Europe in decline. Sit back and enjoy (but not too much)

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.”

In the same way, Weisman notes, Europe without human beings would revert to original forest. Soon much of the old world would turn into the “misty, brooding forest that loomed behind your eyelids when, as a child, someone read the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.” (to see Weisman in action in the Daily Show go here: “a lot of stuff would go down rather fast”).

The world without us

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.

In an interview Alan Weisman, the author of “The World Without us” is asked whether, after writing his book, he is still “hopeful for the future”? He answers:

“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?

"Will Europe end like Venice?&quotWolfgang Petritsch and Rainer Munz. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
“Will Europe end like Venice?” Wolfgang Petritsch and Rainer Münz. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
&>"What is the future of EU-Turkey relations?&quotDiscussion with Alexandros Yannis, Kai Strittmatter (Sueddeutsche Zeitung) and Gerald Knaus. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
“What is the future of EU-Turkey relations?” Discussion with Alexandros Yannis, Kai Strittmatter, and Gerald Knaus. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
"Is Europe a continent in decline"&ndashAlex Rondos, Andreas Treichl, Boris Marte, Peter Hagen, Wolfgang Petritsch and Rainer Munz. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
“Is Europe a continent in decline” – Alex Rondos, Andreas Treichl, Boris Marte, Peter Hagen, Wolfgang Petritsch and Rainer Münz. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
"From Brussels to Belgrade"&ndashdifferent perspectives on EU policy from Emine Bozkurt, Samuel Zbogar, Kristof Bender, Milica Delevic. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
“From Brussels to Belgrade” – different perspectives on EU policy from Emine Bozkurt, Samuel Zbogar, Kristof Bender, Milica Delevic. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
"Will Europe run the 21st century?&quotMark Leonard discusses with Vessela Tscherneva, Ivan Krastev with Aleksandros Yannis. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
“Will Europe run the 21st century?” Mark Leonard discusses with Vessela Tscherneva, Ivan Krastev with Aleksandros Yannis. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
Vienna Seminar 2010 &ndashsession with Nicu Popescu, Gerald Knaus, and Heather Grabbe on the EU and the European neighbourhood. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung
Vienna Seminar 2010 – session with Nicu Popescu, Gerald Knaus, and Heather Grabbe on the EU and the European neighbourhood. Photo: ERSTE Stiftung

Amexica and other reflections on border wars

There was a time not long ago when pro-globalization authors argued that the forces of international economic integration would soon make national boundaries redundant. Recently, others have suggested the opposite: that globalization is making national boundaries, at least those between rich and poor societies, all the more impenetrable. In fact, reality is more complex and more interesting than any of the latest grand theories would suggest. When it comes to policing their borders, rich societies face real choices; these choices can produce very different outcomes. Comparing the choices made in recent years by the member states of the EU with those made by the US has been the topic of a seminar held this week at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The seminar, co-organised by ESI, featured Europeans, Americans and Mexicans, lecturers on Mexican politics at Harvard, experts in border management and technologies, columnists, officials working for Mexican institutions, and private sector representatives. Our opening question was: can anything be learned from comparing the EU and the US approaches to border management? Our hypothesis, based on our work in Southeast and Eastern Europe, is that there is plenty that the EU and the US can learn from each other. Joseph Nevi - Operation Gatekeeper Let me start with the conventional wisdom embraced by many of those who study trends along the US-Mexican border since the early 1990s. In a world without strong boundaries, migration pressures cannot be contained, the argument goes. In response to illegal migration pressures and the threat of organised crime, the militarisation of boundaries between rich and poor countries becomes the natural political response to popular feelings of insecurity. As Joseph Nevi writes in Operation Gatekeeper – The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the US-Mexico Boundary,

“Intensified policing efforts are taking place along a variety of international boundaries between South Africa and Mozambique, Spain (Ceuta and Melilla) and Morocco, and Germany and Poland. Such efforts are parts of a war of sorts by relatively wealthy countries against ‘illegal’ or unauthorized immigrants. Yet at the same time, these same countries are increasingly opening their boundaries to the flows of capital, finance, manufactured goods and services.”

