Ahead of the Primary Elections in the US: The Status Quo and Revolution

By Nemanja Milosevic

The Democratic primary season in the US has started, and different candidates have lined up with a message “I can beat Donald Trump”. Getting Trump out of office has become a goal not only of the democrats, who are opposing this president more than any other “ideological rival” in recent history but also of many centrist, independents and some republicans. The fear and frustration are expressed by many of my friends from the US, who in a recent conversation confessed that they have not been so scared, they are tired of hearing about physical attacks at people of different identities, racist politics, divisiveness, and many other things that characterize the Trump presidency. This frustration is expressed by one of my friends who is in his twenties, who is tired of the tensions in the current political climate and who would rather go and spend time abroad.

Another friend, who in the previous elections supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, because she can get things done (an argument used by many Democratic voters in the 2016 Democratic Primaries), now supports candidates who are proposing more leftist policies, like Elizabeth Warren. He is frustrated that he cannot have things in his country, probably the richest country in the history of the world, that are common and exist in other developed countries for decades.

Redefining what it means to be a Democrat

Economic liberties, small government and promotion of private ownership have for a long time been a symbol of US politics and ideology, which was part of the so-called American dream, where your entrepreneurial skills and hard work can get you up the ladder and improve your lifestyle significantly.

That has become difficult with the acceleration of globalization processes, Amazon getting benefits such as a total tax exemption made impossible for any other business to compete on the market. Job automatization, trade agreements and outsourcing of jobs left many people unemployed and wealth inequality has surged. Unemployment among young people is increasing and it is now expected that for the first time in modern history, a generation of children will be worse off socially and economically that their parents [1].

All that leads to a change in mainstream politics, where calling someone a socialist is not an insult in the US any longer. The last time a centrist democrat was elected a president was in 2012, and since there have been seven generations of young Americans who have entered the political process by turning 18 and getting the right to vote. That changed the political landscape so much that someone like Bernie Sanders, a socialist democratic candidate in 2016 got so close to beating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. The ideas that he then presented, that many called radical socialist ones, such as a universal healthcare plan, commonly known as Medicare for All, are now widely accepted, not only by young liberal democrats but by Americans in general [2]. Other policies that Bernie introduced three years ago also got mainstream appeal – student debt cancelation, publicly funded higher education and a 15$-per-hour minimum wage.

Identifying candidates: From Left to Center

The ideas that Sanders presented during the last primaries and the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the general election have changed the approach of the Democratic Party establishment and had a large influence on the candidates that entered the race this time. It was obvious from the early stage that Sanders has moved the bar to the left, when normally known centrist democrats presented some policies mimicking those of Sanders, but with enough back-tracking to satisfy both the donors (necessary for financing campaigns in the States, and who are usually against policies such as those of Sanders) and the changing democratic base that overwhelmingly supports the turn to the left.

Confronted with these new progressive candidates made Sanders move further to the left, thus changing his rhetoric and policies to the extremes (such as the plan to combat global warming worth 16 trillion dollars, in comparison to the one of Elizabeth Warren worth 2 trillion $). He has now come out as an anti-establishment candidate [3], recognizing the damage he suffered the last time by the DNC (Democratic National Committee) that ran the primary season heavily favoring Clinton, and he is calling out the establishment media [4] that has a clear bias against him [5], such as The Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the company that is often under fire by the Sanders campaign. Another thing that changed since the last time he ran is the campaign and the outreach to different demographics, which was something he was heavily criticized for. Having people of different backgrounds on key positions in his campaign brought him popularity among young voters of color [6].

Candidate next in line on the progressive side after Bernie would be Elizabeth Warren, drawing a lot of inspiration from the Sanders’ campaign in 2016, just without renouncing corporatism, the Democratic establishment, and the media. She appeals largely to the white, college-educated voters [7], which may have something to do with the fact that she was a university professor and has detailed and precise plans and policies to introduce proposals such as Medicare for All or free college (opposite from Sanders, who uses more populist language to explain and propose similar things).

On the more centrist side, we have Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg (more candidates would fall into this category, but their polling numbers are too low). Harris is a Democratic establishment and media darling, former prosecutor and a talented debater. Other than that, her campaign is failing to maintain cohesion throughout the process, as she flip-flops on many issues, most probably based on what is popular in the polls or with donors. Most notably, she changed her opinion on Medicare for All, and although she co-sponsored the Sanders’ bill, she now backtracks as it becomes obvious that she cannot compete with Warren and Sanders in that arena and has no chance of attracting the progressive base. One of the things that negatively affect her popularity is her record as a prosecutor, as pointed out in the second debate by another candidate – her work as a prosecutor affected negatively and to a large extent the black community in California, where she worked.

