Interview in Die Welt: “Moscow wants to show that everything can be bought”

This interview originally appeared in German in Die Welt: „Moskau will zeigen, dass alles käuflich ist“.

Migration researcher and rule of law expert Gerald Knaus calls for Russia to be expelled from the Council of Europe over Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment if the opposition leader is not released. In an interview, he explains what Europe must do in its dealings with Russia.

Gerald Knaus is best known as the “architect” of the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey. However, the chairman of the Berlin think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI) has for years also been writing about deficits in the rule of law in Eastern Europe, for example in Poland and Hungary. For him, Russia is an extreme case of the departure from democratic values that can also be observed in other European countries. He calls for “drawing a red line” in dealing with Russia in order to stand up for the credibility of the European Convention on Human Rights’ values.

WELT: Mr Knaus, Russia has massed its troops on the Ukrainian border, put opposition activist Alexei Navalny in a penal colony, and denied him medical treatment. Washington has threatened Moscow with consequences, but Brussels and European capitals have contented themselves with admonitions. These excesses on their own doorstep seem to interest Europeans little. Why is that?

Gerald Knaus: The EU is divided. Some governments see Russian threats to their European neighbours as too unimportant to affect their own interests. So threats are played down, even the massing of troops to intimidate a neighbour. Other EU governments perceive themselves as powerless. This alleged powerlessness is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are responsible options for action, even now.

WELT: There are already EU sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine War. You suggest threatening Moscow with expulsion from the Council of Europe because of the Navalny affair. Do you think Putin will be impressed by that?

Knaus: The first priority is to try saving Navalny’s life. In addition, no other European has turned to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg as often as he has, 20 times in ten years. The court has also repeatedly condemned Russia, but the effect of these judgements has been damning. Moscow systematically ignored them. Those who think the Council of Europe is pointless may accept that. But those who believe in the idea behind the oldest human rights organisation in Europe cannot want it to become a European UN, where even North Korea remains a member, no matter how it behaves.

WELT: That seems to be Moscow’s view of things. Wouldn’t a possible expulsion be more than a symbolic step?

Knaus: First of all, the Council of Europe should now make clear that if Navalny is not released within days, as the Court demanded, Russia’s membership will be suspended. Yes, this is also about symbols like those that once inspired dissidents like Sakharov and Havel, who repeatedly pointed out the gap between the human rights rhetoric of their regimes and their reality.

That is precisely what Russia wants to prevent in the Council of Europe. Moscow wants to show that these values, to which one could appeal, do not exist at all, that everything is for sale. For example, the Russian state has paid Navalny around 120,000 euros in compensation after ECHR rulings, but has not changed its policy. So, as a state, can you buy your way out of constant violations of fundamental rights, up to and including the assassination attempt by the secret service last summer? Or is there any behaviour where the credibility of the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Court, and the values behind it are at stake?

WELT: You rightly said that Europe is divided in its relationship with Russia. How can you convince Russia-friendly countries like Hungary or Austria to become more critical with Moscow?

Knaus: The EU can and will always have economic relations with states like Russia, Egypt, or China, and cooperate on foreign policy where there are common interests. But the Council of Europe is about fundamental values, not economic relations. According to its statutes, it is a club of democracies that remember their human rights obligations. Why are we allowing this institution to be destroyed by authoritarian countries exerting illegitimate influence there? Little Azerbaijan is doing it, as the recent affair of some in the CDU shows. We have to protect our institutions, show that we take their rules seriously. Otherwise we show that we are ready to sell our souls.

WELT: What do you think should happen with Nord Stream 2? This often criticised project defended by Germany is the prime example of the separation of the economy and human rights.

Knaus: Months ago, I pleaded with members of the Bundestag to use the pipeline to put pressure on Russia in consultation with neighbours like Poland or the Baltic states. For example, to say that the almost completed pipeline will only be finished if Moscow is prepared to join the EU in pressing for new elections in Belarus. But perhaps it is already too late for that. However, the idea of simply continuing to build the pipeline in view of the Kremlin’s actions in Belarus and now in Ukraine, as if nothing had happened, is another fatal signal from Berlin.

WELT: Russia keeps complaining that they want to build the common European home from Lisbon to Vladivostok, only the Europeans are opposed to it. How credible are such accusations?

Knaus: Of course Russia is a European country. Italy under Mussolini, Spain under Franco were also European but they would not have been admitted to the Council of Europe. There are states in Europe today that suspend human rights, the rights of minorities, the political opposition, the right to demonstrate. In the 1950s, however, there was no question of fascist Spain or the GDR joining the Council of Europe. It was known that elections in a democracy could not be equated with elections in the Soviet Union. Today, Russia in particular is trying to blur these differences. A strong Council of Europe with its court would stand in the way. Even the Soviet Union could join today’s Council of Europe.

WELT: What needs to happen for relations between Russia and Europe to improve?

Gerald Knaus: The first prerequisite is that Russia renounces foreign policy aggression. To this end, we must never give up the hope that great dissidents like Andrei Sakharov had even in the Soviet Union: that their country too will one day respect the values of the 1950 Human Rights Convention. For this to happen, however, we must protect the Convention now.