This is only an apparent contradiction, Nevin argues. It is natural that rich states seek to increase the benefits and limit the costs of transnational integration. This then leads to the creation of fortresses (‘Fortress America’ or ‘Fortress Europe’) and ‘gated communities’ of wealthy societies. A good illustration of this trend is, of course, the increase in the number of border agents in the US, which has gone from 450 in 1925 to 1,110 in 1950, 1,803 in 1975 and 9,212 in 2000 (Operation Gatekeeper, p. 197). Edward Schumacher Matos estimates that today it is close to 20,000. What these numbers show is that the effort to control the southern boundary of the US is a relatively recent phenomenon. One hundred years ago there was no serious concern about unauthorized entry across the US-Mexican border. Along the Arizona-Mexico border in 1900, one expert notes, “there was no need for coyotes, guides to sneak illegals through the border; there was no border markings (save a few stone pillars here and there), no immigration control and thus no illegals.” (OG, p.26) Today, the situation has changed considerably. The stretch of boundary between San Diego and Tijuana, writes Nevins, “is perhaps the world’s most policed international divide between two nonbelligerent countries.” For unauthorized migrants, the US-Mexican border is harder to cross now than at any point in history. At the same time, trade between the US and Mexico has grown sharply. Increasing commerce and more militarised boundaries – in an age of global insecurity, claims Nevins, such is the global trend. Except, of course, that this is not the case. Not only is there no militarised border between Germany and Poland; today, there is no physical boundary at all. When Poland joined the EU’s Schengen zone in 2007, border installations were dismantled. When Romania joins Schengen sometime in 2011, Germany’s external boundary will de facto shift from Poland’s Eastern border to the Prut River between Romania and Moldova. (To be admitted into Schengen, Romania has had to make significant investments in its ability to control its Eastern boundary.) Having crossed the Prut, you will be able to travel all the way to Gibraltar in southern Spain. One of the most interesting trends in the past year has been the acceleration of reforms in small and poor Moldova (the poorest country in Europe), carried out in response to a European promise of increasing freedom of movement for Moldovan passport holders. The promise is simple, and it has been made to other countries before: if Moldova carries out reforms that enhance the ability of Moldovan institutions (police, border guard, the ministries of justice and interior) to partner with EU institutions in fighting common threats, the EU will lift its visa requirements. Turn yourself into a partner, the logic goes, and your citizens can travel to the EU much more easily. It is important to underline that every one of these steps has been controversial, debated, and held up by concerns about security (this includes the next big step, the expansion of the Schengen area to Romania and Bulgaria, currently put into question by France). Likewise, the debate on visa free travel for Turkish citizens promises to be intense. At every stage, Europe’s border revolution has been contested; and at no stage can further progress simply be taken for granted. However, those who focus on the political debate of the moment would do well to look at the trajectory of Europe’s border revolution. Very soon after Schengen was created by five European countries in 1985, concerns increased in France. The fact that the idea of a borderless EU core (which led to Schengen) had been a Franco-German brainchild did not stop France from delaying implementation of the Schengen convention for many years even after it officially entered into force in September 1993, with French leaders citing concerns about the security implications of letting people enter France from Belgium or the Netherlands as late as in 1996. The fact that Italy had been a founding member of the EU did not make it any easier for it to join Schengen: the process actually lasted for over a decade, from Italy’s application in 1987 to its eventual entry in 1997. It is also useful to reflect on what has happened in Albania in the past two decades. At our seminar at Harvard, I began my presentation with a video clip of Albania’s collapse into chaos in 1997:

Anarchy in 1997. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

Remember, I told participants, until recently Albania was known throughout Europe only for its total collapse in the 1990s, the illegal migration of hundreds of thousands of its people within a few years to neighbouring Italy and Greece, and the vast profits made by organised crime syndicates, which controlled the speedboats that crossed the Adriatic by night. Now, however, many Albanian smugglers are out of a job: at the end of 2010 Albanian citizens will have obtained the right to travel to the EU visa free.

To qualify, Albanians had to carry out far-reaching reforms, however. And which country threatened to vote against Albania receiving visa free travel at the very end? You might have guessed it: France. And yet, after registering its concerns, France went along in the end.

It is not only Albanians but also the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina who will enjoy the right to visa free travel in coming days for the first time in almost two decades. Bosnia-Herzegovina? In the early 1990s Ed Vulliamy was a reporter there, covering the country’s collapse into war, and then writing up his experiences in Seasons in Hell. At the time, Bosnia was the scene of massive ethnic cleansing, genocidal violence and collapsing institutions, and Ed’s book captured the sheer horror of it in Central Bosnia:

“By the middle of the Saturday afternoon, more than 30,000 escapees from the bloody mayhem left behind in Jajce – and the pitiful ramshackle remnants of an army, some 7,000 soldiers -had crossed the new, retreated Bosnian front at Karaula and now jammed every square of Travnik … The soldiers wandered aimlessly among them and their beasts and wagons, as lost and destitute as the civilians. It was like some woeful landscape from Tolstoy, or a war from another time: the life of a country town and its surrounding villages uprooted and driven out by war, with all its flotsam and jetsam. And another 15,000 were still out there, trapped by gunfire on the front … “

Since then Bosniaks have returned in significant numbers to Jajce; Travnik has a multiethnic police; and Bosnia’s crises are political and non-violent. Bosnia’s crime rate is below that of the Baltic states (which joined the EU in 2004); its police forces work; and its citizens feel safe crossing the former frontlines. These lines – which many had expected in 1995 to harden into Cyprus-style militarised internal boundaries – have since become basically invisible to the traveller. A decade ago, Bosnia did not control its own boundaries. Since then it has received ample praise (including by the US State Department) for its record on fighting human trafficking.