Biden and Buttigieg are other centrist candidates that run on moderate policies and realistic solutions, which goes along with the idea of bringing the divided country back together, which for more progressive thinkers and politicians means that they are ready to succumb to Republicans and not fight for things that the Democratic base wants and needs.

Electability

One thing that is on everyone’s mind is electability. It does not matter who has better policies, but who can beat Trump. This is also the argument that even the Biden’s wife used to promote him on one occasion, she claims that although he might not be the best on policies such as Medicare for All, he is the one that can beat Trump in general elections (I assume it is due to name recognition, as he was a vice of a very popular president) and thus deserves everyone’s support [8]. I would argue that this claim is debatable, as Biden exposed several weaknesses that someone as unscrupulous and vicious as Trump can use easily in the debates. Those being claims of several women that Biden touched them inappropriately and countless verbal gaffes that Biden had (the most notable one being the gaffe in one speech where he said that poor kids are just as bright as white kids, when wanting to say wealthy kids [9]).

The danger that lays there is that Trump can easily downplay his sexual misconducts and racism by claiming that the Democratic candidate expresses the same behavior (Biden also bragged about working with segregationists in the past, which drew critiques from other candidates of color and civil rights movements). Other than that, it would be a great risk having a centrist candidate that does not excite the base – his rallies attract smaller and more inert crowds when compared to some candidates who poll way lower than him at the moment. If we consider 2016 as an experiment of how would a centrist candidate measure against Trump, we can conclude that Biden might not be the best choice.

Both Sanders and Warren show great potential to beat Trump by a large margin, as some current polls may suggest. I think that is crucial to go with a more progressive candidate in general elections, especially the one that dedicates his/her political activity to issues that concern the part of the population that is hurt by the globalized economy, neo-conservative measures and the strong relationship between political establishment and corporations. Recent poll showed that 90% of voters identifying themselves as Republicans think that Trump is still doing a great job [10], so going with a centrist because he/she can gather support from democrats and republicans who do not like Trump would not work, since that would alienate a large portion of progressive voters and not attract enough republican voters.

Between the two progressive candidates, they both have good things to offer. Warren would be the first female president, a progressive one and with detailed plans and policies proving that everything she proposes is meticulously planned. On the other hand, she suffered an incident when she claimed that she has Native-American origin, followed by a DNA test that showed that she is only an insignificant fraction a Native-American. This backfired when Trump called her out on it and gave her the nickname “Pocahontas” [11]. She has apologized since, but still shows the inability to confront that incident when asked.

Unlike Harris or Sanders, she has not shown yet skills that she could use in a confrontation with Trump. She did well and could be named a winner of both democratic debates, but lacks the audacity that Sanders expresses, for example. In a recent tweet, Sanders called Trump “an idiot”, and has shown in many cases that he can be loud and eloquent at the same time, which are the skills that could benefit someone going against Trump. Recent research showed that Republican candidates tend to use nouns phrases that work efficiently in a political debate, as they “essentializing”, they appear to express an indisputable feature,

and that is how nicknames that Trump assigns to his opponents work [12]. “Sleepy Joe”, “Crazy Bernie” and “Pocahontas” are nicknames that Trump has for top Democratic candidates, and it is very important to have an opponent who can go against a bully, as campaign for this general election would not be a typical, solely policy-based one (which is a style of debate where Warren excels).

It is still early on in the primary season to make any firm claim, but it is important to recognize mistakes from 2016 and do everything possible to avoid them this time, especially the ones that DNC has power over. It is important to present a candidate that can excite the base – the Democratic, not the moderate Republican one – challenges the dominant narrative (and avoid going back to status quo), has oratory skills to go against a bully and has a clean record (avoiding affairs such as Hilary’s emails or Benghazi). In any event, a recent poll shows that support for Biden decreases, while for Sanders and Warren surges [13]. We could say that so far things are going well.

