The devil in the detail – EU-Turkey refugee summit in November 2015

How the November refugee summit can fail – and how to get a deal that works

In recent days ESI presented versions of this paper and these arguments to European policy makers. 

Gerald Knaus speaking at the OSCE expert panel. Photo: ESI

Presenting ESI proposal at OSCE expert panel in Warsaw

On Sunday 29 November the EU and Turkey will meet at an extraordinary summit in Brussels. The objective of this meeting is to make commitments that will stop the unregulated influx of currently more than 200,000 refugees per month into the EU from Turkey.

There are two ways in which this summit might fail. One would be the absence of any agreement. Since this would send a bad signal to the publics in EU member states, every effort will be made to avoid this.

However, there is a second way in which the summit can go wrong. It is even more dangerous. This is a scenario where the EU and Turkey agree on a deal, but merely set the stage for failure in the coming months, because the influx of refugees coming into the EU from Turkey will not be reduced. Both sides will then blame each other. Frustration will erode already abysmally low levels of trust. Precious time will be wasted and it might become harder to reach a workable deal later.

For the EU to avoid such a “disastrous success” on Sunday, member states need to understand why neither the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan (from 15 October) nor the current draft statement to be agreed on 29 November will make any significant difference to the flow of refugees. The devil really lies in the detail.


What is wrong with the current draft statement

The current draft concluding statement for the Sunday summit has eleven paragraphs. What do they contain?

There are many references to aside commitments for Turkey and the EU to “meet and talk” more – at regular annual summits; at regular political dialogue meetings; at regular high-level meetings on thematic issues; at regular Association Council meetings; at a meeting at the end of 2016 to upgrade the existing customs union. More meetings and talking might be good, or bad, or meaningless, depending on the results, but it does not change things on the ground, and certainly not in the short term.

This leaves four “substantive” paragraphs: one on visa liberalisation and readmission; one on accession talks; one on EU financial assistance for Turkey; and one on “activating” the October 2015 EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. To see why these measures will make no real difference to the flow of refugees in the Aegean, let us take a closer look at each.

Visa and readmission

The EU and Turkey launched a formal visa liberalisation process in December 2013. The goal of this process is to remove the requirement for Turkish citizens to obtain a visa for short (up to three months) visits of the EU’s Schengen zone as tourists or for business.

According to the EU roadmap on which this process is based, Turkey has to meet 72 requirements to qualify for visa-free travel. In an October 2014 assessment the European Commission found for 27 requirements that Turkey was “far from meeting this benchmark” or that there were “no particular positive developments to address them.”[1] (see below)

There was always a simple principle: once Turkey meets the conditions of the visa roadmap (at least as much as other countries from the Balkans did who received visa liberalisation in recent years) the Commission will propose to lift the visa requirement.

At present the EU and Turkey aim to agree on the following this Sunday:

“The European Commission will present a second progress report on the implementation by Turkey of the visa liberalization roadmap by early March 2016.”

The European Commission will “present its third progress report in autumn 2016 with a view to completing the visa liberalisation process i.e. the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone by October 2016 once the requirements of the Roadmap are met.”

Note: this does not add anything to what was always the case! It was always true that the European Commission would ask member states to lift (by a qualified majority) the visa requirement once the requirements of the roadmap are met. There is no “concession” here. Nor is there any commitment by member states on how they will vote on this in October.

Which raises the question: would it not be better for the EU to see Turkey meet all criteria by March 2016? Especially if this is essential to reduce the flow of migrants across the Aegean?

In return for this non-concession, Turkey is expected to do something that looks superficially important but that will also make no difference:

The EU and Turkey “agree that the EU-Turkey readmission agreement will become fully applicable from June 2016.”

A track record of implementation of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement is one of the 72 conditions in the visa roadmap. The readmission agreement states that Turkey is to take back all third country nationals three years after the entry into force of the readmission agreement, which will be on 1 October 2017.

However, what does it really mean if Turkey agrees to make it “fully applicable” from June 2016? What will be the concrete impact on movements in the Aegean? Most people who reach the EU through the Greek islands are Syrians. Anyone who reaches the EU and applies for asylum cannot be returned to Turkey unless their asylum application is processed and rejected (i.e. they are found to be “economic migrants”, the language the draft statement uses). In 2014, only 5 percent of Syrian asylum seekers were rejected across the EU. Now the rejection rate might be even lower. The rejection cognition rates for other nationalities reaching the EU in high numbers, Afghanis and Iraqis, were also low in 2014.

This significantly reduces the number of people that could be returned. An asylum procedure is usually also a lengthy process since asylum seekers rejected at first instance can appeal and are allowed to stay until the court makes its decision. This often takes a year or more.

There is another problem. Very few migrants apply for asylum in Greece. They apply in Germany or Sweden or other EU countries further north. However, if they reach these countries through the Western Balkans, the EU-Turkey readmission agreement no longer applies. It requires that persons to whom it is applied “illegally and directly entered the territory of the Member States after having stayed on, or transited through, the territory of Turkey” (Art. 4). Those who take the Balkan route enter the EU “directly” from Serbia, not Turkey.