Seasons in Hell Amexica – War Along the Borderline

Ed Vulliamy: from Bosnia to Amexica

I mention Ed Vulliamy not only because his book is a useful reminder how far Bosnia (and the Balkans) have come since the 1990s, but also because Ed has since moved to the US and written a book about a very different war. As he tells his readers in Amexica – War Along the Borderline (2010), “I have been a reporter on many battlefields, yet nowhere has violence been so strange and commanded such revulsion and compulsion as it does along the borderline.” The borderline Ed writes about is that between the US and Mexico; the war he refers to is the “narco war” wreaking havoc on communities from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.

While Europe has dismantled and made more porous thousands of kilometres of borders (by taking apart the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, abolishing border controls within the Schengen system, lifting visa requirements for Central Europeans, extending Schengen to the East, and, most recently, lifting visa requirements for the Balkans), the US has done the opposite. As Ed writes,

“In 1994 the United States initiated Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, and another similar operation in the Rio Grande Valley. Since then … the border has become, and continues to become, a military front line, along which run more than six hundred miles of fence enhanced by guard posts, searchlights, and heavily armed patrols. In places where there is no fence, there are infrared cameras, sensors, National Guard soldiers and SWAT teams from other, specialist law enforcement columns, like the Drug Enforcement Administration … from the other side, apart from the tidal wave of drugs and migrants smuggled across the border, there are the killings …”

Vulliamy takes his readers to Ciudad Juarez, “the world’s most murderous city”, on the Mexican side of the border opposite El Paso. Juarez saw 2,657 people killed in 2009 (the total number of people killed in Mexico since President Calderon launched a military offensive against the drug cartels in December 2006 has now exceeded 23,000).

Vulliamy notes that one in five Mexicans either visits, or works in, the US at one time in his life. He describes the economy that has developed around the narco-trade and the gun shows in Arizona and Texas. He estimates that there are more than 6,700 arms dealers within a half day’s drive from the border in the US (three dealers per mile of frontier) and that between 90-95 percent of weapons seized in Mexico’s narco war originate from the US. As a June 2009 report by the US Government Accountability Office notes, although the violence in Mexico “has raised concern, there has not been a coordinated US government effort to combat the illicit arms trafficking to Mexico that US and Mexican government officials agree is fueling much of the drug-related violence.” Ed also writes about the paradoxical effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has seen business ties increase and the border harden.

Death in North America

Not long ago every book or article about the Balkans started with references to killings and cults of irrational violence. The same is true today in descriptions of the US-Mexican border. One book Operation Gatekeeper starts with a description of the owner of a gas station/cafe in Ocotilio Wells, 90 miles east of San Diego in California:

“On one bulletin board he had tacked up photographs of seven or eight cadavers: all of them young Mexican men he had discovered in the arroyos between Ocotillo Wells and the nearby Border. … “They was all shot. In the back.”

Dead in their Tracks - Crossing America's Desert Borderlands in the New Era

Another book by John Annerino, Dead in their Tracks – Crossing America’s Desert Borderlands in the New Era (2009) includes a “comprehensive border death toll” (2003: 336 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border; 2004: 214; 2005: 241; … 2007: 237). It opens with a glossary of key terms for the border:

“I have used the terms bajadores (bandits, take-down crews or kidnappers), bandidos (border bandits), burreros(drug mules), caza-migrantes (migrant hunters), contrabandistas (smugglers), coyotes (people smugglers), narcotraficantes (drug traffickers), pistoleros (gunmen), polleros (“chicken dealers” or people smugglers) and raiteros (drivers who shuttle imigrants from pickup points).”

Annerino also points out just how lucrative smuggling people across the border has become, describing the scene in the Mexican border town of Altar:

“This afternoon I count roughly 500 people walking the streets and church plaza, so I start running the numbers … If the crossing fee is closer to $ 2,500 per person, or the coyote increases the $ 1,500 fee to $ 2,500 or more during the border crossing which I am told is common, get out your calculator and do the new border math. A recent Associated Press report put Arizona’s human smuggling revenues at $ 2.5 billion a year.”

