Svilanovic, Pavol Demes and others.

I also gave a presentation, a short version of arguments my colleagues and I are developing fully for a forth-coming ESI paper on the Balkans – any feedback at this stage is very welcome!

Belgrade, 5th October 2010

Dear friends,

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to come to Belgrade on this special occasion, to look back at an eventful decade with so many friends, to take stock, to take heart, and to share ideas about the lessons the recent past holds for all of us, interested in democratisation in general and in South East Europe in particular.

At the same time this event is more than a celebration of the breakthrough in October 2000. It finds many of us impatient; it is not merely, or even mainly, an occasion to rejoice in what has been achieved, but more importantly a chance to assess what still needs to be done. In recent months we have all come across symptoms of “Balkan fatigue” in many quarters, a sense of frustration that things are not moving along faster.

So let me take a closer look today at some causes behind the impatience many of us feel; at some specific challenges the Balkan region faces in realising the vision of a “return to Europe” that president Tadic outlined at the opening of today’s event; and in particular at the role, policies and responsibilities of the European Union.

Battle of ideas

There are different ways to convey how far the region, and Europe as a whole, has come since the 1990s. One is to focus on the battle of ideas. So here are two prominent European thinkers looking at the Balkans in the first half of the 1990s. One is French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In 1994 he published an article in the Belgrade paper Borba, under the titel “Without Pity”. There he argued, against the background of the war in Bosnia, that “all European countries are going the way of ethnic cleansing. That is the real Europe … Bosnia is only its new frontier.” Two years earlier an Irish writer, Conor Cruise o’Brien, had offered an equally glommy take on the Balkans. He wrote in 1992:

“There are places where a lot of men prefer war, and the looting and raping and domineering that go with it, to any sort of peace time occupation. One such place is Afghanistan. Another is Yugoslavia …”

These deeply pessimistic visions, arguing either that the whole edifice of post-World War II European civilisation was brittle, and all of Europe was doomer to a “normality” of clashes of civilisation and ethnic hatred OR that, at the very least, Balkan people and societies belonged to a different, pre-modern world distinct from the “civilised” rest of Europe, were actually widely shared in the 1990s … not only in Belgrade or Zagreb, but also in Paris, London, Athens and elsewhere in the EU. This also explains how it was possible for a UN general, Canadian Major General Louis MacKenzie, head of the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, to tell the US congress in May 1993 that the law of the jungle was the true law of humanity: “Force has been rewarded since the first caveman picked up a club, occupied his neighbour’s cave, and ran off with his wife.” This explains how it was possible for Karadzic and Mladic to be welcomed as heros in Athens in the early 1990s. It explains why some leaders thought that the most “realistic” response to the Balkan tragedy was to let events run its “natural” course. If soft power is the ability to get others to want what you want, then European soft power in the 1990s suffered from the obvious: that it was not clear what Europe wanted.

Ideas matter. Nationalist ideas. Ideas of Balkan exceptionalism. Erik Hobsbawm has underlined that intellectuals are to national movements what”poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts – the suppliers of the raw material for the market.” There were many such poppy growers, mainly but not only, in the Balkans. They prepared the ground, first for the disastrous wars of the 90s, then for the failures to stop them.

At the same time during the 1990s the notion of a “return to Europe” was a complex one. There was a time, not long ago, when “Europe” did not stand for values of democratic governance and peaceful interdependence: when, as historian Mark Mazower reminds us in Dark Continent, European civilisation was not actually tending towards democracy. Mazower writes that “though we may like to think democracy’s victory in the cold war proves its deep roots in Europe’s soil, history tells us otherwise. Triumphant in 1918, it was virtually extinct twenty years on.” There is a strong non-democratic, nationalist, militaristic and authoritarian 20th century European tradition, and it is one that Balkan leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic could refer to when they stressed the supposed debt Europe owed to Serbia. As he put it in his infamous 1989 speech in Kosovo Polje, he too was in favour of a “return to Europe”:

“Six centuries ago, here on Kosovo field, Serbia defended herself. But she defended also Europe. She stood then on the rampart of Europe, defending European culture, religion, European society as a whole. That is why today it seems no only unjustified, but also unhistorical and completely absurd to question Serbia’s belonging to Europe.”

Of course, after world war II Western Europe embraced other values. The question in the 1990s was in which European tradition Serbia and other Balkan countries saw themselves: the first or the second half of the 20th century. The Central Europeans made a clear choice in 1989. The results were dramatic. In 1990 the number of Poles who feared Germany was above 80 percent. By 2009 it had fallen to 14 percent. After 1989 the goal of joining an integrating democratic continent spread across the whole of Central Europe. And in October 2000, on the day we remember today, it finally became realistic to imagine that the same ideas would be embraced across the whole of the Western Balkans as well. It was also a major breakthrough in the battle of ideas.