In fact, the EU-Turkey readmission agreement is unnecessary. What really matters is that Turkey already has a readmission agreement in force with Greece since 2002. Between 2002 and the end of last year, Greece asked for the readmission of 135,000 irregular migrants. Turkey accepted 13,100 of these, and in the end 3,800 (3 percent) were returned to Turkey. In 2015, Turkey has accepted more requests. But so far, only 8 people have actually been returned to Turkey this year – by the time Turkey is ready to admit them, they are usually no longer in Greece.[2]

Readmission of irregular migrants from Greece to Turkey

Year Migrants whose readmission Greece requested Migrants accepted by Turkey Migrants actually readmitted
2012 20,464 823 113
2013 3,741 370 35
2014 9,691 470 6
Jan-Sept 2015 8,727 2,395 8


This means concretely that the full entry into force of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement in summer 2016 does not add anything to what the Greece-Turkey readmission agreement already provides for. It does not apply to those who apply for asylum and are waiting for the decision. It does not apply to those who obtain asylum. And legally it does not apply to rejected asylum seekers or irregular migrant who have reached EU territory after transiting through the Western Balkans.

As currently formulated, the commitments to visa liberalisation and readmission appear strong and raise expectations but are in fact weak and inconsequential. They set the stage for another round of mutual recriminations, acrimony and disappointment. And they will not change the dynamic of refugees crossing the Aegean.

Accession process “acceleration”

At the summit, the EU will also commit to open one chapter in the EU accession talks, in December. This sounds good, but what does it actually mean?

Note that this does not actually constitute an “acceleration” of Turkey-EU accession talks. More than one decade after the start of the accession talks, 14 out of 34 negotiating chapters have been opened.  In the first five years (2005-2010), 13 chapters were opened; in the second five years (2010-2015) 1 chapter was. Now 1 more will bring the total number to 15. This is still an excruciatingly slow process.

Note also that this is the only commitment concerning enlargement that the EU is planning to make. While there is “language” (as diplomats might say) referring to five other chapters, which have been blocked by Cyprus for many years, all the EU promises here is that the Commission will do “preparatory” work “without prejudice to the position of member states”. In plain language this means that the preparatory work may lead to nothing at all if Cyprus maintains its blockage.

In fact, the problem goes deeper. What does opening a chapter in December mean for Turkish citizens? The chapter concerned is “Economic and monetary policy” (chapter 17). One of the main issues that the chapter covers is the independence of central banks.

According to the recently published 2015 Turkey Progress Report, the past year has seen “increased political pressure on the central bank [which] undermines its independence and credibility.” Will this change just because the chapter will be opened? For the Turkish government, having influence on the central bank is convenient. Maintaining it comes at no cost as long as there is no real prospect of joining the EU. But carrying out reforms is acrtually the only real way for Turkey to “reenergize” the EU accession process. Everything else is political theatre.

Financial assistance

 The EU also promises money for the refugees in Turkey:

“The EU will provide immediate and continuous humanitarian assistance in Turkey. It will also expand significantly its overall financial support.

A Refugee Facility for Turkey was established by the Commission to coordinate and streamline actions financed in order to deliver efficient and complementary support to Syrians under temporary protection and host communities in Turkey.

The EU is committed to provide an initial 3 billion euros of additional resources from the Union’s budget and contributions from Member States. The need for and nature of this funding will be reviewed in the light of the developing situation.”

Note: the money is not yet available, even though the EU is committed to mobilising it and working on it. 500 million are to come out of the EU budget and 2.5 billion from member states. If and when they will provide this sum of money is unknown. Member states have also committed to increasing funding for the EU’s Syria Trust Fund, which addresses the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey and other countries of the region. Since September, they have pledged only 49 of 500 million.[3]

The Refugee Facility will become operational on 1 January 2016. A Steering Committee will provide strategic guidance, coordinate with other funding mechanisms, and decide on which actions will be financed. Turkey will be represented on this committee in an advisory capacity.[4] This is commendable. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey are in need of humanitarian assistance, and many of their children are in need of school education; only 200,000 of the 700,000 school-age children actually go to school, due to the language barrier and limited capacities of Turkish schools.

However, even if the education problem were resolved and all Syrian refugees in need received humanitarian aid, would this convince them to stay in Turkey? Many refugees are looking for a place where they can start new lives after many years of waiting – where they can work (in Turkey they are not allowed to), re-train if needed, where there is assistance if they do not find a job straight away, where their children receive good education, which offers them a long-term perspective. In this regard, Germany will remain more attractive in many ways.

The language in the current draft declaration on what Turkey promises to do in order to offer a credible perspective to Syrians in the country remains vague and general (“…Equally, they welcomed the intention of Turkey to adopt immediately measures to further improve the socio-economic situation of the Syrians under temporary protection.”). This will not keep any Syrians from moving to the EU.


Activating the joint action plan

There is one more point in the statement that promises more than it can deliver:

“Turkey and the EU have decided to activate the Joint Action Plan that had been agreed until now ad referenda on 15 October 2015, to step up their cooperation for support of Syrians under temporary protection and migration management to address the crisis created by the situation in Syria. The EU and Turkey agreed to implement the Joint Action Plan which will bring order into migratory flows and help to stem irregular migration.”