Featured picture: President of the United States Donald J. Trump at CPAC 2017 February 24th 2017 by Michael Vadon

References

[1] Charles Hymas, More than two thirds of millennials believe their generation will be “worse off “ than their parents’. Guardian. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/07/two-thirds-millennials-believe-generation-will-worse-parents/

[2] Megan Keller, Seventy percent of Americans support “Medicare for all”; in new poll. The Hill. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/403248-poll-seventy-percent-of-americans-support-medicare-for-all

[3] The Beat With Ari Melber, Sanders Campaign Unloads On Dem “Establishment”: Be “Terrified”. MSNBC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CN_1skpp8cA

[4] John Nichols, Bernie Sanders Is As Frustrated as Ever With Corporate Media, The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/bernie-sanders-corporate-media/

[5] Adam Johnson, Washington Post Ran 16 Negative Stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 Hours, Fair.org. https://fair.org/home/washington-post-ran-16-negative-stories-on-bernie-sanders-in-16-hours/

[6] Hunter Walker, Bernie Sanders campaign touts its diversity and fights “the narrative of 2016”;. Yahoo! News. https://news.yahoo.com/bernie-sanders-campaign-touts-diversity-fights-narrative-2016-194035907.html?

[7] Ed Kilgore, Elizabeth Warren’s Struggle to Draw Black Voters Is a Big Problem. New York Intelligencer. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/elizabeth-warren-is-struggling-to-draw-black-voters.html

[8] John Wagner, Jill Biden urges support for husband even if voters consider their candidates ‘better’ on the issues. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/jill-biden-urges-support-for-husband-even-if-other-democrats-are-better-on-the-issues/2019/08/20/e9fb1738-c33a-11e9-b72f-b31dfaa77212_story.html

[9] Matt Viser and John Wagner, Biden tells minority voters in Iowa that ‘poor kids’ are just as bright as ‘white kids’. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-tells-minority-voters-in-iowa-that-poor-kids-are-just-as-bright-as-white-kids/2019/08/09/4926be02-ba8e-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html

[10] Stephanie Mencimer, 90 Percent of Republicans Still Think Trump Is Doing a Great Job. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/05/90-percent-of-republicans-still-think-trump-is-doing-a-great-job/

[11] Ed O’keefe, Elizabeth Warren publicly apologizes for first time over controversial DNA test, CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/elizabeth-warren-apology-controversial-dna-test-native-american-heritage-2019-08-19/

[12] Colby Itkowitz, ‘Little Marco,’ ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ ‘Crooked Hillary:’ How Donald Trump makes name calling stick, The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/04/20/little-marco-lying-ted-crooked-hillary-donald-trumps-winning-strategy-nouns/

[13] Grace Sparks, Monmouth poll: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren in three-way lead for Democratic bid, CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/26/politics/monmouth-august-democrats-biden-warren-sanders/index.html

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HK Protest – Not Only about An Extradition Bill

Bruce Lee once shared his philosophy with others: “Be formless, be shapeless, like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”  This Hong Kong-American actor would not expect that 47 years after his death his philosophy of life would be adopted by protesters in Hong Kong against their own government.

After a tear gas grenade been hurled towards the protesting crowds, two masked protesters quickly covered the smoking grenade with a traffic corn and poured the bottled water through the hole on top of it to put out the smoke, as if they had been trained to deal with tear shell for a long time. In the meantime, other gathered protesters started drawing back with opening umbrellas in their hands pointing at the police force in case of more tear bombs. They moved together towards the next neighbouring street. This scene has been happening everywhere in Hong Kong for more than five months already. 

The protest that involved more than millions of people in Hong Kong has become the largest uprising so far against local government and Beijing authorities in the back. Unlike the last big scale protest broke out in 2014, so called the Umbrella Revolution, where people occupied all central areas of the city and refused to leave, this time Hongkongers learned their lessons and became more flexible. They haunted in every corner of the city and once they met the police they strategically pulled out and moved to another “battleground”, formless and shapeless, “like water”, as Bruce Lee said.

The starting point of this protest on an unprecedented scale is an Amendment. Three months ago the HK government tried to push ahead with an Amendment of the existing extradition law titled Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, in which it was regulated that in the future the fugitives arrested in Hong Kong can be extradited to Macau, Taiwan, and most controversially, Mainland China.

On June 9th, around one million people occupied the street with signs written NO CHINA EXTRADITION in their hands. However, in the following days as the police started shooting tear gas bombs and rubber bullets towards gathered crowds, the peaceful protests escalated to a series of riots quickly. Soon, the situation further deteriorated while the protesters blocked the HK airport and a mainland China journalist was beaten up by angry protesters. The relative video went viral on Chinese social media Weibo and stirred up the anger from Chinese side and resulted in a huge and still on-going online flame war between HK and mainland China people.

However, although the protestors’ emotional and violent actions at the airport and their decision to block the whole airport, which led to thousands of passengers stranded at the airport, are debatable, it is inappropriate simply defining this pro-democracy protest as a sinister interference by Western Powers that tried to “subvert China’s political system” nor defining the protesters as “rioters” or even “terrorists”, as stated by Chinese official media report.