October 2000 was followed by the EU Balkan Zagreb summit in 2000. There and then the EU stated that it “reaffirms the European perspective of the countries” of the Western Balkans. This was an interesting way of bracketing the disastrous 1990s, in which few people – in the region and in the EU – had spent much time to think about this vision. This was in turn re-reaffirmed in the Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans in 2003 when the European Council “reiterated that the future of the Western Balkans is within the European Union”. Then the 2006 EU Salzburg Declaration noted: “the EU confirms that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union.” Affirmed, reaffirmed, confirmed … the story of EU-Balkan relations in the decade since 2000 is the story of an increasingly dominant narrative, in which, officially, the future of the whole region is clear and settled. There would only be one Europe, and the Balkans were destined to be part of it.

The advantage of this kind of vision is that it leaves little space for alternative, and often dangerous, ideas. To be able to predict the future of a whole region reduces uncertainty and fear. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Sweden’s Carl Bildt wrote in Le Figaro in 2008, for instance, that: “it is certain that Serbia will soon be a member of the EU, because there is no alternative. This is in tune with the march of history.” Lady Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told civil society representatives in Belgrade in February this year that “the EU is determined that the future of the whole region lies in eventual accession to the EU.”


So far, so good. However, if the direction of the “march of history” is clear, why is there such a feeling of unease across the whole region today? Is it really only because leaders in the region are not doing enough to reform their countries, which is a herculean task that will take more time? Or are there deeper reasons for concern?

In a recent book on Europe 2030, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, a big supporter of enlargement when in office, presented his personal view that the future of enlargement is grim: “while almost all of the EU’s neighbours wish to join, its own citizens increasingly oppose not only further expansion but also deeper political integration.” Fischer sees no happy end soon: instead, the spectre is of a Balkan accession process which will never end. He concludes:

“I doubt that Europe’s malaise can be overcome before 2030 … While the partial creation of a common defense system, along with a European army, is possible by 2030, a common foreign policy is not. Expansion of the EU to include the Balkan states, Turkey and Ukraine should also be ruled out.”

Fischer’s expectations echo and reflect the general debate in political circles in Berlin. We all remember the statement in the CDU election programme of 2009, which called for a “enlargement pause”:

“The enlargement of the EU from 15 to 27 members within a few years … has required great efforts. As a result the CDU prefers a phase of consolidation, during which a consolidation of the European Union’s values and institutions should take priority over further EU enlargement. The only exception to the rule can be for Croatia.”

Unfortunately, even at the time these were not just words: in March 2009 Germany – backed by Belgium and the Netherlands – blocked forwarding the application of Montenegro to the European Commission for an opinion. This had in the past been a mere technical step. And this, once established as a precedent, has now been repeated in the case of Serbia. Signals from Berlin today are that this could be overcome soon … but what to expect from the next government in The Hague, now dependend on the a good will of a politician, Geert Wilders, who told Euronews in 2009 that “no other country should join Europe. I’m even in favour of Romania and Bulgaria to leave [sic] the EU” ?

In the 1990s, in the streets of Belgrade in 2000, it was clear what supporters of a European democratic Balkans had to struggle against. Today the alternative ideologies inspired by early 20th century Europe have largely been defeated; the region has dramatically demobilised, cutting defense spending and ending conscription; key political actors everywhere have embraced the rhetoric of a European future for the Balkans. So has the EU, its leaders repeating the mantra at every gathering for a decade.

And yet, enormous uncertainties persists. As a very senior European official working on the Balkans told me just a few weeks ago:

“I do not know if the EU perspective is 10 or 100 years. I am selling 10, but in my heart of hearts I do not know if it is not in fact 100.”

If this is what people in the EU, working on the region, feel, one cannot blame people in the Balkans for wondering how certain their European future really is. This is the current EU-Balkan problem in a nutshell: few question the “perspective”. And nobody knows if it will be realised by 2020, 2030 or 2050.

The problem of the next step

Let us break down the problem to make it more manageable. To simplify, one could say that we have today an immediate “problem of the next step”: now that all the countries in the region (who are able to) have submitted their official applications for EU accession, the ball is in the EU’s court. But finding a coherent response is proving hard. Let me look at four specific problems in turn.


One can speak for days about Bosnia and its problems, which are as complex as its recent history; ESI has written many reports expressing our views, from the influence of a continuing (and increasingly discredited) international protectorate to the most promising way to advance a constitutional reform debate that makes Bosnia more functional. But there is one obvious reason why EU soft power is still so ineffective in Bosnia.

