Civil Society after the Protests in Bosnia

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I had the pleasure to be part of a panel debate yesterday at the foreign ministry in Vienna on civil society. More meaningful than just “another” panel on Bosnia was the fact that it took place at the foreign ministry and was opened by Austria’s foreign minister and included also the head of the EU delegation Sörensen in Bosnia. On the other hand,it included no politicians from Bosnia and this was no coincidence. The message of the panel and the high level engagement by Austria and the EU is that it is no longer enough to talk with the political elites, but rather civil society needs to be engaged. This is a refreshing change from an approach that focuses mostly on the leaders of the main political parties. Similarly, the panel was less about formal and established civil society organizations, but rather activists, two from plena (Ajda Sejdić and Amna Popovac), musician Damir Imamović and Aleksandar Trifunović of independent media platform Buka.  The panel was a useful reminder that civil society is more than NGOs and not just there to providing technical expertise, but articulating voices from society.

The result was a refreshing debate. Yes, the problems are old and there is little disagreement about the responsibility of political elites. Little attention centered on the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci cases, but as the February protests highlighted, the main issues are poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. As Damir Imamović noted, these grievances highlight that Bosnia’s problems are not fundamentally different from elsewhere. Yes, they express themselves differently or are compounded by the government structures, but they are not exotic and do not make the Balkans and Bosnia exceptional.

The key question to which there is no clear answer, is how to achieve change. It seemed clear that the plena have mostly run their course. While they have helped generate ideas and continue to operate, they themselves will not generate change in Bosnia. Yet, as in other countries, protests often require multiple waves and different forms until they become successful. While some politicians resigned and some small legal changes were made,  the main success of the protests and plena was not the number of political demands fulfilled, but rather showing the possibility of citizens to organize outside the formal structures and, if briefly, giving the political elite a real scare. There was a clear sense at the discussion that there is no need for new political parties to achieve change. In essence, the choice is between new political actors emerging within the structures or, I argued, in the ability of the EU and civil society to change the behavior of political elites in power. In fact, nationalist and reluctant reforms from Ivo Sanader, Milo Djukanović and Ivica Dačić or Aleksandar Vučić have been able to switch their political priorities. This was usually based on a rational calculation based on changing demand from below (for EU integration) and pressure from outside. The key question remain on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.

The panel suggest that some EU member states and the EU start realizing that the transformative effect of the EU accession depends on allies within the country that scrutinize political elites and thus point out the discrepancy between the talk of EU integration in the country and the reality. However, this dynamic can only become effective if the prospect for EU membership remains real and the support for civil society becomes sustained and extends beyond a few high-level events.

 

 

 

Amidst the floods: Launching call for a new European approach towards the Balkans

As hundreds of people flew to Sarajevo to participate in a plethora of conference and workshop that are strangely attracted to the city this year due to an unfortunate anniversary this June, rains have flooded the countryside, winds made landing at the airport nearly impossible and reminding a casual visitor that Sarajevo’s connection to the rest of Europe is at time precarious.

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A good time to present the latest policy report and briefs by the Balkans in Europe Policy Group. After meeting in Graz, Belgrade, Zagreb and Brussels over the last six months, we could finally present the paper and two policy briefs. In the paper we are looking at four scenarios in which the EU integration process might develop, one continuing along the current path, one with the process descending into stagnation and alienation of both sides, one where outside power start coercing or luring countries away from the EU and finally an option where the EU reenergizes the enlargement process, a Balkan Big Bang.

We had an interesting discussion in the framework of the AGA 2014, an annual big conference of European foundations. As one would expect, the audience was mostly from West European foundations and while some clearly had a positive view of the need for EU integration to continue or rather be accelerated, I was struck by the skepticism coming from some audience in the Q&A. The countries first have to deal with their problems and then we can talk about joining, the previous enlargements were a mistake and we first have to sort out the EU, it can’t be bothered with enlargement were three key concerns expressed by some in the audience. It just highlights that is will be an uphill struggle to convince citizens and member state to continue enlargement.

 

It ain’t so queer. The success of Conchita Wurst across continental divides.