How the joint action plan will help to stem irregular migration is not really explained. The draft statements mentions three specific points, all vague. One is cooperation on “economic migrants”:

“As a consequence, both sides will, as agreed and with immediate effect, step up their active cooperation on economic migrants, preventing travel to Turkey and the EU, ensuring the application of the established bilateral readmission provisions and swiftly returning economic migrants to their countries of origin.”

The problem is obvious again: in order to determine who is an economic migrant, an asylum procedure must be completed. How many asylum applications can Greece deal with, and how long will this take? Germany with a huge administration has been able to issue 32,000 decisions on asylum in October. If Greece takes too long this will not have any “immediate effect.”

There is also the – vague – promise to improve the condition of Syrians now in Turkey:

“Equally, they welcomed the intention of Turkey to adopt immediately measures to further improve the socio-economic situation of the Syrians under temporary protection.”

Finally, there is the commitment every EU country makes in every similar statement, from Greece to Croatia to Slovenia, fighting people smugglers. It is not clear why Turkey should be more successful in this endeavour than any other states in South East Europe, in particular since everyone who travels to Greece and is stopped is able to try again until it works.


A deal that works: Merkel Plan 2.0

In recent weeks ESI analysts presented an alternative plan in many European capitals (Berlin, Brussels, Stockholm, The Hague, Vienna, Warsaw). This was an elaboration of the Merkel Plan which ESI published on 4 October:

  1. The European Council on Sunday invites the European Commission to begin right away the process of lifting the Schengen visa requirement for Turkey. This legal process will necessarily last a few months. It should hold out a concrete promise to Turkish citizens: “If Turkey implements the existing readmission agreements with Greece and Bulgaria in full and agrees to take back all new arrivals to these two countries from 1 January 2016, and implements a concrete set of other priority conditions from the roadmap till March, then Turkish citizens will be able to travel without a visa to the EU from 1 April 2016.”
  2. Turkey’s new asylum authority will start to issue decisions in response to asylum claims already in December. Following this Greece declares that it will consider Turkey a safe third country from 1 January 2016.
  3. Turkey and Greece, with support from others (Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office and other EU countries) prepare logistically for Greece to send back refugees to Turkey after 1 January 2016.
  4. Germany, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and other countries in a coalition of the willing commit to take large contingents of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey. The process of identifying refugee families will begin on 1 January 2016. The first refugees will leave Turkey in parallel to the first readmissions from Greece in early 2016.
  5. If this readmission to Turkey proceeds as planned, the Justice and Home Affairs Council and the European Parliament will vote in March in favour of lifting the visa requirement for Turkish citizens. The decision becomes effective on 1 April 2016.
  6. The EU and Turkey immediately conduct a joint needs assessment to provide assistance to the Syrian refugees in Turkey, with a focus on ensuring education for all school-age children (currently 500,000 out of 700,000 Syrian school-age children do not go to school). They identify the number of teachers needed, where they can be found, which buildings to use for classes, which equipment and textbooks are necessary, and how much all of this will cost. EU assistance will be visible to the Turkish public. In parallel Turkey will propose a gradual opening of the labour market to Syrians who enjoy protection in Turkey.


[1]             European Commission, Report on progress by Turkey in fulfilling the requirements of its visa liberalisation roadmap, 20 October 2014.

[2]             Data provided to ESI by the Hellenic Police.

[3]             European Commission press release, State of Play: Measures to Address the Refugee Crisis, Member States’ financial pledges since 23 September 2015, communicated as of 27 November 2015.

[4]             European Commission press release, EU-Turkey Cooperation: A €3 billion Refugee Facility for Turkey, 24 November 2015.

Interview with Gerald Knaus on "Quer". Photo: ESI

Interview on refugee issue on German TV

Newest ESI report on Saving Visa Free Travel

Dear friends,

2013 could be a big year for visa free travel in Europe, with important decisions upcoming concerning Turkey and Moldova. It could also be a disastrous year for the cause of free travel if visas are reimposed on the Western Balkans.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the first report ESI publishes in 2013 – on 1 January to be precise – deals with this very question. You will find the full report on our website later this week, but if you want an advance copy right away let me know (write to Below you find for now the executive summary and some of the most interesting findings as exerpts from this report. We also recently presented these findings to senior officials in Rome, Berlin, Brussels and Stockholm.

In the meantime the whole ESI team and your Rumeli Observer wish you a happy and productive 2013!

NEW ESI REPORT – 1 January 2013

Saving visa-free travel – Visa, asylum and the EU roadmap policy

Executive Summary

Since the visa requirement was lifted for Western Balkan countries in 2009, there has been a sharp increase in claims for political asylum by citizens of the region. Barely any of these applicants qualify for asylum. Rather, they are benefitting from national
asylum rules that provide relatively generous benefits during the application process.

Since 2010, EU leaders have demanded that Balkan governments take measures to stem this tide of asylum seekers. In fact, the problem lies with ‘pull factors’ inside the EU. Now, EU policymakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the problem directly by suspending visa-free travel for Western Balkan countries. Such a draconian measure would undermine the credibility of the EU’s whole approach to visa liberalisation – not just in the Western Balkans, but also in Moldova, Kosovo, Turkey and the Ukraine. But it is by no means the only solution available.