To have an EU perspective a country needs to find a consensus to apply and to meet the conditions to become a candidate. Yet the formal obstacle is obvious: as enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn stated clearly less than a year ago:

“Let me put it as plainly as I can: there is no way a quasi-protectorate can join the EU. Nor will an EU membership application be considered so long as the OHR is around. Let me even repeat this, to avoid any misunderstandings: a country with a High Representative can not become a candidate country with the EU.”

Olli Rehn is no longer enlargement commissioner, but Carl Bildt, who remains Swedish foreign minister, made the very same point in October 2009, “As you know the European Union is a union of sovereign democracies, not of protectorates. So, the presence of the OHR is, of course, blocking both the EU accession process and the NATO access process.”

This is not an isolated opinion at all. On 30 June 2010 the Communiqué of the Peace Implementation Steering Board repeated for the umpteenth time that this is remains the position of the PIC as well:

“The EU Member States of the PIC Steering Board reiterated that the EU would not be in a position to consider an application for membership by BiH until the transition of the OHR to a reinforced EU presence has been decided.”

This position also makes eminent sense: a country that is, supposedly, too fragile to cope without an international overlord, that is allegedly about to collapse if there is not always the option of a decree imposed from the OHR’s White House, is not meeting the minimum standards of being a stable democracy.

Behind the notion that Bosnia cannot cope without international protectorate institutions, however, stand a number of highly damaging attitudes towards Bosnia in general. Look, for a clear illustration, to the latest controversy over visa free travel for Bosnian citizens. As French state secretary for Europe Pierre Lellouche put it on 29 September, explaining why France at first suggested to postpone this step once more:

“La position du Gouvernement est la suivante : les visas relèvent de la sécurité et doivent donc s’accompagner de garanties très sérieuses. Or vous connaissez l?état politique de la Bosnie. Et pour qu’il y ait visa, il faut un État.”

What makes this position – “for there to be visa there needs to be a state” both ironic and tragic is that this senior European politician willfully overlooks the fact that in this specific and demanding case Bosnian leaders and institutions WERE able to meet all the EU conditions.

Bosnia has carried out complex and demanding reforms, passes laws and reformed institutions – and ESI has looked into this in great detail, as have the EU experts and the Commission. However, this story does not fit into the narrative of a political class unable for a variety of reasons to respond to normal incentives.

To paraphrase Lellouche, in order to meet the visa roadmap conditions Bosnia DID have to show that it was capable of acting as a state. And indeed it did. But the real lesson is ignored: that when the EU treats Bosnia like a normal state, “strict but fair”, it also gets results.

Bosnia politics is indeed complicated, and will always be complicated; that is the fate of complex multiethnic democracies, from Belgium to Spain. At the same time, no other country in the region needs the EU pre-accession process more badly than Bosnia. To provide a clear anchor for reforms. To provide specific roadmaps. To translate a shared vision of the future into concrete tasks. This makes it all the more tragic that Bosnia is also trapped by exaggerated defeatism, which prevents outsiders from offering credible incentives.


Here I can be even shorter, given the constraints of time and space. Kosovo does not at this moment have a European perspective, because, for the EU 27, it is still not a state. At the same time Kosovo does not have a credible Europeanisation process either. In legal terms and in the way its political debates develop, independent Kosovo is still a protectorate.

How long will the ICO remain the supreme legal and executive authority in Kosovo? It is unclear. How long will EULEX have an exectutive mandate? It is unclear. How long will EU member states disagree on Kosovo? For the foreseeable future.

Under these conditions Kosovo has no European perspective. This also means, however, that the EU also has very little and indeed diminishing leverage in Pristina. It is common in European capitals to blame Kosovo’s love for all things American on an irrational infatuation of the elites in Kosovo with the large power that brought about independence. However, the limited leverage of the EU is above all a reflection of the lack of any clear pre-accession process.

Unless the EU finds a way to develop a status-neutral Europeanisation process. Some in the Commission are trying to work on this, but without political commitment they will not get far.


Macedonia was awarded candidate status in 2005. Four years later Macedonia received a positive assessment by the European Commission.

“The country fulfils the commitments under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, has consolidated the functioning of its democracy and ensured the stability of institutions guaranteeing the rule of law and respect of fundamental rights and the country has substantially addressed the key priorities of the accession partnership”.

In 2009 also Macedonia signed and ratified the border demarcation agreement with Kosovo, thus solving a decade-long bilateral problem.

