Why Macedonia is not Finland – mousetraps and romantic nationalism – Part II

A morality tale – Part II

For Part I please go here: Why-macedonia-is-not-finland-rankings-and-the-pisa-gap


At its heart, the Finnish development story is a story about reallocating time and attention. It is a story about focus, about how – over time – incremental change can lead to dramatic transformations. Finland was not always the success story it is today. This success was the result of a national policy vision. It is the story of an unlikely success.

This is certainly the consistent theme in all modern history books on Finland. David Kirby opens his Concise History of Finland as follows:

“Finland can fairly lay claim to have been one of the big success stories of the modern age.”

Then he adds:

“The transformation of what less than a century ago was a poor agrarian land on the northern periphery of Europe into one of the most prosperous states of the European Union today is a remarkable story, but it is by no means an uneventful one.”

Fred Singleton starts his Short History of Finland like this:

“Today it is one of the most prosperous, socially progressive, stable and peace loving nations on earth.”

Then he adds:

“The homeland of the Finns is not, at first glance, a likely base for such a successful state.”

Why was success unlikely here? Most accounts begin with nature, the epic theme of wresting a living from the soil in Europe’s northernmost country, a third of which lies within the Arctic Circle. Fred Singleton notes that throughout history “there was little to attract conquerors or traders to this remote land of lakes and forests with its harsh winters.”

In other words: natural endowments do not explain why Macedonia is worse-off today than Finland. Nor does climate. Finland has long, dark and cold winters. Then the sea – across which 90 per cent of exports are transported today – freezes over (necessitating ice-breakers to permit traffic). This climate poses severe limitations for agriculture. In the north of the country the snow covers the ground for up to 220 days.

Nor is it a matter of raw materials. Compared to its neighbors, Norway and Russia, Finland has limited natural resources, aside from pine and spruce forests that cover half the territory. Due to the cold, everything is more expensive here, from building a transport network to heating factories. In 1918 Finland was still primarily an agricultural society. Half of its GDP derived from agriculture. Most non-agricultural activities focused on timber and pulp.

How about geopolitics: are Balkan nations not uniquely cursed by their geography? In fact, the geopolitics of the European North in the 20th century was not for the faint-hearted. For centuries control of Southern Finland has been central to the great power struggles in the North: between Sweden and Russia until the early 19th century; between Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th. (During the Crimean war in the 1850s Helsinki and other coastal towns of Finland, then within the Czarist Empire, were bombed by the English fleet).

Finns also faced another challenge familiar to Balkan nations: linguistic conflict. For centuries, well into the modern era, elites in Finland spoke Swedish. Finland’s iconic 20th century hero, General Gustaf Mannerheim – the Ataturk of Finland, voted the most important Finn ever in a recent survey – spoke much better Swedish than Finnish. It took a while for Finnish culture to be recognised even by its closest and friendliest neighbor, Sweden. As the editor of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily, put it in the 19th century:

“it took centuries for Swedish culture to lead the Finnish people, whom it had taken under its care and protection, to civilization, self-esteem and independence.”

Finnish only obtained equal status with Swedish in the administration in 1863. When a baron spoke in Finnish in the estate of nobility for the first time in 1894 (!) it caused a furor. In 1880 less than one third of grammar schools were in Finnish. By 1900 it was still only two thirds.

The reality of Finland’s recent economic past is one of deep poverty. There were truly disastrous famines in the 1860s – hundreds of thousands died then, Finland suffered “shockingly high mortality rates” (Kirby). In the 1860s, a slogan was “Nature seems to cry out to our people: Emigrate or Die!” Early 20th century Finland was home to many tenant farmers and landless laborers. In 1910 “over half of the holdings were smaller than the five hectares deemed by the 1900 Senate commission on land tenure to be the minimum size for subsistence.” (Kirby). This fed political tensions, with rising frustrations, and  “a large number of poor Finnish peasants were prepared to resort to desperate measures against the richer farmers in order to wreak vengeance upon those who had oppressed them.” It also lead to civil war immediately after independence in 1917.

The history of early Finnish democracy was conflict-ridden. Once independent from the Russian Empire Finland plunged immediately into civil war between Reds and Whites. The outcome was only determined when German troops reached Helsinki. Invaded by Russia in 1939, Finland was forced to cede territory to the mighty neighbor, and to accept the displacement of four hundred thousand Finns as refugees from Karelia. Then there was a disastrous alliance of Finnish democracy with Nazi-Germany to fight a “holy war” (Mannerheim) to retake Karelia. A doomed effort to hold on to Karelia followed. This led to another loss in 1944 to Soviet troops. Another war against German troops in Lapland followed. In the first half of the 20th century, Finns had thus fought in three wars.

After World War II, Finland had to pay huge reparations to the Soviet Union. Post-war Finland was forced to resettle hundreds of thousands, forced to pay huge reparations to the Soviet Union, forced to abandon a peninsula outside Helsinki to the Soviets until the 1950s.  It also stayed out of the Marshall Plan and did not receive US aid. It did not even join the Council of Europe until May 1989!

It was only after this ordeal that the transformation of the (seemingly) ugly duckling into the majestic swan takes place. For after World War II something crucial happened. Finland’s leaders abandoned all greater geopolitical aspirations. They gave up on what Singleton called the “Concept of Greater Finland.” Their leaders now defined the Finnish national character through pragmatism. Mannerheim, the general who now became president, led the way:

“Mannerheim realized that Finland could no longer pose as a bastion for Christian civilization against the barbarian hordes of bolshevism. There was no more talk of crusades against the hereditary enemy. Instead there was a sober appreciation that, if Finland was to survive and prosper as a democratic society, a way must be found to live at peace with the giant eastern neighbor.”

Singleton described this turning point as turning away from romantic nationalism:

Finland had to “face soberly and without illusions the bleak truth that the only road to survival leads in the opposite direction from that which had previously been followed. The romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century which had played a vital part in the formation of the Finnish nation could offer no comfort or support in the world of the mid twentieth century.”

Now Finnish elites focused on growth, despite an uncertain geopolitical neighborhood. The country systematically developed its comparative advantages, from designing household appliances to developing forestry products. Singleton notes:

“Emerson might have been writing about Finland when he said ‘If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ Finland’s ‘better mouse-traps’ include ice-breakers, glassware, ceramics, pharmaceutical products, high-quality textiles, pre-fabricated houses, sports equipment, electronics, cruise liners, and a whole host of other specialized products …”

Crucially one of these “better mousetraps” was the Finnish education system itself. In 1952 nine out of ten Finns had only completed 7-9 years of basic education. As late as the early 1970 “for three-quarters of adult Finns, basic school was the only completed form of education.” Finland was a net exporter of labor until the 1980s with some 750,000 people going to work in Sweden between 1945 and 1994, turning Finns into the largest migrant community there.