In the world of justice and home affairs, clear-cut solutions to complex issues are generally hard to come by. There are inevitable trade-offs to be made between controlling borders and allowing the free movement of people; between protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public. When it comes to visa liberalisation in the Balkans, however, there is a clear solution that reconciles the concerns of all the different constituencies involved. The solution is to make it less attractive for those who clearly do not qualify for asylum to submit speculative or bogus claims.

Under EU rules, all member states provide asylum seekers with financial and material support while their applications are being processes. But there is a sharp difference between two groups of countries: those that take many months to process their asylum
claims, and those that dispose of them within a few weeks. It is the lengthy processing times found in Germany, Sweden and other EU members (up to 8 months with appeals) that acts as the magnet for unjustified asylum seekers. The EU members able to deal expeditiously with asylum claims face a significantly lower numbers of applications.

This paper proposes two possible solutions. One is to address the problem at the national level. Those states that have seen a sharp increase in applications from the Balkans could radically shorten their procedures. They could follow the example of Switzerland, which has recently introduced a 48-hour procedure for applicants from safe European countries like the Balkans. The other option is to tackle the problem at the EU level. The EU should label countries that have completed a visa liberalisation process as “safe countries of origin”, allowing for lighter and quicker processing procedures. We believe that the ideal response would be to pursue both solutions in parallel.

Such a solution would not close off the rights of genuine refugees to apply for and receive asylum. The statistics reveal that countries with shorter procedures in fact accept a higher proportion of their asylum applications. It would, however, help to weed out speculative claims and bring down the costs for European taxpayers. It would also safeguard visa-free travel for the Western Balkans, which has proved a critical step in giving hope and a sense of direction to a troubled region on the EU’s borders.

Update: the full report is now available on our website

Elks, Viking Zen and a Swedish theory of love


As Sweden takes over the EU presidency there is a possibility that more Europeans will feel like Andrew Brown, an English expert on Scandinavian idiosyncrasies already familiar to readers of this blog:

“I was little surprised by anything that seemed to me particularly Swedish, but this didn’t mean that I could understand it.”

Expect to hear a lot in coming months about Abba, elks, Vikings and Karlson on the roof, as Europeans who do not speak Swedish (like myself) cling to every cliche in the books to make sense of “their” presidency. I promised myself that I would write about Sweden without ever mentioning Abba (or, even worse, the 1968 shokumentary Sweden – Heaven and Hell). As for other cliches, let me indulge just once. If you like books like Luigi Barzinis’ “The Italians” or “Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, read on.

So let me tell you about a book I recently picked up in Stockholm airport. It is called “The Viking Manifesto.” The authors plausibly promise not only to help us outsiders better understand Scandinavia: they also offer their readers a path to salvation, success in business (without ever really competing) and great personal lives all while making money by giving things away.

All this becomes possible by following the “Viking method”, which, we learn, is all about “improving the quality of life, bringing a sense of adventure back to entrepreneurship and corporate culture, and making it all pay.” The Vikings were always good at creating brands (as well as undertake raids), from the longship to IKEA. As for their international outlook the book notes:

“The Vikings carefully picked a target and struck without warning, armed to the teeth and high on mead and mushrooms. They were strong believers in globalisation and bloodshed.”

The thought is compelling that Swedes (and to a lesser extent Danes) are fans of EU enlargement due to this particular history: after all, their ancestors were there (in Kiev, in Constantinople) one thousand years ago, sailing through the Bosporus with their frightening ships. And as this fine book notes, they have changed only a little: “A thousand years ago, Vikings were making wine snifters out of the skulls of their enemies. Today, they’re selling furniture in flat packages.” Generous Swedish development assistance in the Balkans, Moldova and Georgia appears in this light as another expression of “Viking Zen”: “do something that is honest, honourable, and interesting. Then don’t tell anyone about it. Remember: a good story can never be kept a secret.”

Well, sort of. There is not actually a huge number of books on the market (in English) that explain how Sweden itself works today. I have presented a few facts about Swedish exceptionalism on these pages before. This is a modest effort to explain it. So if you are left wanting to know more, having leaved through the Viking Manifesto, where could you go?

AD 42145

If you read German, perhaps you try Antje Ravic Strubel’s Gebrauchsanweisung fuer Schweden (Manual for Sweden). Skip the chapters on Nordic skiing and on the difficulty of running into one of Sweden’s 400,000 elks. Go straight to Volk, Gender, Emotion. There you will learn that Sweden has had an Ombudsperson for children since 1993; that registered partnerships were introduced for gay couples already in 1995 (in April 2009 Sweden adopted a gender neutral marriage law – with an overwhelming majority across all political families in parliament); and that Sweden is a world power in exporting pop, a reflection of the democratic character of this genre of music.

Strubel underlines that in order to understand modern Sweden it helps to know the writing by Erik Gustaf Geijer and Carl Jonas Love Almquist. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to find out much in any language other than Swedish about Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 – 1847), historian, composer, ardent fan of Viking culture and creator of a Swedish national philosophy based on the idea of free, independent individuals. If you can help, let me know.