Across the Wire - Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border

And as another author, Luis Alberto Urrea, describes in Across the Wire – Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, focusing on the Tijuana region, paying this amount does not guarantee safe passage:

“If the coyote does not turn on you suddenly with a gun and take everything from you himself, you might still be attacked by the rateros. If the rateros don’t get you, there are roving zombies that can smell you from fifty yards downwind – these are the junkies who hunt in shambling packs. If the junkies somehow miss you there are the pandilleros – gang-bangers from either side of the border who are looking for some bloody fun. They adore “tacking off” illegals because it is the perfect crime: there is no way they can ever be caught”

Now, beyond the sheer human tragedy in all these descriptions, there is a poignant policy question raised by all these accounts: is this border regime, are these changes – the militarisation that has taken place in recent decades – actually in the interests of those in the US who are concerned about security? Just take a look at a recent article in the New York Times from summer 2010 for another horrific description of trends along the border (The Mexican Border’s Lost World):

“Never a particularly pretty place, the border is at its ugliest right now, with violence, tensions and temperatures all… on high. Once thought of by Americans as just a naughty playland, the divide between the United States and Mexico is now most associated with the awful things that happen here. In towns from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, drug gangs brutalize each other, tourists risk getting caught in the cross-fire, and Mexican laborers crossing the desert northward brave both the bullets and the heat. Last week, a federal judge in Arizona blocked portions of new far-reaching immigration restrictions that she said went way too far in ousting Mexicans. Meanwhile, National Guard troops are preparing to fill in as border sentries. All these developments are unfolding in what used to be a meeting place between two countries, a zone of escape where cultures merged, albeit often amid copious amounts of tequila. The potential casualties at the border now include a way of life, generations old, well-documented but decaying by the day.”

After all, European citizens are as concerned about illegal migrants as those in the US. There are right wing parties in many European countries. The amount of illegal drugs entering the EU is comparable (in fact, according to UN figures, even higher) to those that enter the US.

And yet, in a process driven by interior ministers and focused on increasing security, the EU’s response to concerns about events on the other side of its Eastern border has been very different from that pursued by their US counterparts. This has been the European border revolution of the past three decades, which ESI has set out to analyse and understand.

This was not a project of humanitarians … it was a conscious decision that new thinking was required to ensure security in an age of globalisation. It was a process controlled by interior ministers, in which critical questions were asked at every stage. As French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, put it in September 1995, explaining France’s unwillingness to lift its controls at the Belgian (!) frontier:

“If it seems, as it is the case, that our citizens’ security depends also on the border controls, it is understood that we have to keep them.”

In the end, however, the dramatic transformation of Europe’s border regimes continued.

Is any of it relevant to debates in North America? Certainly the consensus at the Harvard seminar was that it is worth exploring in more depth. At the very least it suggests that even under conditions of globalisation policy makers have choices – and that there is more than one way in which to think about creating secure borders.

PS: Next steps forward

The Harvard seminar turned into a very informative meeting, and out of it emerged an agenda for further steps.

First, it is necessary to establish a network of scholars and policymakers in the US and in Mexico who had worked on the border issues, including those who had done any comparative work. (If you read this and if you are interested in becoming part of such a network please write to and

Alexander Schellong, Rodrigo Garza Zorrilla, Edward Schumacher-Matos, Mary Hilderbrand, Omar del Valle Colosio, Philipp Mueller, Gerald Knaus, Pedro Lichtle, Jose Luis Mendez, Javier Lichtle, Adriana Villasenor
Alexander Schellong, Rodrigo Garza Zorrilla, Edward Schumacher-Matos, Mary Hilderbrand, Omar del Valle Colosio, Philipp Mueller, Gerald Knaus, Pedro Lichtle, Jose Luis Mendez, Javier Lichtle, Adriana Villasenor

Second, there is a need to present the complex politics and security logic behind the recent EU border revolution; this was not after all a humanitarian transformation, nor was it at any moment easy. In fact, the revolution is far from over, as the dramatic events in recent months along the Greek-Turkish border have made clear (not to mention the EU’s Southern border). How will the EU respond to the challenge of Turkey when it comes to freedom of movement and travel?

Third, there is a need to better understand the US policy process, the politics as well as the technocratic arguments which most shape the debate.

Fourth and most importantly there is a need to understand how the current status quo along the US-Mexican border is working and how it is failing; and for whom it is working and who is losing.

Particularly the comparison in relations between the US and Mexico and the EU and Turkey promises to be revealing in what it tells us about US and European soft power, about the choices facing rich countries and about the politics behind border management. For more, watch this space; and stay tuned to the ESI “Border Revolution website”.