Educating everyone as best as possible, borrowing the best ideas for this from others, motivating educators … all this now came to be seen as central to Finnish identity. Classical Finnish literature was interpreted in this light, the Finnish national story told as a story of the triumph of education over poverty, mind over matter.  Primary school teachers came to be seen as standard bearers of national ideals. It is a narrative that resembles a morality tale. The Finnish national movement in the 19th century was interpreted as being centrally about education. The stories in the Finnish national epic Kalevala were seen to celebrate “mental agility”. Finland’s first novel – Seven Brothers – was read as a story about the value of education.

One symbolic story of un-heroic and life-improving creativity is that of the teacher Maiju Gebhard. She calculated that Finnish housewives spent 30,000 hours in life washing and drying dishes. That was equivalent to 3,5 years of life. So she invented something uniquely Finnish: the astiankuivauskaappi (or dish draining closet – see photo) installed today in almost every Finnish kitchen (but in no other countries). This was then “developed in the Finnish Association for Work Efficiency from 1944 to 1945. The Finnish Invention Foundation has named it as one of the most important Finnish inventions of the millennium.”

Creativity and daily life

An invention by teacher Maiju Gebhard: the astiankuivauskaappi (or dish draining closet), still found today in every Finnish household.

It is a riveting rags-to-riches story. It is like the children’s story of an ordinary person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the center of the stage and turns out to be exceptional. The story of the obscure squire who, without effort, pulls the sword out of the mighty stone in the churchyard; the ungainly duckling, ridiculed for its clumsiness, who becomes a swan; the story of Clark Kent, the bespectacled reporter, who suddenly transforms into ‘Superman’.

I still do not know much about Finland, but I do feel that this is a story worth telling in the Balkans. In this post-heroic narrative of a small country, “education” came to be regarded as the secret behind a national transformation, the equivalent to the tin of spinach that transforms Popeye, the ineffectual sailor; or the magic lantern that helped the little orphan Aladdin rise up in life.

And there is the central lesson, which that has nothing to do with fairy tales. Tinkering with mousetraps, saving time and effort through simple inventions in daily life, designing elegant ceramics for household, thinking through all aspects of the national education system all takes time. Attention. Focus. By leaders, by intellectuals, by ordinary people.

Skopje, 2011

Now look at the Western Balkans in the early 21st century through this prism.

Look at the issues that obsess leaders in Skopje, the great prestige projects they have focused their time and attention on. (Yes, they are in some ways just copying their neighbors … but modern Greece is no Finland either, and for a reason).

Look at the issues that intellectuals, academics and politicians most like to discuss in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is rarely about how to design better mousetraps, but usually about how – if there would be a magic fairy – a new constitution would suddenly appear and all would be well.

Look at leaders’ allocation of time, energy and money in Kosovo. How many monuments to warriors have they built … and how many libraries to instill the love of books in the next generation?

Perhaps we can now answer the question of why Macedonia is not Finland. It lacks the national narratives that celebrate pragmatism, ordinary people, education and teachers as the national heroes of the future. Macedonia has not followed where Finland led one century ago in the field of women’s empowerment. It is not turning away from romantic nationalism but celebrates it.

One day leaders will emerge in the Western Balkans who take pride in building museums of science and design instead of temples to dead warriors and bandits. But when this will happen remains to be seen.


Finnish impressions – a post-heroic nation

Reminder of a complex neighbourhood: the Russian church in Helsinki

A national trauma and its consequences – losing Eastern Karelia, twice, to Russia in the 20th century

Gustav Mannerheim. His life reflects his country’s dramatic 20th century history. From a Swedish-Finnish family, growing up in the Czarist Empire, he volunteered for service in the Russian-Japanese war. He then became a spy in the “Great Game” in Asia. Following the revolution in 1917 he returned to Finland and led the Whites in the civil war against Finnish revolutionaries. He came out of retirement to fight in the Winter War in 1939. He was decorated by his own country, by the allies (French Legion d’honneur), by neutral Sweden and by the Nazis (receiving the Iron Cross; the surprise guest at his 75th birthday in Finland was Hitler). He then ended his political career as president of democratic Finland.

Rumeli Observer in Helsinki

Why Macedonia is not Finland – rankings and the PISA gap – Part I

A morality tale in two acts – Part I

One country in the world you expect looks forward to every new international ranking and comparison must surely be Finland, a small Nordic European nation of 5 million. It does not matter what is being measured – happiness, creativity, sustainability, gender relations, the well-being of children, even bike-friendliness: Finland always ends up as a global outlier.

Last summer I travelled to Finland to learn more about Finland’s special expertise in border management. I travelled around the country with a Finnish border general, visiting the Russian land border, the coast guard headquarters and Helsinki airport, learning about smart borders, new technology and international cooperation in the Baltic Sea. It was an impressive demonstration of Finnish competence, and a reminder of just how geopolitically exposed this small nation has been for centuries. It was also puzzling. Why was Finland so prosperous? Did this story of democracy and prosperity in the 20th century hold broader lessons for other small European countries with a troubled past in a complicated neighborhood? What would it take for Macedonia (Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia or Serbia) to become as wealthy and prosperous as Finland anytime in the future? Why is Macedonia not like Finland?

As a novice to all things Finnish I dug into reading whatever I could find in English and German. I hope Finnish friends will correct my necessarily superficial impressions and comment and add to these reflections.


A matter of comparison

First, a word on how to measure a country’s success. If you study how various international rankings are put together, and how many there are, you are certainly right not to take any single one of them too seriously. However, considered as a group, rankings can tell an interesting story. Here is a collection of international comparisons I looked at last year before setting out on my trip to the North.

There is the UN World Happiness Index, based on work by Jeffrey Sachs’ Earth Institute:

“FINLAND has been judged to be the world’s second happiest country in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which was released on 2 April. Denmark took top spot.”

There is the Legatum Prosperity Index 2012: here Finland came seventh.










New Zealand











There is the Sustainable Society Index, with Finland again among the top ten:

Human Wellbeing Economic Wellbeing
2006 2008 2010 2012 2006 2008 2010 2012
Iceland 5 4 4 1 Switzerland 9 1 1 1
Norway 2 1 1 2 Sweden 4 3 2 2
Sweden 1 2 2 3 Norway 12 9 3 3
Finland 3 3 3 4 Czech Republic 8 5 4 4
Austria 6 5 5 5 Denmark 1 6 6 5
Japan 4 6 6 6 Finland 6 7 7 6
Switzerland 13 9 9 7 Estonia 5 2 9 7
Netherlands 12 14 14 8 Slovenia 3 4 5 8
Ireland 9 8 7 9 Australia 11 13 10 9
Germany 7 7 8 10 Luxembourg 2 12 8 10

The Global Creativity Index looks at technology, talent and tolerance (Finland comes first in the first two categories):

1. Sweden
2. United States
3. Finland
4. Denmark
5. Australia
6. New Zealand
7. Canada
8. Norway
9. Singapore
10. Netherlands


The UNICEF Child well-being index looks at the welfare of the youngest:

1. Netherlands
2. Norway
3. Iceland
4. Finland
5. Sweden
6. Germany
7. Luxembourg
8. Switzerland
9. Belgium
10. Ireland

Finland was famously the first country in the world to grant women the right both to vote and to be elected to parliament. In the first Finnish parliament in 1906 there were 19 women MPs out of 200. This percentage was not reached in Turkey until 2011! The most recent 2012 Global Gender Gap index shows that Finland has not lost ground since:

1.      Iceland
2. Finland
3.      Norway
4.      Sweden
5.      Ireland
6.      New Zealand
7.      Denmark
8.      Philippines
9.      Nicaragua
10.  Switzerland

Even a recent index on bike-friendliness puts Finland in the top group in Europe:

1. Denmark
1. Netherlands
3. Sweden
4. Finland
5. Germany
6. Belgium
7. Austria
8. Hungary
9. Slovakia
10. UK

(See: European Cyclists’ Federation Cycling Barometer. Based on daily cycling levels, bike sales, safety, cycle tourism and advocacy activity).