HK problem is a long-rooted problem. The Amendment for extradition bill just lit the fuse. Since Hong Kong was handed over from Britain in 1997, the dissatisfaction of HK citizens toward HK government has raised a lot. 

According to a public opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University, in 2019 only 10.8% of Hong Kong citizens identified themselves as “Chinese” and more than 50% chose “Hongkonger”. One of the reasons behind is the decreasing credibility of the government. Taking the Amendment as example, the protesters’ biggest concern is that after the Amendment get approved, Hong Kong citizens and foreigners passing through the city can be arrested and sent to mainland China for trials due to political reasons. But actually, HK government specifically underlined that human rights will still be guaranteed that no suspect of political offences will be covered under the bill. 

However, it is clear that citizens do not trust their government anymore, which is reasonable considering Wing-Kee Lam’s experience. In 2005, Wing-Kee Lam, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold books critical for China, was arrested in Hong Kong and detained in China later for “operating a bookstore illegally”. Currently Lam has fled to Taiwan in fear of the approval of the Amendment.

Also, during the past two months, HK government’s double standard and inaction only raised more substantial doubts on itself. On 21st July, more than 20 men in white shirts showed up in Yuen Long area and attacked all black-dressed (the protesters’ united dressing color) passersby indiscriminately, including old people and pregnant women. According to witnesses, the emergency call that could not get connected for a long time and the local police station was closed. Some even stated that they saw the police, who witnessed the bloody and violent attacks of white-shirt men, just turned around and left. Until today, 28 arrested white men have all been bailed and only two of them were prosecuted. Compared to the police’s quick reaction to the protesters, their actions that night made the citizens start questioning whether the police received orders from the government and whether the government is taking double standard against pro-China and pro-Hong Kong demonstrators.

On the other hand, the protests have been lasting for more than five months but HK government neither took any concrete actions nor answered any demands of citizens. It keeps condemning protesters’ violence but ignored the truth that HK police took unnecessary and inhumane actions against the demonstrators such as shooting with bean bag round at a very close distance, which violated the term of use and had led to a girl’s blindness. For now, HK government’s strategy is obviously taking no actions and this was what they have done five years ago during the Umbrella Revolution, which ended under the pressure of growing discontent citizens who had been tired of month-long protest. However, this time, there’s no tendency yet that the on-going protest will be ceasing in the near future.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, it was promised that for the next 50 years Hong Kong’s civic freedom and “a high degree of autonomy” would be guaranteed. These 50 years are supposed to be a transition time for Hong Kong to entirely return to China. However, there seems to have been signs that China’s “one country, two systems” policy is failing and the gap between mainland China and Hong Kong is actually expanding. The protest started from an extradition bill but is not only about it. It is a concentrated outbreak of long-rooted and deep-rooted problems. What will happen next? What will happen after the 50 years limit finish? There’s still no answer for it.

 

References: 

“Hong Kong-China Extradition Plans Explained.” BBC News. BBC, August 22, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-47810723

Kirby, Jen. “As Hong Kong Protests Continue, Mob Violence against Demonstrators Casts a Shadow.” Vox. Vox, July 22, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/7/22/20704239/hong-kong-protests-mov-yuen-long-beijing

Liu, Nicolle. “What Is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?” Financial Times. Financial Times, June 11, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/2063019c-7619-11e9-be7d-6d846537acab

McBride, Terry Lee. “Bruce Lee Be As Water My Friend.” YouTube. YouTube, August 14, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJMwBwFj5nQ

O’Connor, Tom. “China State Media Says the West Will Never Get Hong Kong Back as Protesters Attack Journalist.” Newsweek, August 13, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/china-media-hong-kong-attack-1454130

University (the) of Hong Kong, “Table.” Table – HKUPOP. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/ethnic/eidentity/halfyr/datatables.html

Trump to UN: You’re Welcome

UN picture
Flags at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Photo by Aotearoa

Alexander Pitts 

Since the beginning of 2017, the world has been adjusting to the idea of “America first.” The United States’ shift towards isolationism and protectionism came as no shock under the incoming president, but – lest there be any mistake – he’s been very clear on the matter from the get-go.