A few facts as background to inform a serious debate on comparative border experiences. Look at GDP per capita (in PPP) in 2009 according to the IMF. On the one side of the border wealthy countries:

USA (46,000 USD per capita)
Germany (34,000 USD per capita)

On the other side poorer countries:

Poland (18,000 USD pc), which has joined the EU in 2004
Mexico (14,000 USD pc)
Turkey (12,000 USD pc)
Romania (12,000 USD pc), which has joined the EU in 2007
Albania (7,000) USD pc), which has visa free travel since end 2010

As for the relative size of the populations concerned:

USA: 311 million vs. Mexico: 112 million
EU 15: 398 million
EU 27: 500 million
Poland: 38 million (visa free access since the early 1990s)
Eastern Balkans (Romania/Bulgaria): 30 million (members of the EU since 2007)
Western Balkans: 25 million (visa free travel since late 2009 and 2010)
Turkey: 73 million

Multikulti and the future of Turkish Balkan Policy

Below is the short version of a presentation I gave in Amsterdam at the invitation of the Turkish Institute (The Hague) about Turkish foreign policy.

Is Turkey’s Balkan policy today inspired by a post-modern vision of the world?

A pre-modern one? And does it matter how we call it?

On 16 October 2009 Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave a presentation in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was a remarkable speech and a good starting point to understand the outlook of the people making Turkish foreign policy today. It also raises important question about the future of both Turkish foreign and domestic policy.

Davutoglu notes, first, that the destiny of the Balkan region is to be “either a story of success or a story of failure”: “either the Balkan region will be the center of everything or it will be the victim of everything.” Next, Davutoglu notes, the one time in history when the Balkan region was not a victim of history was under the early Ottoman Empire:

“the Balkan region became the center of world politics in the 16th century. This is the golden age of the Balkans. I am not saying this because we inherited the Ottoman legacy, but this is a historical fact. Who ran world politics in the 16th century? Your ancestors. They were not all Turks, some were of Slav origin, some were of Albanian origin, some were even converted Greeks, but they ran world politics. So, Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic is a good example. If there was no Ottoman state, Mehmet Pasha would be a poor Serb who lived just to have a small farm. At that time there was no developed farm in that part of the world. But because of the Ottoman legacy he became a leader of world politics.”

Davutoglu reminds his audience that in Ottoman times Salonika was a thriving trade center. Ottoman Belgrade was a pivotal center on the Danube with “hundreds of mosques and churches.” And then there was Sarajevo: “Sarajevo is a miracle, like the miniature version of this heritage. If you understand Sarajevo you can understand all of Ottoman history.”

Davutoglu’s speech concludes with the promise that the golden age of the Balkans can be recaptured:

“Like in the 16th century, which saw the rise of the Ottoman Balkans as the center of world politics, we will make the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, together with Turkey ,the center of world politics in the future. This is the objective of Turkish foreign policy, and we will achieve this. We will reintegrate the Balkan region, the Middle East and the Caucasus, based on the principle of regional and global peace ,for the future, not only for all of us but for all of humanity.”

It is this claim which has alarmed some audiences. Is this a messianic call for a new Turkish imperialism? Is this a cover for a hidden Islamist expansionism? One of the 2009 cables from the US embassy in Ankara refers to this speech as an illustration of a dangerous (and Islamist) foreign policy. Turkey’s Balkan policy is pursued, the cable reads,

“… with Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources, to cut themselves in on the action the Turks have to “cheat” by finding an underdog like Haris Silajdzic, [the former Bosniak member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina].”

As the US cable warns:

“The leaked memo explains that for the neo-Islamic AKP ruling party in Turkey, this new approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the “we’re back” slogan, for the Turkish public … This “back to the past” attitude so clear in Davutoglu’s Sarajevo speech, combined with the Turks’ tendency to execute it through alliances with more Islamic or more worrisome local actors, constantly creates new problems.”

In fact, Davutoglu does promise his audience in Sarajevo that a new golden age can be reached by “reinventing the Ottoman legacy”:

“People are calling me neo-Ottoman, therefore I will not refer to the Ottoman state as a foreign policy issue. What I am underlining is the Ottoman legacy. The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this.”

But what, in his speech, is the actual strategy to achieve this Balkan revival? Is it the recreation of an alliance of Muslim countries – a vision so much feared in Greece in the early 1990s? Is this a call for neo-Ottoman imperialism, which would most likely trigger counter-alliances, splitting the Balkans along religious lines or competing axes? What is the “spirit of the Balkans” that the region needs to rediscover in Davutoglu’s view and what are the tools that he recommends to do so?