Wiener Stadtgespräch: “Welche Grenzen brauchen wir? Eine humane Migrations- und Asylpolitik ist möglich”

I was invited to speak about my book “What borders do we need?”, available in German at A humane migration and asylum policy is possible!

We need to leave behind metaphors from hydraulics in our thinking about borders and migration. The sooner we do this, the sooner will we get to a solution-oriented debate. The distinction between regular and irregular migration, and between humane and inhumane borders, is central to this.

FAZ interview on Azerbaijan’s caviar diplomacy in Europe: „A general atmosphere of venality“

This interview was originally published in German: Die Aserbaidschan-Clique: Eine allgemeine Atmosphäre der Käuflichkeit (30 March 2021)

PDF of this the interview in English

Interview in FAZ

A conversation with Gerald Knaus, whose think tank „European Stability Initiative“ has exposed the corrupt connections of members of the Bundestag to Azerbaijan.

Question: Mr Knaus, with reports from your think tank, the „European Stability Initiative“, or ESI for short, you initiated a development more than ten years ago that is now also creating a stir in the Bundestag: Apparently, several current and former members of the CDU/CSU have allowed themselves to be bought by the regime of the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev. How did your research begin?

Knaus: We were actually researching the situation of women’s rights in Azerbaijan in 2009, when a controversial referendum was held to allow Ilham Aliyev to become president for life. There were protests and arrests. Two young activists we knew were beaten up in a restaurant in Baku by paid hooligans. When they went to the police, it was not the perpetrators who were investigated, but they who were arrested and sent to prison. That was when we decided to research the situation of young dissidents and came across something unexpected: while the repression in the country was getting worse, the assessment of the situation by the Council of Europe, to which Azerbaijan was admitted in 2001, was becoming more and more positive. This was strange. We began to look into how this could have happened.

Question: So in the beginning there was no suspicion of corruption against Western politicians?

Knaus: I could not have imagined what we soon found out about the Council of Europe and European politicians active there. I was naïve. Then in 2012, insiders explained to us how this policy worked: parliamentarians from all over Europe received jewellery, vacation trips and money, election observers were getting tens of thousands of euros for positive statements about Azerbaijan. Staff at the Council of Europe confirmed to us behind closed doors that Azerbaijan’s actions were an open secret in Strasbourg. Other parliamentarians said they had long suspected some colleagues of acting strangely in Baku. But how to write about it without hard evidence? The first task was to explain exactly how the regime strategically bought votes in the Council of Europe and to describe who spoke and voted publicly about Azerbaijan and how. We traced how networks in the Council of Europe systematically elevated apologists of the Azerbaijani regime to leading positions. We saw that certain MPs spoke out in defence of the regime in every debate on Azerbaijan. Many politicians from all over Europe regularly went to Baku as election observers to call elections free and fair, even though the voting was like in the GDR.

Coverage in Der Tagesspiegel 2012

Question: And you thought you could bring down this system with a few reports?

Knaus: We hoped: If we describe this, there will have to be an investigation. It was about bribery of MPs in the most important human rights institution in Europe. But that was also naïve. In the next five years, everything got much worse, in Azerbaijan as in the Council of Europe.

Question: ESI coined the term „caviar diplomacy“ – what does that mean?

Knaus: That was the name of our report from May 2012, in which we described how the Aliyev regime infiltrated the Council of Europe. The symbol of this policy was caviar, but in fact it was about a lot of money. Jewellery, expensive carpets, invitations with business class flights to Baku including a stopover in luxury hotels in Istanbul. This was a test: whoever accepted such gifts was a candidate for further, bigger ones. This was also the case with the Italian Christian Democrat Luca Volontè, who was sentenced to four years in prison in Milan in January this year for accepting bribes from Azerbaijan. Volontè was not just any MP, but leader of the European People’s Party group, the largest in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which includes the CDU. He helped mobilise a majority of MPs, who he listed in emails to his accomplices in Baku, to vote down a resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in January 2013. One consequence of this scandalous vote was another wave of arrests in Azerbaijan. All those who had cooperated with the Council of Europe in Baku were arrested. Another consequence was that Aliyev could publicly declare with a cold smile that there were no political prisoners in his country – after all, the Council of Europe had confirmed this, with 125 votes.

The 2012 report

Question: Could all this be proven in court?

Knaus: Only if prosecutors also take it to court like in Milan. The Italian public prosecutor’s office showed that Volontè set up a „consulting firm“ in Milan at the end of 2012. Three weeks later, 220,000 euros were transferred to its account from Azerbaijan via a shell company. In the end, a total of 2.4 million euros was transferred to Volontè by mid-2014, and he even expected more than 10 million. The fact that this did not happen was due to the Italian banking supervisory authority and Milanese prosecutors who, during a raid, secured Volontè’s communication with the Azerbaijani financiers.

Question: What were the connections to Germany?