Finally, the rankings that contributed most to making Finland a global sensation are the OECD’s PISA tests, measuring the literacy, math and science skills of 14-15 year olds across the world. Finland’s PISA success since 2001 has brought literally “thousands of delegations” (Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote a great book on the topic) to Europe’s North to find out how Finland achieves these successes.


Yes, but why?

In short, Finland is doing well. The obvious question for a Macedonian, Albanian, Bosnian or Serb who looks at these rankings is whether this has any relevance for their own societies.

What is the cause and effect in such a success story? Is it surprising that a society where children live well, are healthy, brought up by parents who live and work in creative cities, also has good schools? Is it not obvious that a country where young girls grow up in an environment of exemplary gender equality is better at educating the female half of the population than a patriarchal society where women still do not inherit land, as remains the case in Kosovo? Is Finland’s prosperity the result of its good education system … or is it the reverse?

Behind such unresolvable chicken-and-egg questions stands a bigger one. Can one look at any other country – especially one whose language very few outsiders understand – and derive useful roadmaps for domestic reforms? On the other hand, has not all progress since time immemorial be based on emulation, imitating in order to equal or excel:

“If the tribe across the river has taken the step from the Stone age to the Bronze Age, your own tribe is faced with the choice of either sticking to its comparative advantage in the Stone age or trying to emulate the neighbouring tribe into the Bronze Age … a strategy of emulation was a mandatory passage point for all nations that are presently rich.” (Erik Reinert)

Take education. A lot has already been written on the “lessons from Finland” and its success in PISA tests. Finnish children famously attend school for fewer hours than children anywhere else: 5,500 hours between ages 7 and 14 (compared to more than 7,000 hours in many other OECD countries). Italian 15-year olds have attended at least 2 more years of school than have their Finnish peers between ages 7 and 15. They also start school two years earlier. Yet, Italy ranks only 32nd in maths and science and 27th in reading. Clearly success (as measured by PISA) is not a mechanical result of hours spent in school.

This raises many questions. What is one to emulate? What do Finnish pupils learn when they are not in school? One whole chapter in a recent book on Finnish education describes the non-school learning environment, the role of museums and libraries. In 2010 there were 796 main and branch libraries in Finland. There were 53 million library visits a year, and the average number of loans was 18 items per Finn annually. It would be interesting to have comparable statistics from Macedonia or Kosovo, starting with the number of public libraries and comparing reading habits. Pasi Sahlberg, an expert on education, also wrote:

“With school days running shorter in Finland than in many other countries, what do children do when their classes are over? In principle, pupils are free to go home in the afternoon unless there is something offered to them in school. Primary schools are encouraged to arrange after-school activities for youngest pupils and educational or recreational clubs for the older ones.”

He added that two thirds of 10 to 14 year olds belong “to at least one youth association.”

What are the policy lessons? Is it that children in countries where there is a lot of creative stimulation outside of school do not need to spend too many hours in class … but the reverse is true in countries without museums or public libraries? That even in the age of the internet, books and a network of public libraries matter when it comes to stimulating a love of reading? (Or is it perhaps even more important which kinds of books children find, in their own language, once they set foot in such a library?)

On the other hand, if everything matters, since “it takes a village to educate a child”, does studying any individual aspects of Finnish policy offer guidance to a Macedonian, Kosovo, Albanian or Bosnian (cantonal) minister of education?

In fact, the real lesson – the main point to underline and discuss from a Balkan perspective –may be altogether different and more basic. It is not this or that aspect of Finnish education, public administration or social policy that matters most. It is the general attitude towards progress and development, the sense of what issues matter most, which shapes how to allocate one’s most precious resource … time and attention.

The real and significant difference between Macedonia and Finland are the issues people – decision makers, parents, teachers – consider important enough to wrestle with until they find incremental improvements.

Sculpture in Helsinki overlooking the Baltic Sea
Title: Happiness

It is, for instance, well known that Finnish teachers are exceptionally well-educated. In Finland all primary school teachers require a master’s degree from university, and need to do real research into education issues as part of their education. They are expected to think seriously about the activity they will engage in. They are asked to think about primary education, to ask different and new questions about what constitutes success. In this way they take part in a wider national conversation.

Is this kind of reflection part of the education of teachers in the Western Balkans? Are teachers in Macedonia or Kosovo taught pedagogical thinking skills? Is education itself the main subject of their education?

And what about policy makers? Do debates on education policy in the Western Balkans always proceed on the basis of empirical research? Are reforms grounded in real assessments of the status quo? Are education policy issues discussed seriously in national parliaments?

I think most of you reading this will suspect what the answers to these questions are. But how might this state of affairs be changed?

Let us take a look at 2012 PISA rankings again and compare Macedonia and Finland:

PISA results – mathematics 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Netherlands (top EU15 country)


Estonia (top EU13 country)








Bulgaria (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


PISA results – reading 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Finland (top EU15 country)


Poland (top EU13 country)








Bulgaria (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


PISA results – science 2012

Shanghai (top country)


Finland (top EU15 country)


Estonia (top EU13 country)








Cyprus (lowest EU country)






Bosnia and Herzegovina


At the time Finland did best in science and reading among EU members (For more background look at Pasi Sahlberg on Finnish education). Poland and Estonia also performed well. Serbia performed somewhat worse than Turkey. Albania did very badly.

And Macedonia? It did not even take the test! This is all the more puzzling given the dramatic results when Macedonia took the test, once and for the last time, in 2000. As the OECD found then:

“At the lower end of the scale, 18 per cent of students among OECD countries and well over 50 per cent of the student population in Albania, Brazil, Indonesia, FYR Macedonia and Peru perform at Level 1 or below. These students, at best, can handle only the most basic reading tasks. Students at this level are not a random group.”

The share of students with serious difficulties in reading (PISA 2000) was as follows:

Level 1 and below!














Or, in even more shocking detail:

Below Level 1 Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4 Level 5

















































Level 1 “represents those students who have serious difficulties in using reading as a tool to advance and extend their knowledge and skills in other areas.”

Level 5 “indicates those students who are able to manage information that is presented in unfamiliar texts, show detailed understanding of complex texts and infer which information is relevant to the task, and critically evaluate and build hypotheses with the capacity to draw on specialised knowledge and concepts that may be contrary to expectations.”