It is a little better when it comes to Almquist (1793-1866), who wrote on the virtues of Swedish poverty (in the early 19th century, when Sweden was one of the poorest places in Europe). He also wrote a lot about love, in a rather modern way. Tintomara, the main character in one of his novels (Drottninges juvelsmycke) aroused both men and woman to fall in love. In It is acceptable a woman lives with a man without being married to him. One of Almquists characters, Sara, makes clear that, while she will love and live with Albert, she wants to remain unmarried, in separate rooms, and without commitments. Romantic love must not be based on utilitarian arrangements, the argument goes; families should be based on the internal autonomy of their members. This was too much even in Sweden in the 19th century; both church and state condemned Almquist as a dangerous revolutionary. Almquist ended his life in exile.

Today, however, many Swedes appear to live by his ideas. Nowhere else in Europe is the number of women in the work force as high. At least some tables seem to suggest (for instance see here) that Sweden also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world today. (Be warned, though: international league tables on divorce are like those on comparative happiness: wherever you look, the ranking changes and other tables show the Maldives, Russia, the US or small Djibouti take first place divorcing. Whatever table one looks at, however, many of the countries in South East Europe, from Turkey to Albania or Armenia, still stand out for their very low divorce rates. That would be an issue for another blog.)

Strubel in her book points out that while the German tax code and legislation encourages spouses to stay at home (to save on taxes, which are assessed on the combined income of both spouses treated as one earner, divided by two), and requires parents to take care of their children until well into early adulthood, in Sweden fewer expectations exist for families to look after each other’s members in a material sense. Even funerals are paid for by the state. At the same time the Swedish language reflects the modern reality of patchwork families much better than German, where those who live together in a long-term relationship without being married are considered to be in a “wild marriage” (Wilde Ehe). Swedish (I trust Radic on this) has the words sambo (for those who cohabit without being married), sarbo (for those who are together but do not live together) and gift (for those who are married). And while German has the ugly word Stiefkinder for the children from an earlier marriage, Swedish speaks of bonusbarn (bonus children).

Almquist is hardly a household name outside Sweden (looking to purchase Sara on the internet I came across an edition on Amazon for $ 409 Dollars). It is therefore fortunate that two Swedish writers – Henrik Berggren and Lars Tragardh – have recently filled the gapping hole in our understanding of their country, producing a more accessible analysis of Swedish social and political culture.

They address the central paradox of Swedish politics as seen from outside: how can a country which is so non-conformist, original and avant-guard also put so much trust in public institutions and the power of the state? Are Swedes individualists or believers in collectivism? What is more important to them: a society where every individual can stand on her own feet, independent of the constraints of tradition or family, of one where the state has an overwhelming role in guaranteeing welfare?

It turns out, according to Berggren and Tragardh, that Swedes are both: and it is this fact which distinguishes the Swedish understanding of the role of the state today from that of their German neighbours.


The book which Berggren and Tragardh published in 2006 is called Is the Swede Human? Community and Autonomy in Modern Sweden (Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige). It argues that far from being “socialist” in their outlook, Swedes are in fact devoted to personal autonomy and radical individualism more than any other people in the Western world. The authors, looking back to Almquist, put this down to a “Swedish theory of love”, according to which true friendship and love is only possible between independent and equal individuals.

This understanding has led to a state whose true function has been to liberate individuals from ties of dependency on charities, churches, even family members. This is very different from the balance struck between individual and state in either Germany or the US. Swedes are hyperindividualists … and the state helps them to be so.

It is a fascinating theory. One element, however, still needs to be added: after all, not all that long ago, even Swedish culture was patriarchal, children were beaten, the death penalty was implemented by the state. Perhaps there is a “Swedish theory of love” – there certainly is a modern Swedish theory of childhood, which affects the values and ideals with which people are brought up.

Before you go to your bookstore, though, let’s go on the road: rent a car, leave Stockholm, drive past the former heart of the Swedish textile industry along the Gota Canal, and head for a formerly deeply impoverished region that has since – through literature – become a universal landscape, familiar to millions of people who might never come to Scandinavia in their lives.

Let’s go to Smaland.

The Stockholm consensus on EU enlargement

A disclosure at the very outset: since 2000 Swedish governments have been among ESI’s most faithful supporters.

This is hardly a coincidence. On every foreign policy issue important to us Sweden is a strong advocate within the EU, from support for EU enlargement to the Balkans and Turkey to a European perspective for countries in the Eastern neighbourhood.  Being one of the wealthiest member states, having a good record of implementing European legislation, and not being suspected of having a secret agenda of undermining the European project, adds to its credibility.

What would it take for EU-ropeans, old and new, social-democrat, liberal and conservative, to embrace the Swedish outlook on Europe’s future? To share the vision one finds in the speeches of Sweden’s current foreign minister, Carl Bildt, for instance in his presentation delivered in 2007 in Bruges at the College of Europe:

“In Maastricht in 1991, the then European Community decided to transform itself into a more ambitious European Union, and soon this Union was prepared to open up not only to old former ‘neutrals’ like Austria, Finland and Sweden but also – and far more important – to all the countries of Central Europe, the Baltic region and down towards the Black Sea.