Knaus: Years before, the former CSU member of the Bundestag, Eduard Lintner, who was, among other things, parliamentary state secretary in the Ministry of the Interior and until January 2010 in the Council of Europe, had always sided with Azerbaijan there. Lintner, too, regularly went to Azerbaijan to observe elections, during and after he sat in the Council of Europe. He himself praised the completely manipulated parliamentary elections in 2013 as exemplary. Lintner also financed „private election observation missions“ by other politicians, who always mutated into admirers of the regime in Baku. The same shell companies, with owners in the Virgin Islands, that had transferred money from Baku to Volonte’s consulting firm transferred money to Lintner. Since the beginning of 2020, German prosecutors have been investigating what this was all about.

Question: The large majority of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag is certainly not corrupt. But why did this majority for years tolerate clear indications of dubious and probably also lucrative contacts between some of their colleagues and Azerbaijan? Out of party discipline?  Because they were overworked? Or weren’t interested?

Knaus: Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe appeared to many to be remote issues far from the concerns of ordinary voters. But it is a fallacy to think that this is far away and none of our business. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, which meets four times a year, is made up of members of national parliaments, in Germany’s case the Bundestag. If MPs take bribes in Strasbourg, they continue to function in this way in national parliaments afterwards, as corrupted politicians. And if even we, a small think tank from Kreuzberg, were able to find out what happened in Strasbourg, then the secret services of large countries certainly know that too. This is how politicians become susceptible to blackmail – also in national parliaments and in their later careers. Luca Volontè met with Azerbaijani middlemen in Baku in the presence of members of the Russian Council of Europe delegation to discuss strategies. In addition, the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe elect the judges of the Human Rights Court.

Question: In Italy and Germany, public prosecutors are investigating possible participants in the corruption cartel. Have there been reactions in other countries as well?

Knaus: Prosecutors in other countries would also have to follow up on the information. So far, however, almost all the apologists of the regime we reported on have remained unchallenged. It would be ideal if one of those involved had incentives to appear as a principal witness.

Question: It is remarkable that ESI’s reports had no effect at all for years. Why did those involved feel so secure?

Knaus: The general atmosphere of venality was so widespread in Strasbourg that individual MPs who were outraged by it were simply resigned to it. Caviar diplomacy simply continued for five years after 2012. The regime in Baku even had Azerbaijani advisors to the Council of Europe arrested, that’s how secure it felt. Moreover, reports were launched in Brussels by certain circles claiming that we were financed by Armenia, or by a Russian gas lobby to prevent Azerbaijani pipelines. In addition, Thorbjørn Jagland, the then Secretary General of the Council of Europe and then Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, also showed no interest in investigating into what was going on.

Question: You claim that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe was part of the corruption?

Knaus: No. But Jagland should have launched an investigation much earlier, given what was known in Strasbourg. He didn’t do it for years.

Question: Why not?

Knaus: We cannot see into people’s heads. But the Secretary General of the Council of Europe is elected by its parliamentary assembly, and there the so-called dark coalition of Azerbaijan and its allies at that time was dominant. Against this lobby, a Secretary General could hardly be re-elected. The largest group of delegates in the Council of Europe is the Russian one with 18 deputies. Apart from the Russians, most Spanish and Italian MPs, many Eastern Europeans and also influential Frenchmen were on Azerbaijan’s side in votes. The leader of the liberal faction, Jordi Xucla, was a defender of Baku. There were also leftists and social democrats, British Tories, European right-wing populists and several successive leaders of the European People’s Party group. Over the years, they had formed veritable entailed estates: New MPs took over Baku relations from their predecessors. In Belgium, some liberals showed an astonishing love for Azerbaijan, in Spain it was conservatives, in Eastern Europe ex-communists. Most Germans from all parliamentary groups voted with the Scandinavians and the Swiss for human rights. But there were some all the more astonishing exceptions – among them the recently deceased CDU MP Karin Strenz and Axel Fischer, who until recently was chairman of the audit committee in the Bundestag.

Question: At what point then did the ESI revelations have an impact?

Knaus: In December 2016, our report „The European Swamp“ was published and received wide attention. But until April 2017, there was still bitter resistance to an independent investigation into the allegations. It was individual determined MPs, such as the German SPD politician Frank Schwabe and the Dutch Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt, who mobilised a broad coalition. Nevertheless, too little has happened across Europe. The Milan verdict against Volontè reads like a thriller, but if this politician alone, who was in Strasbourg for only a few years, received millions from Baku, one can only guess at how much money may have flowed since 2003. But so far only Italy and Germany are investigating the matter. Axel Fischer is being investigated by the Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office on the suspicion of bribery of elected officials. The Bundestag has therefore lifted Fischer’s immunity. His house was searched, as were Lintner’s and Strenz’s before him.

The 2016 report

Question: Some MPs are now rightly in the pillory. But isn’t there a danger that in the end the false impression „politicians are all corrupt anyway“ will stick?