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Some Russians shaved off their beards in protest, church officials objected and right wing (and main stream) commentators in a number of countries, including Serbia and Croatia, are offended and offensive at the success of Conchita Wurst because of her deliberate blurring of gender boundaries and sexuality.

In an insightful blog, Alan Renwick noted that while there is a clear east-west divide in terms of the overall vote for Conchita Wurst last Saturday, the variation is insignificant among the voting public, while the jury displayed greater variety. His argument might be even low-balling the small variation. There is a selection bias among those who vote for the Eurovision contest. In many Western European countries there are strong fan constituencies who enjoy the contest for its odd performances, the meeting of ‘banal nationalism’ with a European public sphere and the horrendous music. In other countries, in particular in Europe’s East, Eurovision is more serious business. States invest heavily into winning the contest and its participation is a away to afirm Europeanness (no were more so in countries whose Europeanness is challenged such as Turkey, not participating this year, Azerbajian, Georgia and Armina). Thus audience and voters are likely to be from a broader social background less than those where the viewers take a more ironic distance to event and the voting. Thus, the gap might even be smaller than the voting spread would indicate.

All of this would suggest that the opinion makers, from jury members and politicians are more homophobic and upset by the Austrian victory than the broader public. This seems not implausible. Jury member vote in public and thus in homophobic, patriarchal and authoritarian contexts might either worry about voting for an act like Conchita or might in fact be selected to represent the ‘official’ taste.

The more intriguing question is whether voting for Conchita Wurst is a sign of greater tolerance. At first glance the answer would appear to be yes. Voting for a drag queen with a beard seems hard to reconcile with stereotypical gender roles (for that there was the Polish entry to this year’s Eurovision). However, one should not jump to conclusions. Eurovision itself as a long history of giving more space to openly gay and lesbian performances than the general public in most states would accept. Dana International won for Israel already some 16 years ago. Consider also Serbia where gay pride parades have failed repeatedly and homophobic attitudes remain social acceptable, Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner of the Eurovision contest in 2007, was not only lesbian (while she did not openly acknowledge this years later, it was not secret to tabloids) but also a Roma (and that did not stop her for endorsing the Serb Radical Party, not particularly enlightened on either groups).

More importantly, even fairly homophobic and patriarchal societies have been tolerant of gay and lesbian or gender-bending entertainers. Take two cases. Azis in Bulgaria. Azis has been one of the most successful singer of chalga music, the widely popular musical genre that combines (pseudo-)traditional music with Western pop like turbofolk (I am aware of the problems of the terminology) in former Yugoslavia or Arabesque in Turkey. Azis, who is also of Roma decent, has been playing with gender roles just as much as Conchita (see here). Similarly in Turkey has had extremely successful performers who challenged gender roles: Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren. Carol Silverman in her wonderful book “Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora” carefully analyses the success of Azis and his performance, playing with gender stereotypes and the image of the Roma and the oriental. To some degree the combination of the exotic and the bending of gender roles made both more easily acceptable. However, Bulgaria and Turkey remain among the countries in Europe least tolerant of homosexuality, thus suggesting a disconnect between the success of openly homosexual or transsexual performers and popular attitudes.

Not unlike elsewhere it being was ok to be gay or lesbian in the world of entertainment, but not in “normal life”. As the world of entertainment is unreal, artificial even when not playing with gender roles, there is more space for those who might not fit into the conventional societal expectations. In fact success in entertain can compound certain gender roles that perceive gays and lesbians as flamboyant, and, well, entertaining. Of course, earlier gay, lesbian and transsexual entertainers were able to flourish through ambiguity and not openly acknowledging their homosexuality, but Azis in Bulgaria became popular in Bulgaria despite open references to his homosexuality (on the boarder implications of Conchita Wurst on LGBT rights see, Catherine Baker’s blog).

What is more striking is the politicization of performance. On the one side the interpretation of Conchita Wurst’s success as a victory for diversity and tolerance, as she herself stated during the victory speech. Similarly LGBT organisations and political parties (rightfully) push for greater rights for gays and lesbians in terms of marriage and adoption (in particular in Austria after her victory was widely celebrated, including by the conservative party, but not by the xenophobic Freedom Party). On the other side is the visceral criticism and rejection by conservative and nationalist politicians, particularly in Europe’s East. This reflects a broader discovery as homophobia as a potent topic for the nationalist and conservative right in Russia (such as the law banning “homosexual propaganda”), but also in Southeastern Europe. While gay and lesbian rights used to be low on the list of issues for conservative groups to rally around more than a decade ago, the violence at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in 2001 was symptomatic for what has become an issue for the right to define itself around.