Finally, in October 2009 the Commission recommended Macedonia’s transition to the second stage:

“In the light of the above considerations and taking into account the European Council conclusions of December 2005 and December 2006, the Commission recommends that negotiations for accession to the European Union should be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

At the EU Council in December 2009 the matter was postponed:

“The Council notes that the Commission recommends the opening of accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and will return to the matter during the next presidency.” …

However, at the same time the Council asserted:

“maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution on the name issue … remains essential.”

This did not happen. So the Council did not return to the “Macedonian matter’ during the next (Spanish) presidency. For now, and unless and until this is resolved, Macedonia is as trapped as Kosovo and Bosnia.


Serbia, of course, is facing its own problems. What is problematic is never the reality of EU conditionality: this is, on the contrary, a positive tool to promote reforms and modernisation, as the President put it earlier today. The problem is that it is not always clear what exactly the conditions are.

One problem is expectations regarding Kosovo. Since the EU itself is divided over Kosovo, it is not always clear what it wants Serbia to do.

As the Belgian ambassador to Serbia noted recently Belgrade “must improve its relations with Kosovo” if it wants to join the EU and to “find a lasting modus vivendi”. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner noted that “The independence of Kosovo is irreversible. The opinion of the ICJ signals an important step towards putting an end to the legal debate on this issue, which will enable all parties to devote themselves, from now on, to other pending issues.” And he went on: “Kosovo and Serbia must now also find the path of political dialogue in order to overcome, by adopting a pragmatic approach, the concrete problems that remain between Belgrade and Pristina, in the interest of everyone and, above all, the Serbian community of Kosovo.” As Beta news agency noted a few weeks ago “EU circles and the member states who have recognized Kosovo are increasing pressure on Belgrade over Kosovo”:

“Last week, top officials of Belgium, which currently holds the EU rotating presidency, made it clear to President Boris Tadic that granting Serbis the status of candidate country would depend on Belgrade’s moves concerning Kosovo … Now, the stand that Kosovo and Serbia’s accession to the EU are two separate processes is no longer mentioned in European Union circles.”

Indeed. But what does this mean in practical terms? The EU places a lot of trust in a dialogue, as Kouchner also explained:

“Such a dialogue is important for the stability of the region. It is also necessary because the two States, Serbia and Kosovo, intend to become Member States of the European Union, and because their accession will be based on the assumption that they have established normal inter-State relations with each other enabling them to work together towards European integration.”

When expectations are clear, as we have seen recently in the context of the UN debate, Serbia has in fact responded very constructively. But this needs to become the model: expectations and red lines need to be defined by the EU, based on a principled approach which envisages the whole region as future members of the EU. It often is not.

Then, however, Serbia complied and the focus of conditionality has shifted to ICTY. Again, there is a consensus in the EU on the need for Serbia to cooperate and for Ratko Mladic to end up in The Hague. However, it would be fatal if the impression gains ground, in Serbia and in the region, that general enlargement skepticism is hiding behind the argument that Serbia is not performing on this sensitive matter even if there might be evidence to the contrary. This would only help those in Serbia who do have an interest to torpedo its European perspective.

At this stage, the EU would do well to allow the technical process of integration – including the writing of an opinion on Serbia’s application – to go ahead. This must not mean abandoning the focus on ICTY, but it could mean applying a similar standard as the one which was applied to Croatia in its own accession process.

What is to be done?

In short, there is a clear need for fresh thinking. The bull needs to be taken by the horns: issues which have been left ambiguous need to be addressed.

It would be tragic if, having come so far, the EU accession of the Western Balkans now gets stuck at this stage. This calls for a proactive EU policy.

In Bosnia, the EU should move to bring the protectorate to an end, and to treat Bosnia fairly, like all other Balkan countries.

In Kosovo the EU needs – in its own, the Kosovo and even Serbia’s interest – define a way for Europeanisation and European leverage to work. This requires a credible European perspective, if need be a status-neutral accession process, as a recent ECFR paper has argued.

In Macedonia it is high time to find a creative solution – ESI has proposed one possible way forward recently, to link the entering into force of a new agreed name to the date of the countries’ actual EU accession.

And when it comes to Serbia the EU should be both “strict” and “fair”: conditionality must be transparent, based on clear principles and standards, not non-transparent and a moving target. This applies to expectations regarding Bosnia, Kosovo as well as ICTY.

Serbia, the EU and the whole region have come a long way since October 2000. But the journey is far from over, and it is not only the countries of the region which need to take a hard look at what would need to be done to ensure that in the end the destination of a Europe whole and free, integrated and including the Balkans, will be reached.