(Macedonia has just now, after 14 years, taken the test for the second time. May this be the start of a different debate?)

All leaders have a limited budget of attention. What are the issues foremost on the mind of prime ministers and ministers when they go to bed or wake up in the morning? What questions do they ask foreign visitors? It was the father of modern management studies, Peter Drucker, who wrote once:

“We rightly consider keeping many balls in the air a circus stunt. Yet even the juggler does it only for ten minutes or so. If he were to try doing it longer, he would soon drop all the balls.”

After all, the one totally inflexible resource of every individual – parent or prime minister – is time. This is also true for the political class. What activities do they allocate it to? What is being studied and debated in parliament, local governments, parent-teacher associations, in detail? What issues are being studied seriously and empirically?

If education is not one of those issues then it is not surprising that Macedonia has not been catching up with the rest of Europe. One might also then assume that the current generation of pupils emerging from its schools will not be able to compete, as they should, with their peers elsewhere in Europe.

But how does a society even begin to obsess as much about human capital, education and fostering creativity as this small Nordic nation?

To be continued HERE  … mousetraps-and-romantic-nationalism


The Baltic Sea near Helsinki

Oped in Koha Ditore: One decade has been lost. What about the next one?

One decade has been lost. What about the next one?

Op-ed by Gerald Knaus (for Koha Ditore)


In Athens, spring 2003


One decade ago, in spring 2003, the New York Times published an appeal by four Balkan leaders, the presidents of Croatia and Macedonia and the prime ministers of Albania and Serbia. Its title: “The EU and South-East Europe need each other.”[1] The occasion was a special Balkan meeting of the World Economic Forum in Athens where all these leaders also came together.

I was there too at the time, and I remember both the appeal and the atmosphere in Athens well. In fact, together with my friend Misha Glenny, I drafted it. There was a sense of urgency in the air, and of anticipation. Zoran Djindic, the prime minister of Serbia who had delivered Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal, had been assassinated by ultra-nationalist members of the Serbian security forces. Croatia had handed in its application to join the EU, the first Western Balkan state to do so. The host of the meeting, Greece, then the EU’s rotating president, pushed hard to get a European commitment to continued Balkan enlargement.

Shortly before the Athens gathering Boris Trajkovski, the president of Macedonia, invited me to draft an appeal that he planned to ask other leaders to co-sign. He knew that the region would receive a better hearing if it spoke with one voice. He was concerned. His own country had recently been on the verge of civil war. Serbia was on the edge, its ultranationalists growing in confidence. The future of Montenegro and Kosovo was not yet settled. Would the EU, following its 2004 enlargement to Central Europe – then just about to happen – get tired of further expansion? The Balkan leaders’ appeal warned: “Until the whole Southeastern Europe is safely integrated into the European Union, the job will not be complete. And until it is, Europe cannot feel secure about itself.”

One decade later, where do we stand? Today, when EU leaders talk about crises in South-East Europe they think of Athens not Skopje, of Nikosia, not Belgrade. Europe does not feel “secure about itself” but it is not the Western Balkans or the threat of renewed conflict that keeps EU leaders awake, literally, at one crisis summit after another.

Montenegro and Kosovo are independent states; the fear of armed conflict in the region has never appeared more distant. And yet, despite these important breakthroughs, it is hard not to regard the years since 2003 as a lost decade for the Balkans. Boris Trajkovski tragically died in an airplane crash in the Bosnian mountains, on his way to submit Macedonia’s own application for EU membership. His country has been stalled for years now by a Greek veto (a threat which did not appear real in 2003 in Athens). Serbia, ten years after the death of Djindic, has still not even opened EU accession talks. Albania is not an EU candidate yet. The Greek foreign minister in spring 2003, George Papandreou, became prime minister, only to be swept away by the Greek economic melt-down. 2003 was perhaps the last success of Greek diplomacy. At the European Union summit on the Balkans in Thessaloniki in summer EU leaders stated their “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.”[2] Croatia used the past decade, opened accession talks, closed them, and is today on the verge of accession. And yet, it is likely that ten years from now in 2023 Croatia will still be the only Balkan country inside the EU.

Rereading the Trajkovski appeal today highlights a further disappointment. It contained a specific proposal: to make EU regional and cohesion funding available to the region, so as to help it catch up economically, rather than fall further behind. The appeal warned that “the long-term stability of Southeastern Europe depends on the region’s economic health, but this does not mean the usual plea for more money … We are committed to opening our markets to our neighbors and to the EU. We have made huge progress in curbing inflation. And we are now greatly encouraged by the proposal by Greece … that the Thessaloniki summit meeting focus on the possibility of applying cohesion and development policies in our region.”

This was a hope that has not come true. The Western Balkans remains one of the poorest regions of Europe. In Serbia today less than half of the working-age population is actually employed. Unemployment levels in Macedonia and Bosnia are disastrously high. Foreign direct investment in the region, which had transformed the economic structures of Central European countries, has fallen to very low levels. And yet, if a focus on underdevelopment in the Balkans has never been more urgent, the EU’s confidence in its ability to bring about convergence and growth in its own periphery has rarely been lower. The 2003 Trajkovski appeal stated that “The EU has a remarkable record of triggering economic success by helping poorer regions — Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal have experienced veritable revolutions in social and economic development in the last 20 years.” It is hard to imagine anybody writing like this today, in the wake of bail-outs, bank failures and rapidly rising unemployment in Spain or Greece.

EU leaders no longer worry about war in the Balkans. They are no longer confident in their ability to bring about economic convergence. They fear the weakness of democratic institutions in Romania or Greece. They worry about inadequate regulation in Cyprus or Spain. Given this state of affairs: what arguments can sway them to open their institutions to accept even poorer states, with even weaker institutions, and even worse images among the public and political elites in Berlin, Paris or The Hague?

Perhaps Greece will prepare for its EU presidency in 2014 by changing its policies on Skopje and Pristina.  Perhaps Serbia and Kosovo will soon reach an agreement that allows both countries to move beyond their confrontation. Perhaps Albania will manage to hold free and fair elections this summer. Perhaps Bosnia’s leaders will soon be able to put together a credible application for EU accession. Perhaps Macedonia’s leaders will be capable of renewing the national consensus to focus on EU integration that existed in 2003. Perhaps politicians throughout the region will wake up late at night worrying about youth unemployment and the inadequacy of vocational training, about export opportunities and the best way to use scarce public resources for growth, rather than about building  statutes or wasting public money on prestige infrastructure of little proven economic benefit. And then, perhaps, a successor of Boris Trajkovski will invite all his regional counterparts to an informal meeting to seriously discuss what they might do together to correct the image of their region, driven by the recognition that the whole region has dropped out of the focus of the rest of Europe.

If Boris Trajkovski would be around today, and would propose drafting a new appeal for Balkan leaders to sign and publish, what could it say? Appeals are expected to end with proposals, a sense of hope, recommendations. But sometimes it is better to resist this temptation. To acknowledge just how steep the wall is that one has to climb. To recognise that before any new appeals to the EU a whole series of steps have to be taken by the region itself. To recognise that time matters; and that April 2013 is another crucial moment which Balkan leaders miss at their peril. I believe Trajkovski would have realised this. Will his successors?