Knaus: This impression is created when institutions tolerate corruption for years and too few have the courage to address it and correct it in time. Until 2017, even Fifa had a stricter anti-corruption system than the Council of Europe. That has changed since then, at least in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. But the most important thing is that parties do not cover for their members in cases of serious suspicion, neither in Strasbourg nor in Berlin. Buying votes is never a trivial offence.

Speaking on TV on Caviar Diplomacy (from minute 52)

Question: Is there such a thing as a lesson from caviar diplomacy?

Knaus: The deep fall of the Council of Europe shows how easy it is to corrupt institutions when an authoritarian regime goes about buying parliamentarians with determination and a lot of money. This is a warning, because other states are probably trying it too, especially since they have seen that this policy was entirely risk-free for the regime in Azerbaijan. To date, the exposure of Azerbaijan’s bribery has had no consequences for Aliyev whatsoever. The Italian Football Federation once reacted severely to referee corruption and sentenced champion Juventus Turin to forced relegation to the second league in 2006. The member states of the Council of Europe, on the other hand, have looked the other way for years and to this day have done nothing to outlaw such behaviour by one of its members. Not even Azerbaijan’s right to vote in the Committee of Ministers has been suspended. Why should other states not follow Baku’s example? Buying votes in Europe is unfortunately far too easy.

Question: The exposure of „caviar diplomacy“ is not the first example of ESI reports having an impact. What does a think tank have to do to have an impact on society and to bring about change?

Knaus: In order to be able to swim against the tide for years out of conviction, if necessary, it is important that institutions that financially support a think tank do not influence how and on which topics it publishes and when it does so. This goes for our most important donors – the Essen-based Mercator Foundation, the Swedish Ministry for Development Aid and the Open Society Foundations. In addition, we clearly define our own role: we work scientifically and independently. We are not lobbyists and do not take money from governments to advise them. This also allows us to take risks. Because one thing is clear: anyone who might have influence will be attacked.

Question: From the outside, it looks like ESI is working rather slowly. It sometimes takes years before you publish reports.

Knaus: Influence is always the result of years of work. It never works through one report alone, but through many publications, lectures, and meetings. At some point something will fall on fertile ground. That cannot be planned. You have to run with an issue for years. Moreover, we always do research as a team. As a rule, individuals cannot carry out an empirically based analysis on a complex topic. Sometimes we bring in additional experts. Years ago, we worked intensively on how the quality of government statistics could be assessed and brought a former employee of the European statistics authority Eurostat into the team for this purpose. When it came to visa liberalisation for the countries of the Western Balkans, we worked closely with former European interior ministers. On the crisis of the rule of law in Poland, we have been cooperating intensively with Polish lawyers for years.

Question: Is there a strategy for making think tank reports particularly effective?

Knaus: Influence for a think tank never consists of telling people what they should think. Influence happens when a report describes a situation so credibly and convincingly that readers come to similar conclusions to the ones we came to on their own. Many reports try to convince only those who have similar views anyway. Moreover, policy recommendations must convince practitioners. One must also never forget that people in important positions who can decide things live on an ever-growing mountain of papers. If an analysis is to stand out among the hundreds of studies that appear every week, it must be grippingly written. Because if people don’t remember a think tank’s report after a month, it’s as if it was never written. I hope that everyone who read our reports on Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe could remember them after a month. Like the prosecutors in Milan who started from our work. People think in stories. So we write stories. Only then can we succeed in influencing the world through papers.

The questions were asked by Michael Martens

Video presentations on Caviar Diplomacy

Presentation by Gerald Knaus on corruption in the Council of Europe (September 2017). Video: Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation

Gerald Knaus: The end of shame? Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe and the capture of Europe (November 2014). Video: Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Recent articles and interviews in the media

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aserbaidschan-Affäre: Geschenke, Werbung, Verleumdung, 31 March 2021

Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Was ist die Aserbaidschan-Connection, und wer machte da mit?, 28 March 2021

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Korruption, Kaviar, Kanzlerdämmerung: Die Union erhält eine Lektion in Demut, 27 March 2021

STERN, CDU/CSU-Abgeordnete verwickelt: Soziologe erklärt, wie Aserbaidschan EU-Politiker kauft, 26 March 2021

VICE News, Aserbaidschan-Affäre: Der Diktator, die CDU, der Moderator und das Geld, 22 March 2021

Cicero, Interview mit Gerald Knaus. Aserbaidschan und die Union -30 Millionen Euro für „Kaviar-Diplomatie.“, 12 March 2021

Watch the video (from minute 52): ZDF, Markus Lanz, 25 March 2021

101 On the French Veto, Balkan accession and what next

Dear friends, in October the European Council refused to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Here is an attempt to illustrate what happened, what France would like to happen now and what should happen.

Interview in NOVA TV, “Кнаус за НОВА: Европска економска зона е подобро од овa статус кво” (“Knaus in conversation with NOVA: The European Economic Area is better than the status quo”)

NOVA TV, “Кнаус за НОВА: Европска економска зона е подобро од овa статус кво” – interview with Gerald Knaus – (“Knaus in conversation with NOVA: The European Economic Area is better than the status quo”) (26 October 2019)

Radical realism – to transform the world, lets take its measure first. Why joining the European single market and the four freedoms would be a huge step forward for all Western Balkan nations.