Europe has rolled with that punch, responding with resolute determination to stand on its own and fill any potential gap left by America’s retreat from the front lines of the international forum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europe cannot only rely on the US to solve problems, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently proposed further globalization, integration, and a stronger EU presence on the world stage. This is good, and necessary, because President Trump hasn’t changed his tone.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, the US president reiterated his America-first stance, and, perhaps in an attempt to make the idea more palatable, insisted that every country should take the same approach (he used the word “sovereign” 21 times in 42 minutes). The thing is, a lot of countries don’t want to. The leaders of the European Union, save for one notable exception, believe that they are stronger together. Continue reading “Trump to UN: You’re Welcome”

Between the World and Trump: American Foreign Policy in the Trump-Era

trump-womensmarch_2017-1060223_31606471724
By Mark Dixon.

Tyler Winowiecki

For over 70 years, the United States has upheld an international order that has not seen a single major power war, brought wealth and prosperity to dozens of nations which adopted open and free markets, and has advanced issues such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and other progressive issues through the international institutions the US helped to create at the end of World War II. Yes, it is easy to point out when the US’s foreign policy has aligned with countries that did not uphold similar values, or that the US has violated international law through its military undertakings, or assisted in overthrowing foreign governments – even established democracies. But even when acting against its own founding values, the American president has always at least rhetorically upheld the values of a liberal world order, albeit it sometimes hypocritical. But it seems that era has come to a screaming halt.

Many see the election of the American president as an opportunity to change the status quo and to embark on a new set of policies. Take for example the election of Barack Obama who ran on a progressive platform and repeatedly vowed to drastically change the foreign and domestic policies of past administrations. To be fair, Obama has accomplished several of his stated goals and changed American policies in a wide range of areas both domestically and abroad. However, the US has a larger portion of its population incarcerated than any other country; its governing apparatus more resembles an oligarchy than a democracy; its security state has only grown further at the expense of Americans’ civil liberties; and the undeclared wars in the broader Middle East have continued and expanded with no end in sight. Although Obama vowed to change America, the similarities are more striking than the differences.

But Obama is not an exception. It has been nearly the same for every modern American president. The change and reform they promise during the campaign quickly collides with the reality of the presidency. Career bureaucrats and civil servants that constitute the majority of the federal government do not change together with the president and his staff – even if the presidency is won by the different party. This leads to a continuation of policies across party lines. However, the recent change of presidents is different in more than one way.

58th Presidential Inauguration
By Sean Martin.

Donald Trump’s surprise electoral college victory may not constitute a dramatic change in the country’s foreign or domestic policies. But his victory did not happen in a vacuum. It was coupled with an emboldened and in many ways radicalized Republican Party and a highly volatile international order, which relies heavily on American leadership. The combination of these factors will most likely disengage the US from the international community, including Europe and the European Union.

It is first worth examining the governing philosophy of the Republican Party, which won the presidency, Congress, and appointed a judge to the Supreme Court to ostensibly tip the court in the party’s favor. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Republicans – under the banner of conservatism, neoconservatism and most recently the ultra-conservative Tea Party – began shifting their bellicosity from foreign powers to domestic foes, such as American liberals and progressives. From their unprecedented partisan 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton to their obstructionism towards Obama, the party has repeatedly obstructed democratic processes for electoral gains.

Over the course of the last eight years, the Republican Party has engaged in political tactics and rhetorics more common in authoritarian regimes than a developed democracy. As an opposition party they praised foreign leaders over their own president, they attempted to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birther movement (with the movement’s leader eventually becoming the new president) and even denied millions of elderly Americans healthcare by not expanding Medicare at the state level, which would have been completely subsidized through federal legislation commonly referred to as Obamacare.

On the international stage, a resurgent Russia is using hybrid warfare to influence other country’s domestic politics and elections – its greatest succes being the recent US presidential election. Through propaganda, disinformation, and financing of nationalistic parties, Russia aims to install more pro-Russian governments or, at the very least, undermine Western democracies. Due to the civil war in Syria, Europe has experienced the largest migration of refugees since World War II. The influx of refugees coincided with a rise of lone-wolf and small-cell terrorist plots inspired by ISIS. The destablization of the international order has been exploited by nationalistic politicians around the world with racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all to gain power and all to the expense of the values of liberal democracies.

vote_republican_sign_in_leon_county_tx_img_4440
By Billy Hathorn.

The Trump administration has so far expressed the desire to pursue more realpolitik on the international stage, although detailed positions are unknown or do simply not yet exist. The ‘America First’ slogan translates into a parochially defined set of national interests, most likely limited to the economy and military. Trump’s comments on NATO being obsolete actually fit into this parochial nationalist rhetoric. Moreover, Trump has shown an inclination to align with authoritarian leaders around the world rather than traditional American allies. He has also displayed a strong tendency to be more bellicose and provocative confronting friends and foe alike, most shockingly evident in the conversations with the Australian and Mexican heads of state. This will most likely worsen if the domestic situation in the US further destablizes.

