The Sultanate of Europe

Let EU envelop the Balkans.

By Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

Los Angeles Times

April 14, 2005

It is remarkable how many of the most pressing problems for today's Europe can be traced back to the tangled web of ethnicities, polities and religions that the Ottoman Empire left behind. Superimpose a map of today's flashpoints on the outline of the 16th century realm of Suleiman the Magnificent: It's a pretty good fit. It embraced what we now call the Balkans, a term that has become a synonym for war and ethnic conflict, but also Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. It ran down the edge of the Red Sea to Yemen and along the coast of North Africa, from Egypt to Algeria.

For the problems resulting from Israel's presence in the Mideast we have only ourselves and Adolf Hitler to blame, but for the rest: thanks, Suleiman.

Now a new independent commission, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, has come up with an answer for at least part of Suleiman's legacy. Noting that violence broke out between Serbians and Albanians in Kosovo only last spring, and that unemployment there runs at more than 60%, the commission insists that the current patchwork of weak states and EU protectorates in the Balkans is unsustainable.

For the commission, the EU's choice is simple: enlargement or empire. Either we in the EU accept that we will have virtual colonies in our Balkan backyard for decades, or we start preparing for the Balkans to join the European Union. The commission comes out decisively for enlargement.

A single Bosnian state can, the commission believes, be made to work, provided that it has a clear opportunity for EU membership. That, and that alone, will furnish a sufficiently large incentive for Bosnia's ethnic Serbians, Croatians and "Bosniaks" (that is, more or less, Muslim Bosnians) to cooperate. Meanwhile, Serbia and Montenegro should make up its mind whether it wants to come in as one state or two.

Most ingenious is the proposed solution for Kosovo. This proceeds in four stages, from the current ambiguous status as a province of Serbia and Montenegro run by the U.N. and NATO, through "independence without full sovereignty" — allowing for powers to be reserved to the international community in respect of human rights and minority protection — to "guided sovereignty" as the EU engages in accession talks, and then to the final nirvana of "shared sovereignty," as enjoyed (or not) by current members of the EU.

This is not nation building, or even state building, but a very special European version: member state building. If this plan is followed, as it should be, a place like Kosovo will never experience classic "national independence." Instead, it will be like a young adult passing in carefully supervised stages from the family home to a cozy marriage.

The commission poses the choice for the EU as enlargement or empire, but seen from Kosovo, one could also say "from empire to empire." For the European Union is also a kind of empire, a modern — or, according to some, a postmodern — version not of the centralized Roman or British empires, but of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, with most of the effective power held by its constituent parts. And what is proposed here is that Europe's new empire should absorb the remains of Suleiman's empire. That becomes clear if you add the EU's intention to take in the heartland of the Ottomans, now called Turkey.

This is heady stuff. The European Parliament on Wednesday gave the green light for Bulgaria and Romania to join the EU in 2007. With Croatia, Turkey and the rest of the Balkans, this would mean that in 10 years the European Union would contain 35 member states and perhaps 600 million people, of whom nearly one in six would be Muslim. And that's not counting East European aspirants, such as Ukraine after its "Orange Revolution," and Belarus and Moldova after what we must hope will be their (yet to be color-coded) velvet revolutions. Nor does it include any of the successor states of the Ottoman Empire in the Mideast or North Africa, although Morocco has in the past asked if it could apply. (For them, the EU would have to develop a neighborhood policy that does not depend on the promise of eventual membership.)

The irony is this: At the same time as people around the borders of this new-style empire are crying, "Take us in! Colonize us!" the member states at its core are questioning its raison d'etre. The two things are causally connected. It's partly because the EU may take in Turkey that the French may vote no to the EU's constitutional treaty at the end of next month.

Thus far, enlargement has strengthened, not weakened, the EU. But at some point, continuous extension must end up weakening the union. If Washington has to watch out for "imperial overstretch," so does Brussels. If the European Union were to include all the remains of the Ottoman Empire, it might end up sharing the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Yet the logic of the Amato commission is irresistible. In the Balkans, the choice is Europe or war.

We talk a lot these days about a Pax Americana, as a successor to the Pax Romana. The United States played a vital role in bringing peace to the Balkans in the 1990s and could help keep the peace there now by supporting NATO enlargement. But a Pax Americana is not a possibility in Europe's backyard. This one is up to us. Isn't the prospect of a Pax Europeana, embracing the whole continent, worth the undoubted risk?