There is no doubt that it was the magnetism of the Union and the model it provided that made the transformation we have since seen in all of these countries possible. When – at some time in the future – the history of the Union is written, this might well be seen as truly its finest hour.

Today, we see 10 nations with some 100 million people from the Gulf of Finland in the north down towards the Bosporus in the south creating a new belt of lasting peace, stable democracies and bubbling prosperity in an area that history had otherwise reserved for instability, conflicts and great power rivalry.

Our Union today is a union of approximately 500 million people. It is the largest integrated economy in the world. It is by far the largest trading power of the planet – larger than the second and third put together. It is the biggest market for more than 130 nations around the world. It provides more than 60 per cent of all ODA to the developing countries. And – remarkable as it sounds – the value of the euros in circulation on global markets exceeds the value of dollars.

We certainly have our problems – but we should not overlook the weight and importance that we have in the global economy. Others do not.”

And then Bildt continues:

“What is needed is a profound strengthening of the soft power of Europe. We certainly need to strengthen the hard power as well – but at the end of the day peace is built by thoughts and by ballots more than by tanks and by bullets.

A critical part of the soft power of Europe lies in the continued process of enlargement – a Europe that remains open to those in our part of the world who wish to share their sovereignty with us, accept the rule of law and commit themselves to the building of open, secular and free societies.

There are those who want to slow down or perhaps even stop the process altogether. We have heard talk of the need to define the borders of Europe. And to draw these borders as close to the present borders of the European Union as possible. But drawing big lines on big maps of eastern Europe risks being a dangerous exercise for us all.

Because it means defining firmly not only for whom the doors will remain open, but also slamming the doors in the face of some for whom the magnetism of Europe remains a major driving force for profound political and economic reforms. It means telling them to go elsewhere. And that means doing things differently also in terms of the evolution of their societies. If we put out the light of European integration in the east or southeast of Europe – however faint or distant that light might be – we risk seeing the forces of atavistic nationalism or submission to other masters taking over. And if that happens, no lines on maps will be able to protect us from the consequences.”

At a recent ECFR meeting in Stockholm Carl Bildt reiterated these positions, striking a positive tone that stood in marked contrast to the pessimism about Europe’s future I noticed among many of the other ECFR members.

Strikingly, in Sweden support for enlargement is not controversial. Swedes of all political families believe that European values can be shared by Turks and Moldavians, Ukrainians and Georgians, to the benefit of all of Europe. As Goran Lennmarker, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Riskdag (parliament), told me just this week, the Swedish consensus today is that when any European country meets the conditions for accession, it has a right to be accepted as a member.

Public opinion is also supportive and so far the Swedish political elite have decided not to strike a populist tune on enlargement. 63 percent of Swedes argue that enlargement has strengthened the EU: this is the highest support among the 15 ‘old’ member states, where an outright majority for this view exists only in Spain (59 percent), Denmark (53 percent) and Greece (53 percent). A clear majority of Swedes is in favour of the integration of each of the Western Balkan states (see below the Spring 2008 Eurobarometer results).


Spring 2008




































Some years ago, the Swedish parliament passed a resolution offering Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus a European perspective (provided, of course, that they meet the Copenhagen criteria).

All of this raises interesting questions: why is a position that seems mere common sense in Stockholm so controversial in Paris and Berlin? Namely, that previous enlargements have made the EU stronger, and that future enlargements – as long as they are carried out cautiously – will do so as well?

Of course, some might say, Sweden is doing particularly well.  This is true. Until the current economic crisis unemployment was low (it is now rising fast, however, to almost 8 percent in the first quarter of 2009). The country ranks among the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP. Combining GDP per capita with indicators for eduction, literacy and life expectancy, Sweden came 7th worldwide in the latest Human Development Index published in December 2008. Sweden’s economy is highly competitive: in international surveys of competitiveness, Sweden excels, coming 4th in the World Economic Forum competitiveness ranking 2008/2009, just behind the US, Switzerland and Denmark.

Perhaps one reason for the strong consensus in favour of EU enlargement is a general confidence in the Swedish model of balancing freedom and security?  Perhaps Swedes are more prepared to take risks, since failure is not so disastrous, for individuals and for groups in society?  According to this logic it becomes easier to embrace EU enlargement against the background of a public commitment to social welfare. This promises that within society burdens are shared, so the benefits of enlargement do not accrue only to a few social groups.  A domestic welfare bargain appears to underpin support for an outward looking EU: relatively low levels of income inequality, and comparatively high per capita income taxes (in 2006 Swedish wage taxes were the second highest in the world, behind Denmark: see here).

Confidence in the future is also expressed in one of the most striking recent policy innovations: a reform of the rules for labour migration, adopted by parliament in December 2008. As a result of this reform, a Swedish employer is now the one to decide whether a given non-EU foreign worker is needed for hire (before these reforms the Swedish Public Employment Service decided this; for more details go to the website of the Swedish Migration Board).  This is implemented in a country in which 12 percent of residents are born abroad.