And why the EU should offer this to all six, with a reformed accession methodology that truly rewards merit. This will be very hard work. But with this EU integration would finally get serious for the region.

Q: Will the ESI Norway in the Balkans proposal mark the end of enlargement ?

Knaus: It is the opposite: with this proposal the European integration of the Balkan countries would accelerate. We are proposing that the European Union opens accession talks with all six Western Balkan countries now to join the European single market, the biggest in the world, with its four freedoms of movement of people, capital, goods and services. And we propose to reform the way these talks take place, to make them fair and transformative.

The immediate goal is for each Balkan country that meets the conditions to be linked as closely to the EU as Norway is in the so-called European Economic Area (EEA). Now, joining the EEA is in itself a very good thing. Norway, a rich country, is still paying the EU a lot to be in the EEA, because it is such an advantage for its people and economy, Of course, the Western Balkans are not rich and need help to catch up, so the EU should increase grants and assistance AND allow them to join the single market in order. Why? Because a stable, democratic, prosperous Balkans is in the EU interest.

Now, North Macedonia citizens might say that they want to join the EU, nothing else. But even then our proposal is good for them. How does EEA accession relate to the goal of EU accession? If you think of joining the EU as a marathon, over 42 km, joining the EEA is running the first 35 km of that very same marathon, on exactly the same road. It is not a detour, it is not an alternative, is is a stage on the same path.

This is not just my theory. This is how it worked in the past. I was young then, but remember well: this is how Austrian, Finland and Sweden joined the European Union more than twenty years ago. All three joined the EEA first. Then, since everything they needed to do for the EEA was also a requirement for the EU, they completed EU accession talks within a very short period of time. To be precise: the EEA entered into force in 1994 and Austria, Sweden and Finland joined the EU on 1 January 1995. This is important: there is no contradiction between the goal of first joining the EEA and then the EU. On the contrary, it is a logical sequence. All EEA negotiators at the time noted how these talks made later fast accession of their countries possible.

Q: what about the commitment of the EU from Zagreb 2000 and Thessaloniki 2003 ? Could we just forgot it?

These commitments remain, of course. At the same time we know that these promises, repeated every year over twenty years, never guaranteed WHEN enlargement would actually happen. Nobody can guarantee this. Every EU member states always kept the right to veto. And they used it. How many times was North Macedonia blocked by a veto of one member state, despite unconditional recommendations by the European Commission to start talks? Nine times! Nobody knows from bitter experience better than Macedonians that the most important thing is a process which is about merit and not arbitrary vetoes, at every step.

So my advice to Balkan leaders is to focus all diplomatic energy on changing the process, not demanding guarantees that can never be given. We do not know now who the French president will be in 2024. Right now there is a lot of sympathy with North Macedonia and Albania in many EU states. This sympathy should help push for a reformed process. If the process is not reformed, what would happen even when you have to open the first chapters? Again, you know: Croatia experienced it, Turkey did.

How likely is it to reform the process in this way? It is hard, too. But if ever there was a moment to do it it is now. There is a new Commission. There is a deep crisis. So this is the moment to put a constructive proposal on the table that can convince all EU members and work for the Balkans for the next years, not just the next months. The key question is not whether talks today will lead to a Norwegian situation of joining the EEA or to a Swedish situation of joining, first the EEA and then the EU. This will be decided later in any case. What is key now is that these talks are fair.

Q: How to explain to Montenegro and Serbia that the game is over?

Knaus: The current accession process has been broken for years. Many Member states don’t believe in it. Frontrunners, like Turkey and Serbia, don’t believe in it any more. What happened to North Macedonia in Brussels confirmed this.Note: Turkey has been negotiating its accession since 2005, Montenegro since 2012, Serbia since 2014. But did opening accession talks process produce the positive changes which were expected? No. Are these countries closer to joining the EU now than they were when they started? No. Turkey has since had a coup attempt. a state of emergency, fighting broke out again in South East Anatolia. And last year in Sofia EU member states refused to give even a vague commitment that 2025 was a good target date for Serbia and Montenegro to join. Nobody has any guarantee, whether talks started or not.

So the process itself must be changed. I feared in a speech in 2014 in Belgrade at an event with the deputy prime minister of Serbia that the current accession process would not survive for more than five years without reform. This was five years ago.

Q: Negotiations for membership was a very efficient instrument for the transformation and reform . what could be the carrot now?

Knaus: Negotiations for membership are only an efficient instrument for transformation when EU is serious about it. The EU has not been serious about the negotiations with the Western Balkan countries. It is not prepared to open them with four out of six. Why? Because accession of the Western Balkan countries is unpopular in many EU members. So a process was designed with so many obstacles that it kills the motivation of even the most committed politicians or civil servant. You can have a hurdles race over over 200 meters. You cannot have a hurdles race over 42 kilometers. This is what the current process has become. This is what your government has experienced too. That is bad for the EU and bad for the Balkans.