It is here that one gets to the most interesting part of the speech, and it is one that the US cable seems to miss entirely. In order to experience another golden age, Davutoglu tells his audience, the Balkans must “create a new multicultural co-existence through establishing a new economic zone.” He then explains in detail the true secret of historical greatness:

“Multicultural existence is very important because the rise of a civilisation can only be understood through analysing the urban structures and the cultural life in cities. If a city is uniform it means that civilisation is not so diversified. It is an inward looking, closed society. Before there was a Roman Empire, the city of Rome was only inhabited by Romans. But later, when the Roman Empire was established Rome became a cosmopolitan city. Similarly, Istanbul and all other Balkan cities used to be multicultural. We lived together, and because of this strong cultural richness there was an increase in interaction.”

This is a remarkable interpretation of South East European history to be offered by a Turkish foreign minister. The history of the early Turkish Republic was shaped by the memories of the tragic decades of the collapsing Ottoman state. As Eric Zurcher has shown so well, the early Turkish Republic was constructed by people from the Balkans and from Istanbul (there were very few Anatolians among the elite in the first decades of the Republic). The construction of the Kemalist state reflected the traumatic experience of a disastrous failure, the notion that a diverse, multicultural, society (such as the late Ottoman Empire) was an impossibility, that multiculturalism, to use a modern term, was doomed to failure. So the young Turks came to embrace the ideology of nationalism, like other peoples of the Balkans had done before them. The founders of the republic also pushed for the exchange of populations in peace negotiations with Greece in 1923. As one member of the Turkish delegation in Lausanne, Riza Nur, wrote in his memoirs:

“The most important thing was the liberation of Turkey from elements which, through the centuries, had weakened her either by organising rebellions or by being the domestic extensions of foreign states. Hence making the counntry uniformly Turkish … was a huge and unequalled responsibility.”

It was a national(ist) vision that continued to shape policy towards minorities (including Christians) in Turkey until today (see here). For Davutoglu, however, what first comes to mind when thinking about the destruction of multiethnicity in the Balkans are (recent) war crimes:

“Those who carried out the massacres in Srebrenica are barbaric people, who did not tolerate cultural differences. The spirit of Sarajevo is a spirit of coexistence, the spirit of living together. So how does Turkey look at the Balkans? We want to see a new Balkan region, based on political dialogue, economic interdependency and cooperation, integration and cultural harmony and tolerance.”

The vision of an interdependent South East Europe, on the other hand, is consistent with earlier writings of Davutoglu. In 2001, Davutoğlu authored “Strategic Depth” (Stratejik derinlik: Türkiye’nin uluslararası konumu), as he was about to move from academia into a job as chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Strategic Depth”

In Davutoğlu’s book the arguments in favour of a renewed relationship between Turkey and it near-abroad are laid out in full. During the Cold War, Turkey’s geopolitical influence was used as a trump of the Western Block, writes Davutoğlu. After the fall of the USSR it was necessary to re-interpret Turkey’s geopolitical role, “overcoming the strategy of conserving the status quo … In this understanding Turkey has to redefine its position … and gain a new understanding within the international framework.” Turkey’s new geopolitical position, he argues, “has to be seen as a means of gradually opening up to the world and transforming regional into global influence:”

“In fact, Turkey is both a European and Asian, Balkan and Caucasus, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean country.”

Photo: Emil Sanamyan (Armenian Reporter)

Davutoğlu’s book offers a first articulation of what was to become the AKP government’s “zero problems with neighbours” doctrine.

“It is impossible for a country experiencing constant crises with neighbouring states to produce a regional and global foreign policy … Relations with these countries have to be detached from the long and difficult process involving polities and bureaucrats. A broader basis, focused largely on intra society relations, including economic and cultural elements, must be found … A comprehensive peace plan and a package to develop economic and cultural relations have to be put into place simultaneously to overcome security crises with the closest neighbours.”

Looking to the Caucasus and the Middle East, regions with authoritarian regimes, he stresses the power of functional integration:

“Particularly in our region, where authoritarian regimes are the norm, improving transport possibilities, extending cross-border trade, increasing cultural exchange programs, and facilitating labour and capital movement … will help overcome problems stemming from the role of the central elites.”