Perhaps this is not a time for appeals at all, but for a blunt and honest recognition: a decade has been lost. The next might be as well. And it is not by formulating words on paper that this can be prevented.

Macedonia and the EU council conclusions – a small but important step forward

Macedonia and accession: how the arguments of supporters of early accession talks prevailed

As EU member states gathered last week to discuss Council Conclusions relating to Macedonia two camps of member states emerged with two versions of these conclusions. To understand whose arguments prevailed – and how to judge what happened – it is important to go beyond facile conclusions and take a closer look at both proposals.

On the one hand there was a majority of member states who favored very positive language. These states were hoping to encourage a proactive Commission to take the initiative and to prepare the ground to launch EU accession talks with Macedonia already in June 2013. They were  hoping that in the end both Greece and Bulgaria would agree that this was also in their interest … that this was truly an issue where all sides could win.

In this group’s draft of the Council Conclusions a concrete date – June 2013 – is given for the possible opening of accession negotiations. This version states that the Council examines further progress in Macedonia on the basis of a Commission report before June 2013. It asks the Commission to submit “in due time” (i.e. at its own discretion, meaning it could start work on it right away in early 2013) a proposal for a negotiations framework, to be ready by June. It also invites the Commission to begin the “analytical examination of the acquis” (screening) right away.

Here are the key paragraphs of this maximalist proposal, backed by most member states and the Commission last week:

3. The Council largely shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

5. With a view to the possible opening of accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in June 2013, the Council will examine progress in the implementation of reforms in the context of the High Level Accession Dialogue, on the basis of a report to be presented by the Commission in the first half of 2013. The Commission is invited to submit in due time a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice, which also takes into account good neighbourly relations. Taking into account the new approach to accession negotiations as regards the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security, the Commission is also invited to carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis on these chapters.

Faced with this France, backed by a much smaller number of other EU states, put a counter-proposal on the table late last week. This version assesses progress in Macedonia less positively (the Council no longer “largely” but only “broadly” shares the Commission’s positive assessment). The minimalist proposal removes any reference to any concrete date. At an unspecified future moment, the European council would once again have to decide and invite the commission to submit a proposal for a negotiations framework.  This would happen only “once all the conditions are met”, which is not explained. The minimalist version states that in order to start screening another Council decision would be needed to task the Commission to do so. For now the commission gets no mandate to do anything until further notice.

Here is the full text of the minimalist version:

3. The Council broadly shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

5. Before opening accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a decision which will be considered in due time by the European Council, in line with established practice, the Council will continue to examine progress in the implementation of reforms including in the context of the High Level Accession Dialogue. Once all conditions are met, the European Council will invite the Commission to submit a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice, which also takes into account good neighbourly relations. Taking into account the new approach to accession negotiations as regards the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security, the European Council will also invite the Commission to carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis on these chapters.

So what actually happened? In all EU negotiations there is usually a give and take. However, if one takes a look at the final text of the Council Conclusions one sees clearly that the maximalist proposal emerged largely victorious.

In the final text the following was agreed:

– the council “largely” (not “broadely”) shares the Commission’s positive view that Macedonia was ready to open talks (the maximalist version).

– The council tasks the Commission already now to produce a report “in spring 2013” “with a view to a possible decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations”.

–  The council commits that it will assess this report “during the next presidency”, i.e. before July 2013.

–  Provided that the assessment is positive, the Commission will be invited to submit “without delay” (i.e. as quickly as it can) a framework for negotiations.

–  Provided that the assessment is positive the Commission will be invited to start screening two chapters, i.e. before accession talks begin.

–  The Council even “takes note” that the Commission “will conduct all the necessary preparatory work in this respect” … which means that Commission can start preparing both the negotiations framework and screening right away.

Look at the finally agreed text of the conclusions and the answer whose arguments won the day is obvious:

40. The Council largely shares the Commission’s assessment that the political criteria continue to be sufficiently met and takes note of its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

42. With a view to a possible decision of the European Council to open accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Council will examine, on the basis of a report to be presented by the Commission in Spring 2013, implementation of reforms in the context of the HLAD, as well as steps taken to promote good neighbourly relations and to reach a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue under the auspices of the UN. In this perspective, the Council will assess the report during the next Presidency.  Provided that the assessment is positive, the Commission will be invited by the European Council to: (1) submit without delay a proposal for a framework for negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in line with the European Council’s December 2006 conclusions and established practice; (2) carry out the process of analytical examination of the EU acquis beginning with the chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security. The Council takes note of the intention of the Commission to conduct all the necessary preparatory work in this respect.

The original plan of the Commission and of the member states who supported the maximalist version was to create a new momentum emerging from this Council. In this they succeeded.

–  The Commission can immediately begin to prepare its “spring report” which the Council will assess before July 2013.

–  The Commission can immediately begin to prepare for the analytical screening of two chapters and draft a proposal for negotiations.

–  Once the Council accepts a positive Commission report the Commission will submit the framework for negotiations “without delay”

One basic reality has obviously not changed: Greece will have to agree to the opening of accession talks. Expecting anything else was always unrealistic. The hopes of the friends of opening accession talks were to kick-start a process of finding a solution to the name issue in the first few months of 2013. Both supporters of opening talks soon and minimalists agreed on this paragraph without arguing:

41. As set out in the European Council conclusions of June 2008, maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the UN, remains essential. There is a need to bring the longstanding discussions on the name issue to a definitive conclusion without delay. The Council welcomes the momentum that has been generated by recent contacts/exchanges between the two parties, following the Greek proposal for a memorandum of understanding. The Council is, moreover, encouraged by recent contacts with the UN mediator.

The important point is this: if there is a positive European commission report following enough movement on the name issue and on good neighbourly relations all preparations will have been  made to launch accession talks in 2013 without delay.

Clearly the pressure has increased further for a serious effort to find a breakthrough in early 2013. This is pressure on everyone: on the Commission, on interested EU member states, but above all on Skopje and Athens. The fact that Greece accepted these conclusions, however, is another small positive sign.

The European Commission’s hope from the very beginning was to energize the search for a mutually agreed solution to the name issue.  The commission and most member states wanted a date in the conclusions when accession talks would possibly be opened. Now there are two dates in the conclusions: a report by the commission on progress by “spring” (April) with a view to start accession talks; and a Council assessment of this “before the next presidency” (before July).

An additional paragraph was also inserted upon the initiative of Bulgaria:

In light of the overall importance of maintaining good neighbourly relations, the Council also notes the recent high level contacts between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria and looks forward to their translation into concrete actions and results.

This means: if there is an agreed solution on the name issue soon, and if there are ‘concrete actions and results’ from high level meetings with Bulgaria till April, the goal to start accession talks in 2013 “before the next presidency” or very early in it remains alive. These are one big and one (slightly) smaller if. But a focused effort by the Commission and by member states supportive of opening accession talks soon has prepared a more promising playing field for a breakthrough than there has been in a while. What is needed now is a serious and imaginative solution to the name dispute before the commission reports “in the spring”; a solution that allows both Athens and Skopje to unlock the current destructive stalemate in a manner that both governments can defend before their domestic constituencies.

