The Polish Sejm has passed a Law at the beginning of this year, which makes it illegal to blame Poles for any crime committed during the Nazi occupation. Even though it also covers crimes committed during the Communist era (and war crimes by Ukrainian nationalists), it came to be known as “The Holocaust Law” in the debate that it sparked all around the world. This shows not only the sensitivity of the topic of the Holocaust, but also that 73 years after the victory over the Nazis, it seems the different Holocaust narratives are rather dividing than uniting Europe. Can, and should a consensus be reached when it comes to Holocaust memory? Or is the motto united in diversity a legitimate solution for the European memory? Especially the latest EU-enlargement challenges the concept of a common European memory, as the Western countries have agreed on their memory more or less, while new members have not been included yet, and bring other, fresher memories to the table: the communist past. Considering that the Holocaust, however, is said to be part of the European memory as negative founding myth, in cooperating Eastern narratives and agreeing on what and how the Holocaust is to be remembered is an integral part of the integration process. Continue reading “Interpreting the Polish “Holocaust Law””→
As students of Europe, we like to believe we have a good grasp on the history and political development of the continent. Too often, however, we have been educated from a singular perspective, one that rarely includes the perspective of what we have labeled “the East”. The tragedy of Central Europe, as Milan Kundera once called it, is not that the Soviet Union gobbled up so much of the continent after World War II, but rather that “the West” allowed such a massive piece of its cultural heritage to slip away. One of the most common things Euroculture students say after spending a semester in Olomouc is, “I never knew.” “I never knew about Václav Havel.” “I never knew about the Prague Spring.” “I never knew about Tomáš Masaryk.”
The Euroculture program, however, is fortunate enough to have among its professors Josef Jařab, a person with a keen memory and a knack for being around at the turning points of history. Professor Jařab, or JJ as he is more commonly known among Euroculturers, is a professor, former rector and dissident who calls Olomouc his home. We sat down with JJ to speak to him about his life, the Velvet Revolution, and lessons we should be taking from Central Europe.
A Central European Story
Born in 1937 in the Silesian region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, JJ’s life has been studded with academic and literary accomplishment. He glibly refers to his birth as his first major achievement; he somehow managed to be born full term only three months after his parents’ marriage: “It usually takes nine months! My first surprising sort of record was to make it in three or four months.” This, he told me, is why he is so famous in Olomouc.
All joking aside, JJ’s reputation in Olomouc – and throughout Central Europe – truly does precede him. At the risk of turning this article into a listicle of defining moments, I would like to mention a few that stand out. Throughout the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia, JJ worked to bring Western culture beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, he led the students in Olomouc to a similar revolution. On the day he was officially fired by Palacký University, he became its first freely elected Rector. He was a close friend to Olga and Václav Havel, served as rector of the Central European University and as a Senator of the Czech Parliament and pursues, to this day, his passion for poetry, literature and jazz. This, too, is a fitting profile for a Czech revolutionary; the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution were, after all, not driven by activists or the overtly politically minded, but by the writers, the students, the poets, the actors.Continue reading “Professor Jařab & the Velvet Revolution: “Freedom is a Sleeping Beauty””→
Imagine how the map of the European Union could look like in 2030. A compact conglomerate of Member States, with only two small black holes – Switzerland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Oh, three actually: Great Britain will have become the third one by that year.
While the UK is slowly putting out to the sea, definitively leaving the well-known harbor of the European Union, there are some countries which are struggling to join those that might seem safe and still waters. Lucky for them, they do not have to cross any stormy sea, as they are in the heart of the continent. According to the captains, the first Balkan ships should enter the EU in 2025 if nothing goes wrong during the remaining voyage. But bad weather seems to be a permanent feature of the European political scene and by that time the secure Union could have become an even more troubled and tempestuous harbor unprepared to welcome the newcomers.
At the moment, the incoming fleet counts six components. While Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina still hold the position of potential candidates, Albania and the FYR Macedonia already have the candidate status; Serbia and Montenegro are progressing with accession negotiations and thus are at the forefront in the path towards the European harbor.
Apparently, Serbia and Montenegro now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a very long one. The integration process of Western Balkan countries has been on the European agenda since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Afterwards, stabilization and association agreements have entered into force with all six partners. However, expected progress has faltered. Enlargement has been hindered by numerous hitches, including the slow pace of reforms and economic growth, the influence of external actors such as Russia and Turkey, together with problems both in the domestic and European contexts.