The politicization also takes on a different dimension. Not only Russian clowns who happen to be called politicians use the victory of Conchita Wurst to juxtapose their own identity with a hedonistic, sexually confused Europe. In Russia at the moment such rhetoric comes as little surprise (just as some argued that the victory of Conchita Wurst as some kind of anti-Russian statement), but also on internet fora in many countries in Southeastern Europe homophobic messages are mixed with skepticism towards the EU (along the lines of ‘this is not the kind of Europe we want’ see here, here and here).  Of course, such different views can be found in every country from the winner of Eurovision onwards, what differs is the balance between the views and their intensity. It would be important to not allow latent or open homophobia to justify views as those promoted by the populist right in some European countries (such as Wilders in the Netherlands) that use homophobia to justify their own xenophobia.

 

Forgetting Enlargement

Reblogging my post for the Balkans in Europe Blog on the risks of EU enlargement falling of the EU agenda.

Not long ago, the DG for Enlargement moved to a new address, from 200 to 15, Rue de la Loi, Brussels. What seems like a question of logistics, not policy, matters. Never in the past twenty years has enlargement fallen to such a low priority for the European Union. The old address of the Directorate General for Enlargement was the Berlaymont, the centre of the Commission—symbolizing the centrality and importance of the enlargement process for the EU. Now, it is housed in a non-descript office building a few hundred meters away. This symbolic removal from the center of EU and the Commission’s headquarters is not just a coincidence, but reflects the problem of enlargement. Although the EU is in accession talks with three countries (Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro) and four more are waiting to start talks, the DG is a shadow of its former self. The atmosphere of decline was reflected in recent months in rumors circulating that the next Commission might not have a Commissioner solely responsible for enlargement. This would be for the first time since 1999 that the EU would not have dedicated enlargement commissioner. Such a scenario seems somewhat unrealistic, considering that there is a need to have 28 Commissioners, one for each member state and thus, enlargement will probably stay on. The question is, however, whether this will be filled by a forceful commission pushing the agenda, or not. Judging the by the gradual decline of the profile of the enlargement portfolio over the past decade, the signs are ominous.

This sense of decline is also reflected in key member states. Popular support for enlargement was never particularly high and governments have pursued it despite their citizens’ skepticism. The latest Eurobarometer puts a clear majority of EU citizens against enlargement (52% over 37% for) with number around 70% against it in France, Germany and Austria.  The highest level of opposition to enlargement is in Austria with 76% against (and 16% for). While Turkey is certainly the bête noire of enlargement, opposition to having Kosovo, Albania and Serbia join are not significantly lower.

These numbers have been steady, at least since the beginning of the economic crisis. However, in recent years numbers have been particularly high and amidst broad dissatisfaction with the EU and governments due to the economic crisis, governments have been more responsive.

The Austrian coalition agreement from late 2013 for example remains committed to towards EU enlargement in the Western Balkans (as opposed to requiring a referendum for Turkish membership). In addition to the accession criteria, the new/old Austrian government emphasis the ability of the EU accept new members as key criteria for membership, a clause that can be used to easily delay further accession.

The German government has followed a similar line, keeping the door open, but while noting the ability of the EU to join, it also underlined the need to strictly enforce the member ship conditions, in effect signaling a strong monitoring by individual member states.

Beyond these mentions of enlargement, more important is the degree to which enlargement is not a central feature of the foreign policy of Germany or Austria, as these countries have been two key promoters of the enlargement process within the EU. The German government declaration at the European Council in December 2013 mostly focused on the cases at hand, Serbia and Albania, but offers no larger strategy vision or even re-affirmation of the Thessaloniki promise of full membership. The government declaration to the German Bundestag did not even mention enlargement and noted that “25 years ago the wall came down. 10 years ago we saw the beginning of the EU Eastern enlargement. Further borders in Europe could be reduced. Today, we Germans and we Europeans are unified to our fortune.”