The question of incentives is crucial. The first incentive, the major carrot, is that the process helps reformers create a better country for their citizens and children. For this, it must be fair. For citizens it must be transparent. The EU should provide real help reaching Eu standards, not block countries. And each Balkan country should be judged by the same criteria. If more assistance then goes to those counties that perform best, all the better. But you cannot buy the will to reform with money. Yes, money helps. Having a goal that is within reach of a few years helps too. Having EU member states that want you to reach it, not block you, is also crucial.

Q: How would the process of negotiation look like ?

Knaus: There is a website where you can see what the EAA covers. It is a huge part of the EU rules and laws. Reaching this integration now should be the first objective goal for each of the six WB countries. The EU should draw up roadmaps for each area. and then evaluate regularly how far each of the six Balkan countries are from meeting these criteria in each field. These assessments should be led by experts, the criteria public, allowing you to compare countries. There should be a positive competition. And no vetoes once the whole process starts next year until the very end.

Q: What is the potential risk for stability if there is no more enlargement ?

Knaus: Many in the EU fear that Balkan countries are not stable and might return to chaos at any moment. This is a very bad image to have. I would never use fear of instability as an argument for enlargement. On the other hand, the goal of eternal European peace is a great and inspiring goal for the EU and the Balkans. I lived in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Sarajevo, in Pristina, and remember well a period when nationalists first won elections with promises of hate, and then wars and destruction followed. This must never happen again in the Balkans. But it continues to happen, even in Europe, even today. In 2008 there was a war in Georgia. In 2014 in Ukraine. This is why we need European integration, not just in the Balkans, but also in the Balkans.

Q: ESI has put lot of effort in order to promote enlargement of EU towards WB. How you are going to ensure your partners in the WB that it was just a “joke” talking about enlargement?

Knaus: We put a lot of effort into convincing EU interior ministers into lifting the visa requirements for all Western Balkan countries first. And it succeeded. Why? Because it was a merit based credible process. And because we talked to the sceptics, and tried to persuade the ministers of interior in EU member states. This is the only way this can work, and it means that right now we need to talk to France and the Netherlands, to see how to convince them. And to show them that a credible process of accession can be in their interest, too.

Q: Why don’t you join the huge majority of member states and WB countries to find a solution in order to change Macron s mind?

Knaus: I simply ask: do you think it is likely that other member states will be able to change the mind of the French president? It might happen. I hope it does. But it never happened with Greece. So you need a strategy that also works without it happening. And that makes future vetoes in the process less likely. This is how European integration has always happened. It is not new.

Q: Do you believe that there is anything that could satisfy Macron in order to leave his veto on enlargement ?

Knaus: He says the EU is not now ready to promise enlargement to anyone. But the EU should be ready to allow each Western Balkan state to meet the conditions to join the EEA. I think to persuade France of this is possible, if other EU members support it too.

Q: Is there any other member state supporting your ideas ? If yes..which one?

Knaus: We only published this paper last Friday night. But there has been a strong and encouraging response. I received emails and SMS from foreign ministers, parliamentarians and EU officials within hours, expressing interest. But I have no illusions. This would be a historic offer, that would transform the Balkans. But it will take a lot of discussions. Like visa liberalisation. And it will only work if leaders in the region support it too. Not as their ideal scenario, but as a very good way forward for their countries, much better than the status quo.

In crisis and worth saving – ESI review on the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe

2019-05-06 (28)

One of our many newsletters on the Council of Europe 

On the 70th anniversary of an institution worth saving

As the Council of Europe reaches the robust age of 70 today some might ask whether there is all that much to celebrate.

After all, at this moment the Council of Europe is in the middle of a serious crisis. Looking only at the past few years this is the trend: it is failing in Russia. It is failing in Azerbaijan. It is failing in Turkey. It has made far too weak an impact on arresting the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland. It is facing serious internal and external threats to its credibility. It has yet to deal seriously with the biggest corruption scandal in its history.

The Council of Europe is in a worrying shape despite the fact that there are very committed people in PACE, where the past two years have seen an uprising of a virtuous coalition of members; despite the fact that there are very committed people in the secretariat; and despite the fact that there are  (far too few) countries taking the CoE as seriously in the Committee of Ministers as it deserves.

At the same time, the current leadership in the secretariat in Strasbourg has failed the institution far too long. Mostly, the Committee of Ministers is weak and indecisive. And even in PACE old networks that want to get back to the bad old days of Pedro Agramunt have not given up. (Just check how few MPs are complying with declarations on possible conflicts of interest.)

In the coming months the credibility crisis of the institution could get a lot worse. There are budget cuts planned that could do lasting damage. These are imposed because of blackmail by a big member mocking the values of the institution. The Council of Europe is facing threats today that could destroy it as a force for good.

This would be tragic. For there is a lot that is worth defending – from the ECtHR and the Venice Commission to Greco, the CPT and the Human Rights Commissioner’s office. There is also a lot to be inspired by in the idea of a club of imperfect European democracies holding each other to the highest standards – and focusing on core human rights. There is a real need for such an institution today, as human rights are coming under attack across Europe, in old and new democracies.