It is also evident that Trump will not so much turn a blind eye towards Europe as he will take positions that are explicitly contrary to the EU’s interests. For example, Trump has shown to be rather indifferent about a united Europe and even openly admired nationalistic European politicians. This will force the EU into an uncomfortable situation. Will it stand up against Russian meddling and American rhetoric and pursue a robust and united EU, or will it allow the nationalists to win-out? Any attempt by the EU to stay united and robust can easily backfire due to the growing nationalist sentiments accross the continent. However, the situation has proven to be a Catch 22. If the EU does not stand up against the threats posed by the disruptions in the international order, the existence of the EU could be in grave danger. This would pose an existantial threat to free trade and the peaceful relations on the continent.

As 2016 proved, nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The chaotic and unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump will most likely become the norm and not the outlier in the coming years. This will not bode well in an already volatile international order. The special relationship between the US and the EU (and its individual nations) may be in for some hardship – especially if Trump follows through with his proposed Russian alignment. But if one thing is certain, expect uncertainty.

BIOGRAPHY

Tyler is a local news reporter for the Alpena News in Michigan. When escaping from his unhealthy obsession with international politics, you can find him traveling and exploring the great outdoors.

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OPINION: Has Culture Replaced Race in Europe?

ferizaj_church_and_mosque
A mosque and a church sharing a yard in Kosovo. Photo by Valdete Hasani

Sabine Volk

During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.

Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.

cleanenergymarch-4-1470207_27926806533
Photo by Mark Dixon

When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).

In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.

hogesa_%e2%88%92_berserker_pforzheim
A German anti-Islam demonstrator. Photo by blu-news.org

So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?

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Are Muslims the new Jews? Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe

Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination

Fearing the Other: Islamophobia in the United States

sharia-law-billboard
By Matt 57.

Sabine Volk

In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from Western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”

To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.

Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?

Pre-9/11: Ignorance

In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined” but because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”

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Donald Trump ran a successful anti-Islam campaign. By Gage Skidmore.

Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat

In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the Western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).

The Muslim as Cultural Other

At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American”. This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.

Muslims are not only perceived as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.

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The American Islamic Centre in Dearborn, Michigan. By Dane Hillard.

American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think

Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.

Click here for more by Sabine Volk

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This article is a reedit of Sabine Volk’s Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination, republished now in light of recent events.

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ACLA Call for Papers: (under-)Graduate seminar on “Stories that Do: Narrative Arts and the Wider World”

As in previous years, the ACLA 2017 will host a seminar for BA and MA students. Looking at current changes in the political climate and in what is acceptable political discourse in Europe and America, this year’s (under)graduate seminar will examine the role of literature, media, and the narrative arts as agents in society, whether for change or stability.    The role of the arts as a mobilizer in society is in no way an unexplored arena. Edward Bulwer-Lytton first coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than sword” in 1839, and Thomas Hardy reflected on the way reading fosters critical literacy for social life when he suggested that in reading fiction “our true object is a lesson in life, mental enlargement from elements essential to the narratives themselves and from the reflection they engender.” Unsurprisingly, art’s capacity to engender this critical reflection of society has intermittently resulted in book bans and burnings.    In recent times this potential, its limits, and its actualization have come under close scrutiny. James Baldwin caused a stir in 1949 when he published his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” characterizing protest fiction as a “rejection of life” and dismissing its paragon Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as self-righteous and dishonest. Baldwin has continued to loom large in reflections on narrative arts’ activating potential, acting recently as an interlocutor to Robert McParland when he discussed Django Unchained, and as an avowed inspiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the most celebrated artists today to engage in both writing and activism. Sixty years after Baldwin’s famous essay, with the veil pulled from the capitalist machinery underlying cultural production and with renewed appreciation for the role stories can play in deciding communal values, what can be said about the narrative arts and the wider world?

We warmly invite (R)MA students and senior BA students of the humanities to send in their 300-word proposals and short bio to acla-studentseminar@uu.nl before January 31st.

Some suggested themes:

 
– Literature, transmedia storytelling and pedagogy

– Cultural production and the nexus between individual and society

– Storytelling for personal and collective empowerment

– Impact

– Capitalism, cultural production and criticism

– Literature, film, critical thinking and politics 

– Authority and moral agency 

– Rereading, revisiting and remediation stories nestled in the collective imagination

– Social novels and the stylistics of social commentary

– Changing media, new publics and changing storytelling

From Disbelief to Determination: Getting Over Brexit and Trump

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Photo by Matt Brown

Jessica Sofizade

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.