While the statement implies that enlargement is not complete, this is not spelled out and the unification of Europe appears already done. At best, this declaration could be taken as the German government viewing the enlargement to the Western Balkans as a done deal, even if not technically completed. At worst, it is a sign that there is no real support for enlargement which continues below the radar as a low level process and is used to reward individual countries, but not as a strategic vision.

Recently the UK, conventionally a strong support for enlargement, has taken a sharp turn against enlargement. In his comment for the Financial Times, PM David Cameron threatened to veto further enlargement if labor mobility or he and the tabloids term “benefit tourism” is not restricted.

Other governments have shied away from such a populist used of enlargement, but this approach might become attractive after the EP elections when Eurosceptic Parties are likely to take a much larger share of the vote than they have to date.

Finally Greece, holding the presidency of the EU in the first half of 2014 has taken a much more subdued approach towards enlargement after having been an important member state in promoting the Western Balkans joining the EU 11 years ago. In essence, the Greek presidency program does not devote much space to enlargement and follows the general “yes, but” approach: Enlargement has been successful, but countries have to undergo the most demanding accession process yet: The accession process today is more rigorous and comprehensive than in the past, reflecting the evolution of EU policies as well as lessons learned from previous enlargements.”

While enlargement is going on as a process managed in Brussels, for most member states, it seems to be out of sight and mind, or at least at the margins. This could be seen as a pragmatic and maybe also helpful approach to keep the process ongoing when publics in the countries have grown weary of countries joining. Yet, enlargement through the back door will become tricky as citizens are ill prepared to accept the next enlargements, and as a number of countries will not need ‘just’ enlargement, but a more comprehensive EU engagement to overcome their domestic or bilateral difficulties.

As member states have become more involved into the accession process and claim their right to scrutinize the candidates independently from the Commission, there is the risk that the already slow enlargement process will be even further kicked down the road.

Although it might not be the most popular post in the new Commission (if it indeed remains one), enlargement will be a place for a Commissioner to leave a mark and revive the process. The significance might be easily overlooked now, but if the EU cannot complete enlargement and transform the countries of the Western Balkans, the credibility of its transformative power is seriously jeopardized.

The Merits and Pitfalls of Comparison: Ukraine, Crimea and the Yugoslav references

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source: pic.twitter.com/6aETLmP0fA

International crisis, like the one in Ukraine and Crimea always lead to a scramble for expertise and historical precedent. Actors themselves might model their actions on earlier experience (Putin copying his intervention in Georgia 2008) or refer to what they consider relevant precedents (such as the decision of the Crimean parliament in its declaration of independence to explicitly refer to the Kosovo declaration of independence). Analysts and scholars might refer to previous conflicts to illustrate particular risks or recommend certain lessons (see here or for an insightful and positive example, see the interview with Josip Glaurdić). It is easy to dismiss historical analogies, the context differs, the country and the actors are others, and the comparison might only be useful to serve a particular stand point (reminiscent of the US debates over intervention in Bosnia where the conflict was either viewed as a repetition of Vietnam–hopeless and fare away with no good sides–or the Holocaust–with one side guilty of genocidal crimes and all others victims). Yet comparisons are useful and should have a place in the analysis of crises such as the one in Ukraine. However, for comparisons to be useful, they need to move away from a simplistic ‘this is just like that’.

Comparisons are not just about identifying what is similar, but also what is different. This might sound banal for a social scientist, but much of the comparisons in media are driven by findings similarities rather than both difference and similarities and are also often dismissed on these grounds. Instead, comparisons are done by all observers intuitively, based on personal experience or knowledge of certain conflicts or events and thus, it is better to make these visible and explicit. Furthermore, comparisons help us avoid the fetish of the unique–country A or conflict B is so special and particular, it cannot be compared with anything else. Such an approach is neither helpful, nor correctly reflects any particular place or conflict.

So where can a comparison with the conflicts over the dissolution of Yugoslavia offer some insights?