ESI has written many reports, newsletters and papers about the Council of Europe in recent years. We advocated on a number of issues – from political prisoners to corruption, from resisting blackmail to protecting the court. Sometimes we even saw results after long efforts. At times it seemed quixotic – there were not that many other think tanks in Europe working on the institution itself with such obsessive focus.

We would not have done this, had we not been convinced that the Council of Europe matters hugely. That it is truly an institution representing values and embodying ideals worth fighting for. And yet, there is one more thing we have also learned since 2012: never assume that anything will sort itself out without effort and vigilance. And any impact requires a huge coalition of people who care enough to take risks – in and outside the institution. Here civil society organisations have an important role of play.

So this is our anniversary present: links to newsletters we sent out on the Council of Europe since 2012, joined by our hope that the reports which we will write about developments in Strasbourg in the coming decade will be more uplifting.

And with this hope, we wish a very happy anniversary!

The ESI team


2019-05-06 (35)


Links to ESI newsletters on the Council of Europe


On Caviar Diplomacy…

Pace and political prisoners…

Ilham the Magician…


2019-05-06 (34)


Viktor Hugo and the dream of the Council of Europe…

The Strasbourg court and Bosnia…

The end of election monitoring and PACE…


2019-05-06 (33)


Hunger strikers abandoned by PACE…

Political prisoners and Jaglands mission…

For a Europe without political prisoners…

Targeting human rights defenders…

The legacy of Sakharov…

Origins of modern human rights in Russia…

Moscow appeal…

Jaglands failure…


2019-05-06 (32)


Letters from prison…

Formula one, Vaclav and Rasul…

Dorian Gray in Strasbourg – the end of shame…


2019-05-06 (26)


A European swamp – the biggest scandal…


2019-05-06 (23)


Fifa of human rights – anti-corruption in Strasbourg…

Three days that shook the Council of Europe…

How to investigate corruption?…

The hour of truth…

The fight against the death penalty in Turkey…

Phoenix and the black knight…

From Russia with threats…

The lobbyist, the judge and the court…


2019-05-06 (30)2018

Spring cleaning – the corruption report…

On rule of law in Poland and the Venice Commission…

Human rights with teeth…

More to come … 🙂

Gallery of ESI engagement with the Council of Europe (2012 – 2019) 

2019-05-06 (36)


2019-05-06 (38)


2019-05-06 (37)



2019-05-06 (31)




2019-05-06 (29)



2019-05-06 (24)




2019-05-06 (21)

John Dalhuisen: A second Brexit referendum – a constructive proposal

John Dalhuisen


A constructive proposal


By: John Dalhuisen, ESI Senior Fellow


Advocates for a second referendum on Brexit have struggled to articulate what such a referendum should look like. There are very divergent views on the question that should be asked – or the options that should be included. There is also little agreement on the voting system that should be used.

A second referendum can only be held if the public is convinced that the outcome would be conclusive, unambiguous and fair. The options presented and the voting system used would have to be simple enough to be easily understood. The voting system would also need to take the result of the first referendum into account by placing restrictions on the circumstances in which the leave result could be overturned.

In the absence of a proposal that satisfies these criteria, a second referendum might be a good idea whose time will never come. It needs to become a credible political proposition. As this paper shows, a referendum that satisfies demanding criteria and points the way towards a new consensus in a highly polarised UK debate is both possible and promising, presenting the best way forward. With a concrete and fair proposal on the table it becomes more likely to obtain the essential bipartisan public support for holding one.

A further referendum should be a three-way referendum between Deal – No deal – and Remain, in order to:

  • establish whether a majority of the voting public now wishes to remain in the EU in light of the available options (or not); and
  • avoid an inconclusive outcome, the securing of which would be hostage to further political debate or conditional on the agreement of the EU.

It should use a “Preferential Vote + Qualified Lock” voting system, in order to

  • remove incentives for tactical voting;
  • ensure that No Deal has a shot at winning;
  • prevent Remain winning if a majority of voters prefer either leave option to Remain counting across all preferences;
  • allow Remain to win even if it secures a minority of first preferences, if majorities prefer it to both leave alternatives counting across all preferences.

Both sequential voting options are problematic as they almost certainly preclude a No Deal victory. This is likely to generate considerable resentment amongst those who want it. No referendum should exclude the possibility of victory of an option on the ballot that could conceivably win under another reasonable voting system. A standard preferential voting system is also unsatisfactory as it would encourage tactical voting on the part of No Deal voters and would allow Remain to win even if there were leave options that a majority preferred to it counting across all preferences. This would not provide an adequate mandate to overturn the result of the June 2016 referendum. In short, a sequential or standard alternative vote referendum would not be unambiguous or fair: the outcomes would be disputed.

This leaves the two kinds of preferential voting system with a leave-favouring “lock”. There are compelling arguments for both. They pit two criteria against each other: the fairness / accuracy of the outcome, on the one hand, and the need to take the result of the 2016 referendum into account, on the other.