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Photo by David Holt

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.

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Map of the UK showing the urban and rural voting divide. Image by Mirrorme22

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.

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The Return of the USSR: Russia’s comeback on the global stage

 

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By DonkeyHotey

Ben Krasa

Throughout history, the struggle between the West and the East has fallen on the shoulders of the U.S. and Russia. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West’s relationship with Russia has always been testy. With the disintegration of the USSR, the US was deemed victorious, while spreading its influence and liberal ideology throughout the world, while Russia and its stalling economy was seen as the loser. Twenty-five years of US hegemony, good or bad, was felt in every corner of the globe, whilst Russia’s global headlines comprised of its propaganda, sniggered at by Western nations, poor economy and the propping up of dictatorships. However, in recent times, it is evident that Russia is somewhat gaining its influence back via foreign policies and especially through the soon-to-be new alliance with president-elect Donald Trump. It is now difficult to ignore the growing power of Russia throughout the world, especially as even its classic nemesis, the US, appears to be bowing to Putin’s charm.

After the events of 2014 there was an agreement in the West to isolate and punish Putin for his actions in, the now-annexed, Crimea. Russia was placed under economic sanctions that were intended to weaken its trade with the western hemisphere and contributed to the poor state of the Russian economy. Also diplomatic ties suffered between Russia and the West and at times have stalled, especially due to Russia’s role in Syria. It had looked like Russia would continue to play second fiddle to the US in the global political field, until the recent turn of global events.

Most significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has not hidden his admiration for Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump praised Putin and his leadership qualities. Trump’s actions are drastically different from previous US presidents who had a frosty relationship with Putin. The oncoming US-Russia relations boom have alerted governmental figures and they have questioned if Putin would have influence in future US policies. Even in choosing his cabinet, Trump causes concern. Rex Tillerson was announced as the new Secretary of State and within hours of this declaration, concerns were raised by both Republicans and Democrats about Tillerson’s close ties to Putin. Were Putin to somehow have influence in US policies, then it is clear that the tide would clearly change in global politics. During the campaign, Russian hackers were blamed for leaking DNC emails, which destabilised the Democratic Party with Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and the raised questions about the DNC’s authenticity. Post-election, Barack Obama called for an enquiry to examine if Russia had any influence on the final result.

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Trump’s presidency promises to be a world of difference to Obama’s

Without a doubt, European leaders are concerned that Trump will have a soft approach to Putin and his foreign policy. This year, tensions escalated between the west, especially the US, and Russia due to its involvement in Syria and the continuous breaking of agreed ceasefires.  Previously, there was no doubt that the Western block would stick together against Russia, but the stronghold alliance is not as stable as it once was. In France, Marine Le Pen secured a €9 million loan from Europe-Russia Bank (ERB), for her political party, Le Front National, to strengthen her far-right rhetoric which ultimately disrupts mainstream European values. Russia’s growing influence in Europe further demonstrates its tactical aim to have a strong hold in the continent à la pre-fall of the Berlin wall. Recently, during presidential elections, both Bulgaria and Moldova elected men who lean closer to Russia and distance themselves from the Western block. With uncertainty mounting in post-Soviet countries; it is evident that Putin’s foreign policies point to a wish for a quasi-USSR looking map. Trump’s limp response to supporting NATO may only encourage turning Putin’s attention towards the Baltic and Balkan states. In Germany, a warning has been issued from head of security that there may be interference in next year’s elections in Europe by Russia.

Further afield, in the strategically important Pacific region, the Philippine president, Roger Duterte, described Putin as his “idol”, recently claiming that the two have much in common. While creating a gap between the Philippines and the US – for instance calling Obama a “son of a whore”- it is evident that Duterte would welcome a strong alliance with Russia. This would diminish the US’ influence in the region, which has been essential for US interests for many years.

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By Presidential Communications Operations Office

Despite its recent influence in global politics, some political leaders will still create obstacles for Putin and his Russia. Angela Merkel claimed that the sanctions placed against Russia must continue due to the lack of progress in Ukraine. Furthermore, Alexei Navalny, leader of Progress Party has declared that he will run in the 2018 Russian presidential elections and will “speak about things people refuse to talk about”.

Pockets of once assured Western alliances around the world are quickly being challenged by different leaders. With Russia’s frosty relationship with the West thawing with the election of Trump, and other global political party leaders, one thing seems certain: Russia is is finally coming in from the cold.