Increase trade relations, remove (visa) barriers to freedom of movement between people, privilege soft power, emphasize a common history … such have been the core principles of Turkish foreign policy, not only towards Syria and Iraq but also towards Georgia, Russia or Greece (for more on Davutoglu and others writing on this see the ESI picture story on Turkish Foreign Policy). This is not the most spectacular part of Turkey’s foreign policy (unlike the much hyped mediation efforts, or the much denounced fall-out with Israel) but it may well be the most important in the long term.It also appears sustainable, reflecting the interests of what Kemal Kirisci has called in his essay the foreign policy of Turkey as a “trading state”.

What is striking in Davutoglu’s approach is its interpretation of history: the key reference point is not the agonising experience of the (painful, particularly in the Balkans) creation of nation states but the confident memory of a multi-ethnic Empire. It is a memory that inspires the belief that policies of integration can work, that multiethnic, multireligious cities are signs of progress, expressions of the success of a civilisation, and not of its vulnerability or failure. In late Ottoman Istanbul 40 percent of the population were Christians. In late Ottoman Salonika the largest population group were Sephardic Jews.

Ironically, this approach when applied to the Balkans also supports an escape from the burdens of recent history. In another speech in Sarajevo in December 2009 Davutoglu tells his audience that the Balkans are

“a region of immense history, rich culture and, I believe, a great common future. Naturally, one cannot forget the tragedies of the recent past. Indeed, we should bear in mind the sufferings of the last two decades, in order to ensure that they are never allowed to happen again. However, we cannot live with these tragedies in mind forever. We must move on and the Balkans has moved on.”

Neither the memories of the tragedies of the early nor those of the end of the 20th century should hold the region and its people hostage.

Now many are likely to question this post-modern interpretation of Ahmet Davutoglu’s commitment to multi-culturalism. For Balkan skeptics this approach is not post– but pre-modern, a barely veiled appeal to what in the end is a religious community (the Ottoman millet or the Islamic umma) to replace modern national identities. As one Albanian commentator noted, claims by Turkish officials that Albanians and Turks belong to “one nation” are troubling:

“What nation? Because according to any universally accepted definition of the nation, Turks and Albanians cannot be one nation. Unless, that is, we substitute the modern concept of the nation, with the concept of the milet of Ottoman times, when the inhabitants of the empire were not divided according to their ethnicity, but were classified according to their religion, thus including Albanians of the Muslim faith in the same millet as Turks, Chechens, Arabs, etc, and those of the Orthodox faith in the so-called Rom millet alongside Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians and so on.”

In this view Europeanisation is a process that moves Albania in a more or less straight line away from the multiculturalism of the Ottoman period, through the modern nation-state, to European integration. In the case of Albania, Piro Misha notes, the Ottoman legacy is part of a past that must be left behind. It cannot serve as an inspiration for the future:

“Allow me to add that the reason why integration into NATO and the EU is of such historical importance for the Albanian Europhile elites, is not simply related to considerations about the country’s economic development or security, but is also related to the fact that (in their eyes) this integration will make the country’s march towards Europe practically irreversible, thus eliminating once and for all the fear of sliding back into the past. This is the reason why every step taken in this direction constitutes a step away from the influence of the Ottoman legacy, much in the same way as we are moving away with every passing year from the influence of the much shorter period of Enver Hoxha’s rule.”

Here, then, is the key question for the future of Davutoglu’s project in the Balkans: can Turkey reassure the people in the Balkans who reject the nationalist visions of the early 20th century and have instead embraced the post-modern vision of a European Balkan, integrated in a region without borders under the roof of a European Union of (relatively) tolerant and (more or less) pluralistic nation-states? (Note that this is a European Union which is having to cope with the fact that as a result of decades of successful trade and peace and freedom of movement its cities – London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin – are indeed multireligious, again!) Can Turkey’s leaders present Ankara’s vision of interdependence as not only not in competition but as compatible and even complementary to the other integration project ongoing in the Balkans today – the project of European enlargement?

There are three obvious things which those who are both fascinated and confused by the new Turkish approach might watch as they try to figure out how much post- and how much pre-modern ingredients are wrapped up in Davutoglu’s appeal to restore a new Balkan spirit:

The first is the ongoing transformation of Turkey itself. Depending on how Turkey develops, economically, socially and in terms of accepting its own pluralism, its experience will either serve as an inspiration or as a threat. Central to this will be the question whether Turkey actually comes to terms with its own minorities: whether it is able to accept Turkish Christians as full citizens; whether it will allow the opening of the Orthodox Seminary in Halki; whether it will translate the vision, once sketched by Erdogan, of an upper civic identity (ust kimlik) based on Turkish citizenship coinciding with a lower identity (alt kimlik) based on ethnicity, religion or any other criteria people might chose, into a viable model.