How about gender policies? It is certainly interesting that the country with the strongest commitment to European soft power is also the one with the largest number of women in positions of political authority: in the most recent survey by the IPU on women in national parliaments, Sweden comes out second in the world, just edged out by Rwanda.  Or is having low rates of corruption a key to a shared belief in soft power in foreign policy? In the 2008 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index Sweden comes 2nd in the world, only beaten by Denmark.

Transparency in policy making might also help support a pragmatic EU policy.  Sweden is famously transparent in its public administration, making it perhaps harder for theories of elite conspiracies (“enlargement is a capitalist plot”) to gain ground.  Sweden’s freedom of information policies ensure that all external communications with ministers and state secretaries are made public. In principle all items of mail to the government and government offices are public documents, something that has led to clashes between Sweden and the rest of the EU (see here for one example).

Are people who are satisfied with their lives more likely to be open to others? Swedes score well in international happiness indicators: in one table based on the 2005 World Values Survey Sweden also comes in 2nd place. (Behind Iceland, which was probably before its economy crashed! Let me admit, though, that I am not all confident about international “happiness rankings”, with Bangladesh coming out on top in one global happiness survey, and Nigeria in first place in another).

And then there is the structure of the Swedish economy: its openness to the world economy, the large number of Swedish multinationals, traditional support for free trade policies. Sweden’s relatively small population (9 million) lives in Europe’s fourth largest country in terms of land mass; its economy has historically been dependent on export: first of its raw materials, then its industrial goods and finally its ideas, to world markets.

But neither wealth nor exposure to international trade alone explain the strong commitment to globalisation and EU enlargement: otherwise Switzerland, Austria or the Netherlands would have adopted foreign policies similar to Sweden (the contrast with Austria attitudes, when it comes to Turkish accession, is particularly dramatic).

What then are the intellectual and emotional roots of the Swedish approach to foreign policy? And what would a more Swedish EU foreign policy look like?

To answer these questions, I suggest to turning away for a moment from international league tables; and to pick up a very different set of books and travel to a special region south of Stockholm to understand the paradox of the Stockholm consensus on enlargement and the Swedish approach to politics.  But more on this later.

Recommended, if you want to know more about Sweden: Previous blog entry: Silences and the new Sweden. For Jon Stewart’s take on the Swedish model, please go here. It is hilarious and, as always with Stewart, enlightening. Of course, the country The Daily Show presents is too good to be true … a place without conflict, full of attractive and reasonable people …

To counterbalance (somewhat) this approach let me note that there is of course no shortage of critical Swedes who argue that, for all of its comparative successes, Sweden constantly needs further reforms to remain competitive. Some of these critics can be found in Timbro, a free-market think-tank, which has challenged what it perceived as “Suedo-sclerosis” since its foundation in 1978. There you also find an interesting report by economist Mauricio Rojas, Sweden after the Swedish Model – from Tutorial State to Enabling State, which tells “the story of the rise and fall of the old Swedish model” and the transition to what Rojas calls the current Swedish “enabling state”.

In Stockholm this week I also had a long conversation with one of the most articulate and influential representatives of this view, Peter Egardt – Carl Bildt’s former state secretary (in the early 1990s) and now president and CEO of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, member of the national bank, and long-time board member of Timbro (1995-2005). As Egardt put it in an article on how to attract the “creative class” to Swedish cities:

“Abroad, many believe Sweden to be the very showcase for social democratic welfare states. However, ambitious reforms implemented during the past few decades have transformed Sweden into a competitive economy with an increasing degree of economic freedom and strong growth. In the wake of this development, culture, fine food and the arts have all blossomed in Swedish cities. Tourists, as well as businesses, are attracted not least to the capital city of Stockholm. The strategy underlying this development has been based on a sound business-and-growth-friendly policy orientation, not a Berlin style emphasis on public subsidies of culture over families and businesses. Cultural development has occurred as the result of a growing economy, not the opposite.”

For another outsider’s view how in Sweden “high per capita income and open markets go hand in hand with social cohesion” read the latest OECD Report (2008). There is also a lot of information and background reading on Sweden on the website of the Swedish institute:

Finally, let me note that Mark Leonard, the current director of ECFR, first used the concept of a “Stockholm consensus” in his book “Why Europe will run the 21st Century”:

“The Stockholm consensus amounts to nothing less than a new social contract in which a strong and flexible state underpins an innovative, open, knowledge economy. This contract means that the state provides the resources for educating its citizens, treating their illnesses, providing childcare so they can work, and integration lessons for newcomers. In exchange, citizens take training, are more flexible, and newcomers integrate themselves.”

Silences and the new Sweden

Amberin, a Turkish journalist, noted how quiet it was as we walked through the centre of Stockholm. We had participated in a seminar organised by ESI at the Swedish foreign ministry on EU-Turkish relations, in anticipation of the Swedish EU presidency starting in a few weeks.  It was early evening and Amberin observed that we could hear our footsteps. This, for anybody coming from Istanbul, seemed an unusual experience to have in the heart of a European capital.  We were only a few steps away from busy Birger Jarlsgatan with its buzzing cafes and bars.   