On Facebook and Twitter a photo of the five or so Serbian Četniks in Crimea circulated with word bubbles (see above) suggesting that they confused Ukraine (Ukrajina) with the Krajina region in Croatia (both names deriving from the word for border. Indeed, the conflict in the Krajina region might be the most telling episode of the Yugoslav wars in this context. The log revolution in 1990 was the preparation for the war to come in the following year. The Serb Democratic Party took power in several municipalities in the Dalmatian hinterland, the Lika and Kordun region, as well as in Slavonia and declared so-called Serb Autonomous Regions (SAOs) that claimed autonomy from Croatia. The clumsy nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime, such as reducing the status of Serbs in the new Croat constitution provided ample munition to these nationalist entrepreneurs. As Mark Thompson in his book on the media wars documents, Serbian TV was re-broadcast in these regions (and in neighboring Bosnia), which spewed out a constant diet of half-truths, lies and propaganda. A referendum with a suspiciously high turnout then ratified the autonomy and later independence from Croatia and provided the justification for the intervention by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

There are a number of striking parallels with the current efforts of Russia to take control of Crimea—here are key differences: In 1990/1 it was not clear that border changes within Yugoslavia or once republics left the federation would not be possible. It was only later that the principle of uti possidetis was transferred from decolonization to the post-communist context. Thus, while insurgent Serbs in 1990/1 could have a realistic hope of achieving recognition for their project, this seems unlikely today. However, the durability of frozen conflicts with territories with long-term uncertain international status in the post-Soviet space (unlike the post-Yugoslav space) suggest that Crimea can exist in international limbo like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

A parallel is the role of Putin’s Russia to that of Serbia under Milosevic: (Semi-)Authoritarian regimes use the conflict to bolster domestic legitimacy and are able to unify (at least briefly and publicly) the population behind a nationalist project. The claim that local authorities act autonomously were proven wrong in the Croat case through the ICTY and scholarship, and the limited information available in Crimea similarly suggests that the initiative comes from Moscow, not Crimea itself—which of course can feed of local grievances.

Finally, the weak response and lack of a clear strategy encourages such strategies to change the status quo by force. The weak response of the EU throughout the protests and in the aftermath the overthrow of Yanukovich only emboldened Putin, just like the weak EC and US response in the early 1990s encouraged the policies of Milošević.

What conclusions can we draw from these, arguably sketchy points of comparison? First, it is crucial for international actors to be engaged in crucial moments of revolution. Had there been stronger international engagement, it might have been possible to discourage the Ukrainian parliament from revoking the language law (the decision was vetoed by the president) that gave official status to Russian—irrespective of the substantive discussion one can have on it—the change of the law created real anxieties and also was a useful pretext. Second, the conflict will not go away by itself. There was nearly a year-long lull between the “log revolution” in 1990 and the full scale war in 1991. Similarly, the referendum in Crimea might lead to some new status quo that appears stabile, yet provides for a significant risk of escalation and also as a pivot for nationalist mobilization in both Russia and Ukraine. Third, in moments of confrontation it is easy to overlook the pluralism with countries, but it is important not think in absolutes: While Russia might appear to be a more unitary actor than the Ukraine, it would be wrong to take this as given or permanent (as it would suit Putin). In the Ukraine the success of protests can easily be jeopardized by the Crimea crisis. Nothing is as poisonous for democratization as a festering territorial dispute. Here the EU and the US would be well advised to act strongly and forcefully to help the new government move towards democracy and rule of law rather than dithering and then lamenting the failure of the new government. One concrete step for the EU would be to commit itself to the EU perspective for the Ukraine. This might seem ridiculously remote and undesirable for the EU now, but this is in fact already the case. A democratic Ukraine that fulfills the membership criteria can join, its location on the European continent is no doubt. Stating this clearly that, if it so desired, it can become a member, can provide for a strong incentive for change within and would be an appropriate acknowledgement of the risks the protestors took in recent months in Kiev and elsewhere.

Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Here is a comment I wrote for Balkan Insight on the recent referendum in Croatia. I have added two tables that compare support for EU membership and support for the constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

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Last Sunday Croatia held its third referendum in the last 23 years. In 1991 Croatian citizens voted whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman. Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two third majority. The referendum was in fact a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, all be it not in the constitution. Furthermore, there is no effort to move towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages. As a result the initiators of the referendum—a previously unknown ultra-conservative group “In the name of the family” (with support of the Catholic Church)—achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside decried the result as evidence of a conservative, backward looking Croatia. This is, however, is one-sided reading of the referendum.  Firstly, only ten European countries open marriage to same-sex couples, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Thus, Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states ban same-sex marriage, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA the main European group lobbying for equal rights of LGBT communities—measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes—Croatia ranked 13th among 49 countries in Europe, at similar levels to Austria, Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries of Central Europe except Hungary. Second, attitudes in Croatia are no particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians and opposition to opening marriage to homosexual is not particularly pronounced. There are few recent Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening marriage to homosexual couples, but Eurobarometer numbers from 2006 indicate that the levels of the referendum outcome are do not make Croatia a conservative outlier. A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) did find that Croatia ranks as the country with high level of LGBTs who experienced discrimination and harassment (60% experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year), only Latvia has a higher level. The levels are similar in Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the countries of the EU that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but largely reflected Central and Southern European patterns.  Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, only 37.9% voted, thus with support for the initiative at 65.87% only a quarter of all Croatian voters endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. (below is added to the Balkan Insight Comment). Here it is worthwhile looking the 2012 referendum joining the EU. (added to the Balkan Insight Comment). As the table below shows, the support for limiting marriage is not inversely related to support for EU across counties in Croatia. In most counties citizens supported both. The only places where we can identify a clear discrepancy are Istria and the region around Rijeka where a majority voted again the prohibition of same-sex marriage, but for the EU.

Croatian ref percent

If we look at absolute numbers, see table below, a similar pattern emerges that support for accession to the EU was not lower where support for the recent referendum was high. The only region that is striking here is Split, where in fact more people voted in favor of the ban than voted in favor of joining the EU.

Croatian ref numbers

Thus, while there is a clear regional pattern of support and rejection of the ban on same-sex marriage (with more liberal regions in Istria,around Rijeka, and to a lesser degree in Zagreb and Medjumurje and more conservative regions in Dalmatia), it would be wrong to assume a straightforward liberal-conservative divide that translates to Euroskepticism. A second point of comparison is turnout (continued from the Balkan Insight comment). Turn out at the referendum is not as low as it would seem. Turnout in 2012 on joining the EU was less than 7 percent higher, 946.433 voted in favor of the ban, some 1.299.008 voted for joining the EU. Referenda often have low turn outs as they are usually able only to mobilize voters who are concerned with the issue at stake. It would be thus a mistake to consider the turn out a failure for the church and the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia were able to gain main-stream support for a social issue, rather than a national issue. While popular support for “homeland war” can be more easily generated, Croatian society, as other post-Yugoslav societies, have been overall unresponsive to social conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past). The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or to gain a majority, but it can dictate the debate. Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning Cyrillic, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to by-pass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or their threat). Slovenia has had some similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that among others blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher (10% of all registered voters), but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less the evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia, but of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

The show will go on: EU enlargement and the new German government

Signing of the coalition agreement, 27.11.2013 (author:CDUCSU)

Last week the German SPD and CDU/CSU signed the agreement for forming a grand coalition. This 185 page long document sets out the agenda for the new government has been negotiated now for some 2 months. It also discusses EU enlargement, making it a key document in assessing the perspectives for the EU integration of the Western Balkans in the coming years. German is not just an important member state, but with 75 percent of Germans against enlargement in the coming years, the country with the highest number of enlargement skeptics. The section on enlargement (p. 165) towards the Western Balkans is just one paragraph long (part of one page on EU enlargement and Eastern partnership), here in the German original (it thus did not receive much attention in the German press covering the coalition agreement, see SZ, FAZ  and FR):

“Die Erweiterung der EU ist aktive europäische Friedenspolitik. Die bisherigen EU-Erweiterungen sind im Interesse Deutschlands und Europas. Wir stehen dazu, dass dieser Prozess unter strikter Beachtung der Beitrittskriterien fortgesetzt wird und die Staaten des Westlichen Balkans eine Beitrittsperspektive haben. Sowohl Serbien als auch Kosovo müssen ihre eingegangenen Verpflichtungen erfüllen. Wir wollen KFOR im Einklang mit der Sicherheitsentwicklung schrittweise reduzieren und zum Ab-schluss führen. Gemeinsam mit unseren Partnern und Verbündeten werden wir die Heranführung der Länder des Westlichen Balkans an EU und NATO aktiv vorantreiben. Für die EU-Erweiterung sind die Anwendung strenger Kriterien und klar überprüfbarer Fortschritte wichtig. Maßgeblich sind sowohl die Beitrittsfähigkeit der Kandidaten als auch die Aufnahmefähigkeit der Europäischen Union.”