A pledge to Zoran

It was a fascinating, deeply emotional event: a commemoration gathering in Belgrade, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 5th of October, the day Serbian citizens took their country back from Slobodan Milosevic exactly 10 years ago. The most poignant moment came at the very end, when a visibly moved Greek prime minister, George Papandreou (who had come in from Brussels on the way to Athens), told his audience about a promise he had made, after Zoran Djindic, Serbia’s prime minister, was killed in 2003, in his eulogy at Djindic’s funeral:

“There and then I made a pledge, to Zoran, but also to the Serbian people. It will continue to ensure that Serbia arrives in her natural home, the European Union. The EU is not complete without the Balkans. Anyone who argues against the Balkans joining the EU is arguing against geography, against economy, against history. Do not believe those who talk about enlargement fatigue. The EU is a long-term historical project and you have to be part of it.”

Papandreou recalled the first time he met Sonja Licht, the spiritus movens behind the whole anniversary event, at the time of the creation of the Helsiniki Citizens Assembly in Prague twenty years ago in 1990, and how much has changed since then. Sonja, sitting next to him, recalled that their’s was a friendship at first sight, “because, despite everything, we both realised that we were proud to be from the Balkans.” He then took her hand, and for a moment both seemed to be glowing, like two teenagers who had just jointly discovered a great romantic poem, as he added: “we are still proud to be from the Balkans.  And the European future is the way to find unity amongst our diversity. This is what makes Europe special for the Balkans”

This vision, so often evoked in other settings, can seem banal, boring, mundane at times;  the sort of thing EU and Balkan politicians evoke because it is the polite thing to say. But here, presented against the background of memories of another, darker Europe in the 1990s, recalling a velvet revolution that marks one of the happiest days in the tragic recent past of the region, recalling leaders who paid for it with their lives, not long ago, but recently, the vision of a European Serbia in a European Balkan seemed to recapture all its sparkle.

Papandreou managed to express, with a few, heartfelt words, the sense that our generation of leaders and activists are privileged, not only to watch, and also to try to contribute, to the writing of the next chapter in a book that might well be called in a hundred years the “book of European miracles”: that after the miracle on the Rhine (Franco-German reconciliation), the miracle on the Vistula (Germano-Polish reconciliation), the miracle on the Bosporus (the ongoing Europeanisation of Turkey) we are now in the middle of the miracle on the Sava and the Drina.  And then the ghosts of that past, the Balkans of the 1990s, will be banished to their graves, never to return to haunt us.

(I could not help thinking of the day when, in the very same hotel this meeting took place, the mafia-paramilitary leader Arkan was shot in the lobby. The former Intercontinental has its own ghosts hanging around its corners).

But there was a more that made this event fascinating, and inspiring.  It is also a reality that the transformation that received such a boost in 2000 is still incomplete.  There are still enormous problems to be solved. The story of the past decade is one of many false starts, delays, failures to accept the new realities; of clashing visions, also and particularly in Serbia, as Goran Svilanovic recalled: of false priorities, and of denying realities when it came to ICTY, Serbia- Montenegro, and Serbian-Kosovo relations.

On the other hand, there is today real change in the air. Compared to previous meetings I attended in Belgrade, just slightly more than a year ago, the fact that the president himself could speak for 30 minutes without once mentioning the word “Kosovo”, talking about Serbia and the lessons from the past decade, reflects a new ordering of priorities. The fact that the foreign minister only mentions Kosovo in passing, as one of many challenges, without elaborating, is no less striking.  There was also a remarkable intervention by the foreign minister of Slovakia, Dzurinda, calling on Serbia to embrace the “tough choices” lying ahead, and lauding the day the EU and Serbia had passed the joint UN resolution a few days back as the day Serbia’s leaders embraced reality and a European future.  This obviously remains mined territory, and the fact that Serbia’s leaders are moving carefully, and not – as so often in recent years – recklessly does not mean that the problems are solved. Nor, and this was the key message of my presentation here, are all European leaders as clear about their vision of a European Balkans as Papandreou or Dzurinda are. It would indeed be tragic if shortsightedness leads some governments now to delay what used to be a mere bureaucratic step in the past, forwarding the Serbian membership application to the Commission to write its opinion. What is worse, most European and Serbian diplomats here seem to expect just this to happen, and whoever works on EU integration in Belgrade is not only exhausted but permanently on the verge of giving up …

But those practical concerns are for tomorrow, when we must descend from the mountain peak that offers a wider view of the distant lands that we try to reach, back to the planes where it is so easy to get lost.  It is still good to rejoice, just for one instance: the past decade, for all its false starts, has led us to a moment where the vision of a European Balkans remains more alive than ever. As inspiring. And as vital.