2018 might prove a pivotal year in this long and turbulent voyage. Enlargement in the Balkans is one of the priorities of Bulgarian Presidency at the Council of the EU and in May a summit will be organized in Sofia for Western Balkan countries – for the first time since 2003. This new wave of engagement could lead to advances in each country’s process. Continue reading “A Bridge over Troubled Water: The Balkans and the EU”→
I remember it well: some time ago in England, while skimming through the pages of a history magazine, between stories about the Tudors and the War of the Roses, my eyes stopped on a spread with a blood-red background and a large portrait of Stalin. It was an article on the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Despite the fact that such a tragic topic would make you think more of paying tribute to all the victims, that flash red colour seemed to me, a native of the post-Soviet country of Kazakhstan, more ominous than mournful. In Kazakh media, you would rather see images of warriors who fought against fascism than a portrait of Stalin.
That was perhaps the first time I had the chance to look at the country I was born in from the other side of the Iron Curtain. This got me thinking about the drastic contrast between what I am used to accentuate in Soviet heritage and what mental images dominate in minds of those who often ground their opinions on external, non-endogenous, sources. And, more importantly, this brought me to a question: what do those sources tell us about the standpoints of those who once selected them? Continue reading “The Soviet Union Through European Eyes?”→
After President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finished his third State of the European Union speech on the 13th of September, the thing that stood out to most people was the almost unchecked optimism in his message compared to his gloomy address last year, when – in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum – the general sense that the EU was heading to imminent disintegration seemed all too real. According to Juncker, the EU now has “wind in our sails” and he urged to “make the most of the momentum”. He did so by proposing a wide range of initiatives, some bolder than others, but all encapsulating this sense of optimism and determination. Nothing showed this more clearly than Juncker’s reluctance to talk about Brexit – the hour-long speech devoted only one minute to the painful issue. The looming threat of inertia and disaster that marked the State of the Union speech in 2016 seems to be replaced by a general sense of growth and hope. How can it be that the tables have turned so drastically in only a year? And is this truly the state of today’s Union?
The State of the Union speech is – in a true European fashion – a product of import. In the United States, the State of the Union is an annual event that is deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. In Europe it was only introduced in 2010, when the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the President of the European Commission must address the European Parliament annually to reflect on and discuss the successes and failures of the European Union in the year before, in order to stimulate transparency and democracy in the European political arena. Continue reading “Blowing the wind into your own sails – Juncker’s State of the European Union”→
A country on the brink of a famine. With a population of 27 million, 18 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Three million have been forced to flee their homes. An estimated 10,000 are dead. Serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law have been made. It is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the twenty-first century. Yet no one is talkingabout it. The Yemeni war began with a bang, but has quietly slipped through our media. The occasional news report here and there highlights what horrendous times the country is facing and the suffering endured by what is left of its population. But the crisis is largely ignored by the West.
Surprisingly, a politician who has come under intense scrutiny, Boris Johnson, has been the politician to question Saudi Arabia’s motives and actions in the war. Johnson recently criticised Saudi Arabia’s involvement but quickly came under fire by his own party. Despite having personal views that conflict with the party lines, it is evident that the man who gave the US State Department the biggest smile, is indeed one of the few politicians in the West, who is showing leadership. Despite stating that the party’s views do not align with Johnson’s, some Conservative party figures defended him as well as some from the opposition. Unfortunately, the spotlight will shine on the Yemeni war only if public figures will speak out about the horrific events taking place in Yemen. With Saudi money invested in many powerful Western nations, especially in England and the USA, it is a breath of fresh air that not all politicians turn a blind eye to the silently reported catastrophic war in Yemen. Continue reading “Has the West forgotten the war in Yemen?”→
If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”
My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events.
On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”
I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.
I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?
So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?
A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit. Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.
A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.
We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.
Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.
“Brexit”. The search results for this term in Google immediately direct us to its implications for the national and global economy, for the European Union’s (EU’s) solidarity, its potential misuse by growing populist parties, and how the United Kingdom (UK) can deal with the fallout of its choices. There have been numerous discussions on Brexit’s implications for ‘the Union’, ‘the UK’, ‘the economy, ‘trade’, and ‘agreements’. Yet these multiple problem-areas so carefully delivered to us by the media have overlooked Brexit’s effect on one of the UK’s minority groups; the Roma population. Not only has it overlooked it, it has resulted in the sustenance of a European discourse that continues to exclude the Roma, as illustrated by the scarce media attention paid to how Brexit affects this community. One needs to actively search to find the few articles which discuss this issue. This highlights how the discussions surrounding Brexit have failed to include the concerns of the Roma community.