A Turkish state at conflict with its own citizens of Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Arab origin cannot in the long term inspire confidence among its neighbours. Recent years have certainly seen some encouraging trends (more in upcoming ESI reports). I have seen many a Balkan visitor expecting to find a country in the throes of an Islamic revival, having read the accounts of Turkey sceptics based in the US or in Ankara itself, struck by the vibrant and open society they find when they visit Istanbul, Ankara or the coast.

Of course, people in (highly secularized) Balkan societies will also watch closely whether Turkey is moving towards a more religious or simply a more pluralist model of society; one in which religion (including Islam) might well be practiced more openly than before, but in which secular lifestyles will also be able to thrive.

The second vital issues is how Turkey’s relationship with its immediate (and Christian) Balkan neighbours will develop. If Turkey and Greece actually succeed in turning the Aegean into a sea of peace (and if current talks on the Aegean lead to positive results that allow further progress); if Turkey and Serbia continue to develop their relations; and if Turkey manages to reach out to all communities in Bosnia (and not only the Bosniaks or even a part of them) it will be impossible to question the positive impact of its more active Balkan policy for the whole region.

The third issue to watch concerns another vision of ongoing integration, one which Davutoglu did not mention in Sarajevo, but which has been central to Turkey’s own developments since 1999: the process of EU integration. For in reality it is this – the idea of all of South Eastern Europe and Turkey eventually joining the EU – which holds out the only credible path to actually realise the post-modern promise inherent in Davutoglu’s vision of multiethnic open cities and societies linked in peaceful commerce.

It was EU integration and enlargement that recreated such an open and integrated space in Central Europe in the past 20 years, not neo-Habsburgianism or political visions of Mitteleuropa. It was ideas of functional integration under a common European roof that transformed the Baltics in the past two decades, not nostalgia for the Hanseatic league or the age of Swedish imperialism. If Ahmet Davutoglu would have made a reference to the process of EU-integration – one that in fact today affects all of South East Europe (including Turkey) – in his Sarajevo speech this would have gone some way towards reassuring Balkan skeptics.

But even in its absence, the reality is that a commitment to a policy of interdependence and integration, a policy that promises to look to the future rather than to the bitter (recent) past, is a novel and promising approach to come from Ankara. If this translates into support for pluralism and multiculturalism inside Turkey it will be all the more credible outside. Then a new golden era – in Turkey and in the Balkans – is indeed possible, and even skeptical Balkan citizens might not begrudge Ahmet Davutoglu’s references to a golden age of Ottoman tolerance and economic integration … .

(it is not only myth, of course: read here about late Ottoman Izmir/Smyrna. Or the account by Gabriel Arie, director of the school set up by the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Izmir, in 1893, who had come from Bulgaria: “What strikes a Bulgarian when he enters Turkey is, before everything else, the air of freedom that one breathes.” (quoted in Andrew Mango’s biography of Ataturk). Of course, there is enough material to also support the counter-myth of the late Ottoman state as a repressive prison for its various people; an all-too familiar story for those in the Balkans who grew up with the theory of the Turkish yoke as the source of all evil – but honestly, which reference would you want policy makers to refer to more when talking about the future: the memories of Moorish Cordoba or those of the crusading Spain of Phillip II?).

For more on these issues see also these entries:

Reading this today also suggests that without a strong economic base (in Turkey) all notions of future regional influence are bound to be pipe-dreams. Even for the late Ottoman Empire it was in the end the economy (and demography) stupid …

Zurcher’s conclusion:

“The reasons for the Ottoman Empire’s ultimate failure to sustain its viability thus are manifold. It lacked the manpower, the money and the industrial base to compete successfully with European powers. The prerogatives of the European states under the system of Capitulations severely limited its room for manoeuvre in the economic sphere. The religiously over determined division of labour between a vastly increased state apparatus, dominated by Muslims and a modern industrial and commercial sector completely dominated by Christians under foreign protection meant that economic growth could hardly be tapped by the state to increase its resources. At the same time the explosive growth of the number of protected Christians and of their wealth created the social and cultural space in which separatist nationalisms could blossom. By the time the Ottoman elite tried to counter these with emotional appeals to a shared Ottoman citizenship and patriotism in the 1860s, it was already too late. Sultan Abdülhamid’s emphasis on the Islamic character of the state during his rule in the 1880s and 1890s served to further alienate the non-Muslims. The Young Turk movement, which emerged in the 1890s and held power between 1908 and 1918, was born out of a Muslim reaction against the perceived failure of the sultan’s regime to stop the weakening of the Ottoman state and the encroachments of foreigners and local Christians. When external circumstances gave them the opportunity to act independently, identity politics, or solving the ethnic issue, took priority over increasing the financial and human resources of the state.”