The Council was a warm up exercise. Now the real game begins. Athens and Skopje face a prisoners dilemma: if neither side believes that a solution is possible, and acts on this, both will lose. If both sides take a calculated risk to take the search for a mutually acceptable solution seriously both can win.

By spring 2013 we will know the outcome … sooner rather than later.

Skopje and Athens – can a version of the ESI proposal work?

A few months ago I visited Macedonia to present EU diplomats, ambassadors, the Macedonian prime minister, the foreign minister and party leaders a slighly revised version of the ESI proposal for overcoming the stalemate in the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece.

I also presented this proposal once again in Brussels, Berlin  and in other EU capitals.  I gave everyone a paper copy of the revised proposal. Since then it has circulated among EU diplomats.

It would be foolish to be too optimistic that anything can help overcome such a complicated dispute. And yet, there are a number of reasons to be more optimistic this time than in a long while. I remain convinced also that nothing can be forced by outsiders on either party, not now, not later. It will take  a compromise that national leaders can present to their publics in both Skopje and Athens as a step forward for their side; and one where both sides retain their leverage until actual EU accession of Macedonia.

Then, earlier this month, the Macedonian weekly Gradjanski reported the following:

drawing on unnamed diplomats, reported that Brussels was working on a‘date for date’ strategy about the country in December: start of membership negotiations would be announced for next June with Skopje being obliged to deliver by then tangible results on good neighbourly relations (improved ties with Bulgaria and Greece, including essential reviving of the name negotiations). The sources stressed the importance in this context of a constructive response of Skopje to Greece’s memorandum, which would offer ideas, but also pointed at the government being reserved about the plan. The weekly also reported on an upgraded 2010 proposal by the European Stability Initiative that the name issue be resolved in the early stage of membership negotiations but the referendum on the solution take place at the end of the process, i.e. together with the referendum on EU membership. According to Gragjanski, the upgraded document, which is reportedly supported by an influential lobby group in Brussels, foresees for the new composite name to immediately replace the current reference and its wider use to enter into force together with EU accession. Constitutional changes are expected from Skopje in order to accept the new name for international use; the constitutional name will remain official name of the country in its official languages and the use of the adjective ‘Macedonian’ will not be called in question, says the proposal.”

I have since been asked by a number of people to share the new version of the proposal. This then is the latest version in full:

Breaking the Macedonian deadlock before the end of 2012

What is needed is a way forward that accepts the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. This can be achieved through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country with a geographic qualifier today: to replace Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia where the latter is currently in use, allowing Athens to support the start of EU accession talks and to sending an invitation to join NATO later this year or early next year, but which foresees that the change will enter into force permanently and erga omnes on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

Such a solution is possible if the following happens:

1. There is active mediation between both sides which focus solely on finding a compromise name for the country with a geographical modifier, dealing with the issues of RM NATO accession and the opening of EU
accession talks.

2. Greece and RM agree on a compromise name, XYZ, with a geographical modifier. This will immediately replace F.Y.R.O.M. wherever that is currently in use in international

3. Greece commits to allow RM to join NATO under this new provisional name XYZ and an invitation to join NATO is extended.

4. RM changes its constitution to say something like this:
“From the day the Republic of Macedonia joins the European Union the international name of the country will be XYZ, used erga omnes in all languages other than the official languages of the country.”
The promised referendum on EU accession at the end of the negotiation process becomes thereby de facto the real referendum on the name issue (there was no referendum for F.Y.R.O.M., and until accession the new name is used only in place of F.Y.R.O.M.).
Leaders in RM replace one name their citizens do not like (referring to a state that has disappeared decades ago, Yugoslavia) with another name they do not like, both used in the same way.

Neither side loses leverage in the future. If future Greek governments block EU accession of RM or make additional demands judged unacceptable in Skopje this would also delay the entering into force of the core provision of this compromise. Greece shows its EU partners that it remains actively in favor of Balkan enlargement. Greece also keeps its leverage until the very end of the accession process

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: www.levantineheritage.com) ; 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.

A name compromise now. Or perhaps never? (Interview in Dnevnik)

Here is the most recent interview on the ESI proposal on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece which I just gave to the Macedonian daily Paper Dnevnik. The Macedonian version is online as well.

Previous press coverage and reactions to the proposal you find here.

Your proposal was discussed in Macedonia but not in Greece. Do you think that Greece could accept such an arrangement?

Yes, I do. There is a simple reason why both Macedonia and Greece could accept this: it is better than the status quo for both. At this moment EU Balkan enlargement is completely blocked. Serbia is blocked because of Kosovo; it is simply inconceivable that the EU will admit another country with an unsolved territorial dispute, as it has done in the case of Cyprus, and this is slowly becoming clear to Belgrade. Bosnia and Kosovo are blocked because they are still protectorates. Turkey is negotiating but moving at snail’s pace because of the Cyprus issue. And Macedonia, the frontrunner among the Balkan states so often in the past, is blocked because of the name. Some EU member states, eager to postpone the next wave of accession for another generation, hide behind these unresolved issues. The current government in Athens does not like this. Remember, Papandreou has taken political risks before to promote the EU integration of the region: in 1999 he changed decades of Greek foreign policy to support, rather than to oppose, Turkey becoming a candidate for EU accession. He put a lot of energy behind the Thessaloniki summit in 2003 to persuade a skeptical EU to give the Balkans a clear perspective.  The same team in Athens is now trying to create new momentum in favour of Balkan enlargement again, which they see as a matter of Greek national interest.

Why would your proposal be acceptable for Greece?

Here is what could happen.  First Macedonia and Greece agree on a name, such as “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”, or something similar, to replace Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia wherever FYROM is used now: in the EU, in the UN and in other international organizations. Macedonia changes its constitution to say that from the moment it becomes an EU member its international name will be, for instance, “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”. In the Macedonian language the country would remain “Republika Makedonija”. Next, Macedonia joins Nato and EU accession talks begin still in 2010. So what would happen in Athens? The Greek government would be attacked, of course. That is what oppositions do, and Samaras is not famous for his moderation in this particular matter. They could complain: “You allow Macedonia to join NATO and unblock the EU accession talks without a solution of the name entering into force now.” But Papandreou could say that this compromise is still better than what any other Greek government, including those in which Samaras served, have achieved in two decades. First, to have Macedonia join Nato and to see EU enlargement continue is in Athen’s vital interest. Second, he can point to the constitutional amendment and he could warn that those in Greece who want to press for further concessions from Skopje would risk losing everything. And third, he can ask what the policy of the past two decades has really achieved even for the most radical Greek nationalist? This compromise makes it unattractive for any future Greek government to use its veto at any stage in the accession process. Objectively it then becomes a Greek interest to see Macedonia join the EU rather sooner, whoever is in power in Athens.