The fear of exclusion and discrimination that the Roma community now faces in the UK since Brexit is unnerving, particularly if the UK takes the same approach towards dealing with the Roma population as it has in the past. For instance, the UK’s 2012 report on ‘Creating the Conditions of Integration’ had no reference to the Roma, as it puts Irish Travelers, Gypsies and the Roma in the same category. The compartmentalization of minority groups with different needs into one homogenous category is not only misleading, but points towards a lack of attention or concern for the Roma community by the UK government. Continue reading “Can the Roma Speak? Roma in the UK in the aftermath of Brexit”→
“The democratic revolution has begun”, proclaimed politician Thierry Baudet after the April 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine met the minimum threshold of votes and showed a decisive ‘no’ to the agreement. But so far, the referendum has not set off a revolution. In fact, until now the Dutch government has constantly delayed or deferred from acting upon the outcome of the referendum. This reluctance to respect the referendum result has grave implications for the legitimacy of governance and will only spark a further rise of populism in the Dutch political arena. The government needs to act, or the parliamentary elections in 2017 could see a landslide win for populist parties.
The response of the Dutch government to the outcome of the referendum has been characterized by deferral and inaction. The referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine differs in one great aspect from the other referenda we have seen in Europe this year. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK and the refugee referendum in Hungary, the Dutch referendum was a bottom-up initiative and was neither initiated nor wanted by the Dutch government. The government never took the referendum seriously and was not willing or capable of effectively campaigning for a Yes vote for the Association Agreement. Hence, after the result was announced it took the government by surprise. This can be seen in the reluctance of the government to act upon the outcome. Continue reading “The ignored revolution: The Dutch referendum crisis”→
Today Italians will be called to cast their vote on the constitutional reform promoted by the government of centre left politician Matteo Renzi. The citizens will have to decide with a simple YES or NO, whether to approve the changes to the Constitution laid down in the Boschi draft law. The reform has been approved by the Parliament, but it can enter into force only if the referendum succeeds. For this plebiscite there is no quorum: whatever the turnout, the result will decide the future of the Italian Constitution.
In this article I will tell you why Italians should vote NO:
It is not a clear and comprehensible reform, as it is written so as not to be understood. It is not an innovative reform, since it preserves and strengthens the central government at the expense of self-government.
Regarding political participation and citizen initiatives, the proposed reform fails to expand the direct participation of citizens, since it increases from 50,000 to 150,000, the amount of signatures necessary for a citizens initiative. For abrogative referendums the quorum will be lower but even in this case the signatures needed will mushroom from 500,000 to 800,000.
The most significant change will be the reduction of parliamentarians and consequent cost cutting if YES wins. In this case, the future Senate will not have 315 members elected directly by citizens, but will consist of only 100 members: 74 will be appointed within the various Regional Councils with a proportional basis according to population and the votes taken by the parties, while 21 will be chosen by the Regional Councils between the mayors of the region (each region will have a mayor representing, while the Trentino Alto Adige will have two – why is this region so different from the others?). Each senator will hold his or her chair for the duration of his or her administrative mandate and will not receive any compensation for their parliamentary activities. The 5 remaining senators will be appointed by the President of the Republic and hold office for seven years. The office of Senator for Life will remain in force only for ex-Presidents of the Republic and for those who already hold it. However, the new draft law does not effectively reduce the cost of politics. Indeed, the Senate costs are reduced by only one fifth, and if the problem is the cost, why not to halve the Chamber of Deputies instead? See next point.
The costs saved are not so impressive: There is no denying that the reduction in the number of Senators will lower the cost of politics, but not as much as is suggested. A reduction in the number of Deputies or a simple ordinary law regarding a reduction in the amount of salaries of parliamentarians would be far more effective.
Elimination of perfect bicameralism: The Senate is not abolished, but only revised: you switch from a perfect bicameralism to a bicameralism ‘confused’ by conflicts not only between the two wings of the Parliament, but also between state and regions.
Abolition of constitutional bodies: The Renzi-Boschi constitutional reform provides for the abolition of the National Council of Economy and Labour (CNEL). CNEL is an advisory assembly of experts for the Italian Government, Parliament and Regions, and has the right to promote legislative initiatives, limited to economic and social subjects. Its suppression will be a loss for economic democracy.
Confusion: This reform, despite its promotion, does not produce simplification as it multiplies by ten legislative processes in Italian government and increases the confusion.
Government stability: It is not true that there will be more stability in Government as a result of the proposed reform. In fact, if the majorities in the Chamber (of Deputies) and Senate will be different, the latter, using different instruments, may still hinder the legislative activities of the lower chamber.
If the Constitutional Referendum should return a majority of votes for NO, the Renzi government could fall. It is difficult to predict how Renzi would manage a defeat for his flagship reform. However, if citizens do not recognize as legitimate one of the main points of the current government’s program, their representatives in Parliament would hardly be able ignore the political significance of the result. It would open the possibility of a motion of no confidence in the government.
The Euroculturer would like to thank Vittoria Valentina Di Gennaro for the contribution of this piece. Vittoria is a young communications specialist focused on European affairs. Originally from Italy, this piece is her own, informed opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Euroculturer Magazine or its staff.