 Click here for more by Ben Krasa

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Europe at a Crossroads: The Rise of the Right and Post-Truth Politics

 

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The EU is having a hard time. Photo by MOs810

Ben Krasa

Europe is at a crossroads and the coming months will determine its stability for the foreseeable future. The unforeseen victories for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise in populism makes us question how there is such momentum behind these campaigns. Therefore, the leaders who have grabbed headlines over the two years must be examined in order to understand how they have shaken the world.

“Post-truth” was awarded by Oxford Dictionary as the word of the year. Defined as “appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored”, it has led to escalation of support for populist leaders and a growing support of their beliefs. With anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment rising in Europe, there is an obvious shift in mentality as opposed to previous years, which mainly rests on the shoulders of the post-truth rhetoric. Various populist campaigns stemmed from post-truth and used emotion to escalate fear and incite hatred in various nations. Donald Trump’s stinging remarks about Mexicans and Muslims have been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes post-election, likewise in post-Brexit Britain. The leaders rely on fear and stirring emotion, rather than sense or logic, in order to gain a large following. In a pre-Brexit world, no one would have given Farage a chance, or have thought that Trump would claim the victory across the pond, nor that Le Pen may have influence in the French Presidential election.  However, the Brexit campaign spurred Trump to follow the same rhetoric and yielded a similar result. Post-truth tactics and hate rhetoric have grabbed Europe by the throat and won’t let go, so much so that talk of the demise of the European Union has begun to bubble up in public discourse.

Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are disturbing the political establishment of liberal Europe.

Throughout Europe, there is a growing urgency to discard the base of what has been guiding the political norm for the last decades. Moderate politics has typically dominated politics but we are witnessing a change in European sentiment. As elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands loom, Europe’s future could potentially be vastly different within a year. Marine Le Pen is making noise in France with a rhetoric that highlights the use of post-truth in politics, with much focus on the fear that a foreign ‘other’ will steal your job and earn more than you. This kind of rhetoric is hardly new, but as of late it has begun to feature more prominently in political discourse. Just last week, Geert Wilders was once again convicted of hate speech and also wants to ban all mosques in the Netherlands, is leading the most popular party in the country. He also relies on the tactic of post-truth and the manipulation of citizens’ emotions to gain popularity, rather than on logic and clear policy goals. Before the recent rerun of the Austrian Presidential election, a Holocaust survivor spoke out and pleaded with the public not to vote for the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, because the consequences petrified her and reminded her of pre-World War II Austria. This is a clear signal that surely it is time to think about which direction current politics is taking.

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Farage campaigned for Trump’s presidential bid.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit quoted as a stand up against the establishment and Donald Trump being carried as the ideal ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in the U.S. election. But for me it is difficult to confirm that they are truly ‘anti-establishment’. Trump resides in a Manhattan apartment “decorated in 24K gold and marble” and has a net worth of 3.2 billion dollars. It is hard to imagine why people labelled him anti-establishment despite having more in common with Hillary Clinton than many people would like to think. Prior to the election, he rubbed shoulders with the Clintons, their daughters are friends, and he had even donated money to the Clinton Foundation and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It would be foolish to think that Trump is anything but the ‘established’. Moreover, Nigel Farage who officially resigned as UKIP leader, but still receives 84,000 pounds salary as an MEP, immediately denied the NHS their supposedly ‘guaranteed’ 350 million pounds after the Brexit result. Since the Brexit campaign, he has stuck to Trump, like a remora fish on a shark. Pictures recently circulated of him at one of Trump’s parties in London. How are these men seen as anti-establishment since they reap so much from the establishment? Granted, there is disenchantment with politics, but those leading the opposition do not know more than those already in government. One just has to look at Farage’s disappearance act or Boris Johnson’s reaction post-Brexit. Just this week, a Tory aide was photographed with a notepad with Brexit plans which included “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it”.

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Green Candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, won the Austrian presidential election, twice. Photo by Ailura.

However, maybe not all is lost. In the recent Austrian Presidential election, the Green Party won the vote by a bigger margin than the original election in May. Moreover, in the Richmond Park by-election in London, the Lib Dem candidate unseated the Tory, Zac Goldsmith. This may just be a symbolic victory for the left, yet, it may be the penny dropping in people’s minds that unity and harmony will undoubtedly be more beneficial than discord. However, with papers and polls indicating that populism is here to stay, the more centred people must surely find a way to stop the post-truth tactic and potential destabilization and disintegration of the European Union.  

Ben recently graduated from Leiden University with a masters’ degree in International Relations. From Ireland, Ben graduated from University College Cork with a BA in Spanish and History and is currently interning in The Hague.

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