In essence, it maintains the German committment to EU enlargement and describes it as a peace project and German and European interest. However, it also points out that the process shall continue “under strict observation of the accession criteria” and later once more “strict criteria and clearly identifiable progress. Essential is both the ability of the candidates to join, as well as the ability of the EU to absorb the countries”. As a result, the coalition agreement suggest that the new German government will pursue the enlargement as in recent years. The multiple references to strict criteria, visible progress and the absorption capacity of the EU all suggest that enlargement will remain difficult and Germany, reflecting the larger tendency of the EU for member states to get invovled in the enlargement process, will assess the readiness of countries seperate from the Commission.

Some change is though likely: the composition of the new government has not been announced yet, as the SPD members have to first vote on the coalition agreement, but traditionally the junior partner in coalitions holds the Foreign Ministry. It is likely that an SPD-led Foreign Ministry will be more supportive of EU enlargement than the previous FDP-led ministry. The coalition agreement, however does note, that all EU policy decisisons will be particularly coordinated by the government under leadership of the chancellor and vice-chancellor, so there will be little room for a different policy of the SPD. In addition, the short mention of enlargement does also serve as a reminder that it is a low priority for the new German government.

Europe’s racism: Blonde angles and closed borders

Two events have made me ashamed of being European in recent weeks. First, more than 300 human die in the waters of the Mediterranean of Lampedusa trying to reach Europe. Poor and persecuted, woman, men and and children drown in the sea. The response of many, including Italian prime minister was  shock and recognition of the tragedy. However, the only policy response was muddled and shameful: it is about strengthening Europe’s borders. The stated goal is to also prevent people smuggling, but it is cynical to respond to the death of migrants with stronger controls.

Just a few days ago, European media, from Greece to Britain reported about a ‘blond angel’ found in a Roma camp in Greece. The immediate assumption of the many media reports was that the child, who was not biologically related to her parents, was abducted and that it must have been from Scandinavia or somewhere north due to the blonde hair and green eyes. The racist imaginary in these reports is striking on many levels. Besides (mostly unconsciously) drawing on old stereotypes about Roma abducting non-Roma children, it assumes that blonds cannot be Roma and the assumption that the child was used by the family. While European media might have been more sensitive if the case had involved Jews, Roma remain fair game for such stereotypes.

Much attention is paid when Front Nationale wins a by-election or the Freedom Party does well in Austria. However, the real worry should be elsewhere, the racism of the media that seem acceptable and the willingness of Europe to let refugees drown off its shore to protect some imaginary splendid isolation. Both events highlight that isolationism and xenophobia are no longer a national concern, but a European one and that just being European (and favoring European integration) is not enough. Europe needs a debate about racism and how we marginalize millions of Roma (and others) in our midst and we need a debate about migration and how Europe has become an immigrant society and how it needs to confront refugees risking their lives and often lots of money to get to Europe not with more border controls, but with more openness and support for those in need.

Notes from Ditchley

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I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

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The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

The Debate continues: Serbian membership of the EU or EEA?

As a follow up to my comment on Boris Begovićs suggestion that Serbia should join the EEA rather than the EU, NIN has published a series of responses. These include a clarification by Boris Begović, a comment by Boško Mijatović sand Miroslav Jovanović. The latter two I am including below.

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I am pleased that NIN is glad to see a debate gowing, so there will be further comments by Suzana Grubišić, the Minister for EU Integration and a representative of the EU delegation.

Quiet interestingly, this debate is going on in parallel with the debate of the UK-exit/referendum. Here, similar arguments have been made about the Norwegian model. Here, a comment published on Open Democracy is instructive, as it makes some similar arguments I am making for Serbia. Below is my response for NIN in a slightly longer version than the Serbian text that will be published shortly.