“Lilla Edet was so quiet a town”.  This is the opening sentence of Andrew Brown’s book “Fishing in Utopia – Sweden and the Future that Disappeared”.  I began to read the book the next day, as always looking for insights into this most fascinating of European democracies.  Brown’s rhapsodic mediation, recommended by a friend, is above all about the author’s life: a book about unfulfilled dreams, silences and fishing.  Its outlook is summed up in Brown’s epiphany, elegant, poignant and honest like the rest of his text, which also starts with his meditation on silence inspired by Sweden’s north:

“Huge silence, solitude, and the smell of trees – the very things that had made Lilla Edet torture me when I first lived there, were now, I understood, necessary elements in my life. … Soon the daughter whom I carried on my shoulders round a lake one perfect sunlit day would be grown up.  Soon after that, in the way of middle-aged journalists, I would be sacked from something for the very last time. I understood my own life suddenly as that of a hooked fish, pulling with all my strength against a painful and bewildering destiny.”


Spring midnight in Sweden

Most of the destiny the author discloses unfolds in Sweden.  Brown moved here in the 1970s for a marriage (which later ended in divorce).  He first lived in Lilla Edet, a town in the South of the country where the creaking of the wheels of Brown’s bike was “always the loudest sound”. He then moved to an estate in Nodinge, a suburb of Goteborg, in 1977:

“the first thing that struck me was the loneliness.  The roads within the estate were all closed to traffic but pedestrians always seemed scarce.  The houses might be wonderfully warm, and the spacious kitchens of even the most basic flats were equipped with fridges, freezers, and separate coolers, which worked like larders, to keep food warmer than in a fridge, but much cooler than in a centrally heated room. But the public places always felt as cold as November … I have never lived in, nor could imagine, a place where people talked less to each other … faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy.” 

Early on in the book Brown reminds readers of the very recent history of poverty in Sweden, describing the life of Anna, Brown’s Swedish mother-in-law: 

“She was born in the middle of the 1930s depression, when very little had changed for poor farmers in centuries. Her parents and all their children lived in one room and a kitchen, on the ground floor of her grandfather’s house. They slept on straw mattresses, which they filled themselves … her mother had given birth to fourteen children in twenty years … “

Anna had left school at thirteen, as so many of her generation in Sweden had done:

“After school, Anna was sent out to a larger farm to work as a milkmaid. All the servants slept in the kitchen there, but when she was fifteen she was sent as a servant girl to a woman named Martha Jacobsson, who gave her a room of her own to sleep in.”

I later read a review which describes Fishing in Utopia as a “lament for a lost Eden“, the supposedly egalitarian, socialist and (comparatively) very rich Sweden of the 1970s, the era of Social Democratic leader Olaf Palme: an Eden later lost to modernizing forces. 

However, this is definitely not the message I took away from the book. It is in the present, not the past, tense that Brown makes Sweden seem most attractive.  It is when Brown writes about what he calls “Stockholm-Sweden” that he becomes most positive: describing a “genuinely sophisticated, cosmopolitan and almost weightless place”.   The Sweden of today that Brown describes is a place undergoing rapid change: open to migration, with more than 400,000 Muslims and Mohammed the most common new name for boys in Malmo. 

The modern Sweden that Brown evokes is a place where popular phone-in-programmes express both “polite and earnest eccentricity” and a sense of what Swedes “mean by democracy: not a voting system, but a recognition of common humanity.”  It is a place where alcohol is much easier to obtain than only a few decades ago, and where the system of state shops which sell it (the Systembolag) are today aimed at “selling not repelling”.  There is crime, and more than there was in the past, but it is still not “Armageddon”, with rates much lower than in England.  If Sweden is no longer “the promised land to which the world was tending in the Sixties” it is still, by almost any indicator, one of the most attractive and open societies in Europe today. 

Skyline of Stockholm

(Amberin also noted with pleasant surprise that when she stepped out of the Opera Cafe restaurant in the centre of Stockholm a Swede came up to her and asked her for directions in Swedish, obviously assuming that she was a local – her parents are from Bangladesh and Turkey.  This would not happen to her in every European country …)  

Neither Browns’ descriptions of Sweden in the 70s nor his observation of the problems which Sweden faces today suggest that the past is better than the present.  At one point Brown notes that  “everything about the old weighty grey concrete Sweden seems to have dissolved into the air”. At the end of the book Brown recalls the past, when he used to spend  “delightful hours lamenting the dreary stolidity of Sweden”, this while dining in a restaurant where potato cakes were “made as if woven out of straw, with sour cream and orange caviar” and where a person he met “had never once heared the word nykterhet, or temperance”.   

Brown underlines that “when foreigners write in praise of Swedish politics, it is from Stockholm that they get their information or their understanding, and this is always influenced by the very great confidence of the ruling class that still run the place.” 

Having met some representatives of this class during this trip – ministers, parliamentarians, businesspeople and civil servants – all explaining the broad consensus in Sweden in favour of a liberal migration policy, European enlargement, and striking the right balance between welfare and individual liberty, I found that this confidence might well be justified. 

But on this more later on this blog.