Diplomatic sources in Athens say that the last deadline for Papandreou to find a solution for the name issue is end of August or mid September because the autumn will be difficult for the Greek government. How credible is this in your opinion?

I think it is credible. Papandreou is still popular in Greece, but the hardest economic and social reforms are yet to come. No unpopular Greek government would be able to make any compromise, which still has to be sold to the public. This promises to be a hot autumn in Greece, and managing the economic reforms and likely protests will absorb all the government’s attention. At this moment there are two strong governments, both in Skopje and in Athens.  There will not be a better opportunity to resolve this than exists in the next few weeks. Perhaps not for another decade or more. Perhaps never.

How much the Greek crisis influences the search for the name solution?

I believe that this government in Athens would have wanted to solve the problem even without a crisis, but the economic crisis has given it additional arguments. First, it can argue that Greece needs to have good relations with all of its neighbours for economic reasons. It cannot afford to alienate either potential tourists or potential markets if it wants to get out of its economic hole. If South East Europe develops, it will also help Greek companies. Second, Greece has seen its European reputation undermined due to economic mismanagement. Any success in foreign policy would restore it as a credible actor in Brussels.

Have you had some contacts in the Macedonian government and do you believe that they could accept your proposal?

Yes and yes. Of course, some will say that there should never ever be a compromise. Some still believe – ignoring what the European Council hast now stated repeatedly – that perhaps the EU will not demand a compromise before opening accession talks. But even if you are opposed to ever changing to name you might like this particular proposal! Here is what the government could tell those who want no concession at all, ever: “First, we get Macedonia into Nato.  At a moment when there is growing uncertainty again about the future of the Balkans this is good for investors, for interethnic relations and for Macedonia’s position in the world. Second, we start EU accession talks. This is also good in itself, even if in the end we decide that we do not want to join. Since Turkey started accession talks, it has seen its economy grow faster than ever before. The same has been the experience of other countries. Third, when our EU accession talks are completed the Macedonian public can decide in a referendum whether it actually wants to join the EU and change its international name or whether it does not want to join and keep the current name. This is a decision that will be taken then, and it is one that the people will make directly once they have a real choice. In the meantime, Macedonia reasserts its position as a frontrunner in the Balkans. In the very worst case, if a future Greek government or another EU government blocks Macedonia’s EU accession, nothing is lost. It is a win-win situation. So, even if you live in Australia and do not care much about Macedonia joining the EU, you might think that this is, at least, a tactical gain. If you live in Stip or Kumanovo or Ohrid or Skopje, you certainly do.”

If you have to say who is more credible saying that they want a compromise on the name issue, who would you choose between Skopje and Athens?

Both say that they want a compromise. What I do not know is whether the leaders will have the courage to take any decision, because clearly previous generations of leaders did not on this matter.  As I said before, Papandreou has proven in the past, most spectacularly with Turkey, that he is capable of taking unpopular decisions if he believes they are in Greece’s long-term interest. In the context of implementing the Ohrid Agreement leaders in Macedonia have also shown courage and determination, which is why Skopje is now quite far ahead of Belgrade. At the same time both countries have red lines. No Macedonian leader will be able to change the name simply in return for the opening of talks, with no guarantee that there will not be more demands later, once a concession is made. And no Greek leader can give up totally on the idea of a change in the name. This means simply that both Skopje and Athens need a compromise they can defend, because in both countries, whatever is agreed, it will be attacked by some.

Do you believe in fast solution that would allow Macedonia to get into NATO and start EU talks?

If a solution is found in the next weeks, both NATO and the start of EU talks will happen very soon. This would be a very encouraging signal, benefiting Athens, Skopje and the whole Balkans. What makes me nervous is the alternative. If there is no solution now, when circumstances are better than they have ever been before, then there might not be another breakthrough for the next two decades. The name issue would become a truly frozen bilateral conflict, like Spain and the UK’s disagreement over Gibraltar, which nobody believes will ever be resolved. This is a very realistic danger.

You were recently in Brussels. How would you qualify the mood concerning the name issue? Are people there impatient or become more and more indifferent?

You have both. Those who work on enlargement are cautiously hopeful, but in a sense they have to be: the future of their job depends in part on finding a solution.  People who work on enlargement believe that a solution has never been closer: this is what they have been told by the parties involved as well.  As a result there would be tremendous disappointment if this fails. On the other hand there are people less keen on enlargement, which is a large number.  They have become indifferent a long time ago. They think that this is simply another irrational Balkan dispute, which shows why it was a mistake to admit any Balkan countries to the EU in the first place. They fear the day when even more Balkan countries might join and welcome any reason for delay. They read the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine a few weeks ago, which wrote that our proposal has only one problem: “it is too reasonable.” They do not believe that reasonable solutions ever work in the Balkans.

Does Brussels still believe that the name issue could be solved rapidly?

Few people believe in a rapid solution after 19 years without one, but some people certainly hope that it will be solved soon.  This is particularly true for those who work in DG enlargement. They know that the credibility of an EU perspective cannot be stretched out forever. They want an end to this conflict almost as badly as people in the region.  But I did not find many people in Brussels willing to put their own money on a breakthrough. When it will happen, it will still be a tremendous surprise to everyone. As one of the most optimistic officials told me: “While I believe that this time a breakthrough could happen, and ought to happen, and would be in everybody’s objective interest to happen, I still cannot believe that it will happen.”

EC is not satisfied with the reform process in Macedonia. Can Macedonia expect more critical remarks from Brussels in the following months?

Yes. The problem is, however, that without a credible enlargement perspective any critical remarks from Brussels, however justified, are unlikely to achieve much. If a country does not believe it will ever join, whatever the state of reforms, why worry about a critical report from Brussels? The next weeks will also decide about the future of the EU’s leverage and influence, not only in Skopje but in the whole Western Balkans.

Dnevnik, Monday 16 August 2010

A Proposal for breaking the Macedonian deadlock: A matter of trust

What follows is a concrete and simple proposal how to break one of the most important deadlocks undermining the stabilisation of the Western Balkans. The aim is to bring to an end a situation that has made a mockery of European aspirations of having an effective EU foreign policy in the Balkans, a region of major strategic interest to the EU.

The issue in question is the dispute between Skopje and Athens over the name “Macedonia”. As the 19 year old conflict has grown more complicated, the breakdown of trust between the two sides – the conflict’s underlying problem – has taken on an increasingly poisonous role. This is also negatively affecting the accession prospects of the entire Western Balkans at a time when there are already strong signals that some EU member states want to put the process on hold altogether.

This may well be the last moment to try to resolve the dispute. If efforts fail now, it is perfectly possible – as some in the EU are already predicting – that the conflict will remain unresolved for another 19 years, keeping Macedonia outside the EU for the next two decades and beyond.

What is needed is a way forward that recognises the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. It must address the most important issue directly: how to ensure that any compromise reached between the two will actually stick. Such a compromise must come soon. People on both sides, as well as in Brussels and Washington, have grown tired of a conflict that appears impossible to solve. As people give up, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in so many frozen conflicts.