An “absolute lock” pays the greatest respect to the original referendum, as it would require an absolute majority of first choices for Remain for the result of the original referendum to be overturned. However, it could also result in a situation in which the UK leaves the EU with a deal, despite a majority of voters preferring to remain in the EU to both leave options counting across all preferences.

A “qualified lock” would satisfy the requirement that Remain should not be able to win in the event of an overall majority preferring one or other leave option to Remain counting across all preferences. But it would allow for a “minority” Remain victory if it beat both leave options after taking all voters’ complete preferences into account.

Under a qualified lock, Remain is already handicapped relative to both leave options. It faces an additional hurdle that the other two options do not. This is justified – indeed necessary – on account of the result of the 2016 referendum. However, the additional requirement of an outright majority of first preferences for Remain to overturn to the original result could result in an outcome that was clearly inconsistent with actual voter preferences and would be irreconcilable with the criterion of fairness.

In short, a new referendum on Brexit should be a single-round, preferential (alternative) vote on three options: Deal, No Deal or Remain, with a built-in “lock”. The lock would prevent Remain from winning unless it was preferred by a majority of voters to both leave options taking all voter’s complete list of preferences into account.


How might a second referendum on Brexit work?


As the choice of voting system and question heavily influences outcomes (i.e. the same set of voter preferences will yield a different result depending on which questions are asked and how votes are counted), it is difficult to come to a view on what a new referendum on Brexit should look like that is not influenced by one’s own preferences. This paper attempts to do this, however, by setting the following criteria:

A new referendum must be:

  • Conclusive: the options presented must require no new negotiations. A second referendum only makes sense if it results in the conclusion of the Brexit process, not a new beginning
  • Simple: the question is / or the options are / clear;
  • Unambiguous: the voting system must encourage the expression of real voter preferences; i.e. it must not encourage tactical voting;
  • Fair: the voting system should not effectively preclude an included option from winning that might have won under another system under a foreseeable voter distribution;
  • the choices presented do not exclude altogether a (conclusive) option that might have enjoyed majority support
  • the result must be consistent with expressed voter preferences; i.e. in a multiple-option referendum with no outright winner, an option preferred to all others counting across all preferences should win.

It should also acknowledge the result of the June 2016 referendum.

The voting system should exclude the possibility of victory for Remain if there is a conclusive leave alternative that is preferred to it by a majority of voters, counting across all preferences. Such an outcome would be legitimately contested, given that a majority of the voting public has already voted once to leave the EU.

These criteria aim to ensure that the result of any new referendum on Brexit is as undisputed as possible.  Given the importance of the issue for the future of the country and the depth of feeling it provokes, it is crucial that any new referendum delivers a conclusive outcome that cannot reasonably and legitimately be challenged. The best referendum is one which the most people can agree to in advance and the least people can dispute once it has taken place. No new referendum can exclude the possibility that those who do not get their preferred outcome feel robbed. But it is crucial – and possible – that they cannot feel robbed by the format chosen.


Which options should be on the ballot?


The proposal in this paper is based on the deal negotiated by the government with the EU being one of the options. However, the considerations and conclusions that follow would apply equally to ANY deal. For now at least, whether Parliament likes it not, the current deal is the one on the table. But what should the other option or options be?


A binary referendum?

It would be possible to ask the public to choose simply between the deal the government has negotiated and a no deal departure from the EU. This has a certain logic: the question of whether or not to leave has been asked already. On the other hand, given the clarity that now exists on the alternatives on offer, and the possibility that a majority now favours remain, it would not be fair, and far from democratic, to leave this option off the ballot altogether. If you are going to ask people their opinion on Brexit again, you cannot confine this to how it should happen, when a good many may well have changed their minds on the desirability of the entire enterprise.

It would also be possible to run a straight deal-remain referendum. But this would also exclude a popular, possible option: no deal. It would face the same practical and principled short-comings in terms of the legitimacy of the outcome.

A new two-way referendum would not satisfy the criteria of fairness and unambiguousness set out above. So a new referendum should at offer at least three choices: deal – no deal – remain, in order to maintain democratic legitimacy.


A multiple-choice referendum?

Should any other options should be on the ballot? After all, Parliament has considered a range of alternatives in the course of the “indicative votes process”.

One could argue for the inclusion of soft Brexit options that the EU would likely agree to: remaining in either or both of the customs union or the single market. It is likely that there are voters who would prefer one or both of these options to all of the other three. This speaks for their inclusion.

However, a four-/five-/ or even six-way referendum would be excessively complicated. An outcome requiring entirely new negotiations would also fail the test of conclusiveness.

A new referendum should therefore offer a three-way choice between remaining in the EU, leaving with the government’s deal and leaving with no deal at all. These are all realistic, understandable, conclusive options that the UK can decide to pursue unilaterally.


Please continue to read the full paper and proposal here: ESI John Dalhuisen – Brexit discussion paper 19 April 2019