I am glad that my response to Boris Begović’s article has triggered a number of responses and is leading to a useful exchange. However, I regret that sometimes the tone of the responses descends to insinuations that is neither helpful not appropriate. I used the term “shortcut” for membership in the EEA, not because of some kind of Balkan stereotype, but simply because EU membership and the negotiations require profound reforms that are crucially important for Serbia. The alternative proposed by Boris Begović is to me neither realistic nor desirable.

Miroslav N. Jovanović suggests that the EU is not very attractive, with foreign debts rising, agriculture destroyed and people migrating. This is a very one-sided view. The foreign debt in new member state did not rise because of EU membership, but due to the global economic crisis. The fact that people migrated is also in part a result of EU membership and not necessary a loss for a country (he should know better, being a UN diplomat in Switzerland) : many have come back with money and new skills, as has been the case with Poles that left for the UK in 2004 and came back.

Of course, the EU and the members have many problems. However, to blame the EU for all of them is simplistic. While many EU citizens are skeptical towards the EU, and despite having undergone a deep crisis, only the Great Britain and Eurosceptic parties on the extreme left or right are playing with the idea of leaving the EU. This is telling that most EU citizens consider it better than any alternative.

Second, let me know outline why I think EEA-EFTA membership is not a likely alternative for Serbia.  Boško Mijatović is right to point out that EFTA has signed a free trade agreement with Serbia. However, this is not evidence for a possible Serbian membership. Some 33 countries around the world have also signed a Free Trade Agreement with EFTA, including Columbia, Ukraine, Mexico and Singapore, hardly plausible candidates for EFTA membership.

The 2012 EU report on relations with Norway, the most important EEA partner, notes that “EEA membership entails either EFTA or EU membership. Until now, the EFTA states have not wanted to enlarge EFTA.”  Thus, unlikely the EU which has a commitment to enlargement, EFTA has none. It is thus hard to see why EEA membership is more likely than EU membership.

In addition, the responses suggest that the EU is setting unfair political conditions that Serbia is unwilling to fulfill (the only concrete example given is Kosovo). It is not clear why the authors believe that the EU member state would not insist on these conditions to join EEA. Consider that membership in the EEA entails freedom of movement: i.e. citizens can take a job anywhere in the EEA, one can expect EU member state setting high criteria, including political demands.

Next, does EEA membership reflect Serbia national interests? Being an EEA member means that much of EU law needs to be implemented, but there is no ability to influence the content. The relationship is not that different than during the accession when future members adopt laws, but don’t sit at the negotiating table. It is no surprise that the EU noted that the “EEA Agreement is best suited to small states, which are accustomed to having to adapt to others and have no particular desire to influence developments in Europe.” I also do not consider the EU to be a ‘humanitarian organisation’, but the EU provides substantial financial support to many member state that, if well used, can have tremendous impact.

Finally, Kosovo. Boško Mijatović suggest that EU is a good trader and demands that Serbia gives up part of its territory for nothing in return. Two points :  The EU  has not demanded Serbia to recognize Kosovo. The EU has asked for the normalization of relations which does not need to entail recognition. While some individual officials from EU member states have asked for Serbia’s full recognition, this is NOT EU policy. Second, some of the polemics and other comments suggest that Serbia has to ‘give up’ Kosovo for the EU. Who is being unrealistic now? Kosovo is not under Serbian control (except 15% in the North), it is recognized by nearly 100 UN members around the world. Kosovo’s independence is a fact and will not go away. It is good advice of the EU to Serbia to come to terms with this reality. It seems a folly to foresake EU membership for the fiction of Kosovo. This brings me to the comment by Miroslav N. Jovanović.  His suggestion that the EU would ask for an independent Vojvodina or “Raška” is totally unfounded and belongs to the horror cabinet of extreme nationalist ideology and merits no further comment.  His argument that there are 1890 possibilities of a veto and thus it is hopeless to even start negotiations is unfounded. First, his math is wrong, because from July 2013, there will be 28 member states, not 27. Croatia had 1890 possible vetoes and it took 5 ½ years (October 2005 to June 2011) to conclude its negotiations. That is long (too long), but not impossible. Yes, Kosovo will make it more difficult for Serbia, but there is no reason to believe that negotiations would take substantially longer.

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