Here is the core problem. Greece realises that its only leverage to ever get the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name is to use its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia’s path to EU membership. Nothing else – not even Greek pressure to block Macedonia’s NATO accession – will do the trick.

At the same time, most politicians in Athens realise that they have a vital interest in Macedonia’s stability. Athens is in favour of Balkan enlargement. And it does not want to be used by those in the EU who have an interest in stopping Balkan enlargement for good. How can this circle be squared?

The other problem for the Greek position is that the trend in Skopje in recent years has been towards greater intransigence. It is clear that any constitutional change needs broad support in Skopje. Prime Minister Gruevski currently enjoys a strong political position, but constitutional changes will require a two thirds majority in parliament, as well as the support of both ethnic communities. There is almost certain to be a referendum as well.

Finally, although officials in Skopje and across the EU believe that the current Greek government of George Papandreou would like to see a solution – and although an intense effort for bilateral talks is currently under way – overall trust in the Greek political establishment is scarce.

People and leaders in Skopje might be prepared to make a concession on the name of the country, but only under one condition: that it ensures the country’s EU accession. To change the name for the mere promise of starting talks with an uncertain outcome at this moment is unlikely to be accepted. No Greek government can guarantee Skopje that any concession made today – to unlock the door to EU accession talks – will actually stick once a new Greek government comes to power.

At a time of great political tension due to the economic crisis, Greek leaders not only have the problem of explaining any compromise to their voters – they also fear that if Greece allows the EU accession of Macedonia to proceed today it will lose leverage, no longer being assured of a favourable compromise at a later stage.

Greece is adamant that any change of name must be erga omnes, i.e. must be part of the Macedonian constitution and used in relations with the entire world, not just with Greece or international institutions. (Some in Greece want to go further and also change the name of the people (“Macedonians”) and the language (“Macedonian”), something that stands very little chance of ever being accepted by Skopje.) In fact, the fear that a concession on the name of the country will only be a prelude to further Greek demands is what keeps leaders in Skopje from making any concession whatsoever.

In other words, both countries are trapped.

Here then is the challenge. Both Greece and Macedonia have a vital interest in ensuring that other enlargement-sceptical countries in Europe not hide behind them and their dispute to undermine the whole Western Balkans accession agenda. Yet Macedonians will only change the name erga omnes if they know that they will then actually join the EU – and that this is the last word. And Greece will only open the road to EU accession (starting with the opening of accession talks) if Macedonia changes the constitution.

How can this conundrum be resolved? It can be done through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country today, allowing Athens to support the start of accession talks later this year, but that also foresees that the change will only enter into force on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

The constitutional change could be simple, a single paragraph that says something to the effect of:

“All references to the Republic of Macedonia in this constitution will be replaced by a reference to XX (a compromise name such as Republic of Macedonia – Vardar) on the day this country joins the European Union.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

If for some reason Skopje never joins the EU, it will never have to change its name.

If future Greek (or other neighbours’) governments find new reasons to block Macedonia’s accession in the future (there are no less than 70 veto points where unanimity in the EU is required before a candidate joins the club) the name will not yet have changed.

On the other hand, the constitutional provision will guarantee that once Macedonia is a member, the name change will become effective immediately and automatically. It can also be written into Macedonia’s accession treaty.

This solution would allow both countries and their leaders to claim a victory today. The government in Skopje will also turn Greece into a genuine ally (based on mutual interest) to facilitate its timely accession. Athens can argue that it is only opening the path to accession in return for genuine and lasting constitutional change: something no previous Greek government has achieved.

What would make this deal even more attractive – and a referendum on the constitutional amendment even more likely to succeed in Skopje – would be a parallel Greek promise to allow Macedonia to join NATO under the name FYROM (the name under which Macedonia joined the UN) once the constitutional changes have been passed.

This is still a difficult compromise for both countries. If it is adopted, however, it will end a major deadlock and send a tremendously beneficial signal to the whole of the Balkans.

Greece would be part of the solution in the region, not a source of problems. Macedonia would show that it is indeed a country ready for the complex and painful compromises that are expected of full EU members. It could once again become a trailblazer for the rest of the region, and the first to begin full accession talks before Croatia joins the EU. And it would gain a genuine ally in Greece.

PS: Cutileiro’s vision

And here is the alternative to compromise. I recently came across an interesting little book with essays on the future of Europe published by Brookings. Its title is Europe 2030. It includes a series of essays, some of which also touch on the issue of enlargement. Will any of the countries of today’s Western Balkans, aside from Croatia, be EU members by the year 2030? Will all be? Or will only some manage to accede, while others stay on the outside looking in? The authors of these essays offer all three scenarios.

The first and most pessimistic comes from one of the biggest proponents of EU enlargement, Joschka Fischer. Fischer was Foreign Minister (1998-2005) when the German government was pushing hard for what later became the EU’s biggest enlargement ever in 2004. Fischer also played a key role in pushing for Turkish candidate status in 1999 and the opening of accession talks with Turkey in 2005. He sees enlargement as a powerful tool for transforming the European neighbourhood:

“The prospect of EU membership therefore offers nothing less than successful rejuvenation of a country’s economy, society, government, and legal system. By projecting power in this way, the EU has pioneered a policy that recognizes that security in the twenty-first century must be founded not primarily on military dominance but on complete and transformative modernization as well as on the harmonization, and even integration, of national interests.”[1]

At the same time, Fischer notes, “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.” His conclusion is that this (unfortunate) tendency will likely prevail:

“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.”[2]

The second scenario for the Balkans is proposed by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London. Grant predicts that the “entering into force of the Lisbon treaty will help the EU speak with one voice, when it has a common position on a foreign policy question.”[3] Grant also expects enlargement to continue:

“By 2030 the EU will include all of the Balkans, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway; Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus probably will be members; and some of the Caucasus countries may have joined.”[4]

It is not altogether surprising that the most pessimistic scenarios for the Balkans come from Germany (the Berlin scenario of a never-ending accession process), while the most optimistic ones are heard in the UK (the London scenario of enlargement within this generation).

But the third scenario is in some ways the most interesting and it directly concerns Macedonia. Jose Cutileiro, a former Portuguese diplomat and general secretary of the Western European Union, expects that Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are all likely to be in the EU by 2030. However, he argues, even 20 years from now not all the Balkan states will be in the EU.

“Kosovo on its own could not join because it remained unrecognised by a number of EU countries, and Macedonia had been kept at the door by insurmountable Greek objections concerning its name, first raised in 1991, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved. Except for those two small, landlocked patches, the whole of the western Balkans was now part of the EU.”[5]

It is a realistic fear that unless a compromise is found now between Skopje and Athens, Macedonia might never join the EU. In this case, however, the German scenario for the whole Western Balkans becomes all the more likely, as the failure of Macedonia, the most advanced Western Balkan state, would bode ill for the whole region. Athens and Skopje, as well as the Balkans and the EU, would all be on the losing side.

[1] Europe 2030, p 6.

[2] Europe 2030, p 10.

[3] Europe 2030, p. 73.

[4] Europe 2030, p.70.

[5] Europe 2030, p. 17.