It is a cold and grey Saturday afternoon, just one week before Christmas and I am rushing over the empty Platz der Menschenrechte, Human Rights Square, in front of the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe. This huge building was constructed with German Pünktlichkeit during the First World War and managed to avoid demolition in the late 1970s after having been a reliable space for the preparation of violence and destruction. With sentiment echoing Adorno’s phrase, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the city of Karlsruhe in the post-war decades seemed paralyzed and helpless to interact with this huge memorial of violence production in its heart.
It wasn’t poetry that brought a spirit of hope into the massive walls in Lorenzstraße – at least not just that. In the 1980s, the artist group “99.9% leerer Raum” moved into the old factory, just before, in 1984, the first ever email was received just a few kilometres away at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT). At that time, enthusiasm for new and connective technology of communication had awoken to end the rather destructive technology of weapons, which had dominated the atmosphere of the massive building. In 1987 the association for arts and media technology was founded, and eight years after the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien), the Centre for Art and Media, opened in the old German weapons and munitions production factory. Since then, the building has hosted exhibitions with a focus on media and communication technology. It is, however, an unusual exhibition for the ZKM, which I am visiting today. Usually, visitors come to stroll down memory lane between the antiquities and rarities of computer and video games, or to discover new developments occurring in the digital arts. Although this exhibition does not focus on technology and media art, it fits perfectly in this historic building.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” is the title of the exhibition, curated by Eckhart Gillen and Peter Weibel and their Russian colleagues Daria Mille and Daniel Bulatov. It is a cooperation between the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO in Moscow. The exhibition contains more than 500 diverse works of about 200 European artists. In Karlsruhe it has the significant subtitle, “The Continent that the EU does not know.” The curators aim to give a second perspective on the dominant narrative of post-war Europe. They present works by artists, who have responded to the breakup of a divided continent after a decade of destruction.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” focuses on a central cultural space. One that was damaged and torn apart several times during the 20th century. The curators present artistic developments, stemming from the huge area that is geographical Europe. With artwork coming from anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the exhibition draws on many sources in its goal of opening up a new narrative with regards to a shared past. The curators claim that until today historiography looked at the arts of the 20th century as divided into two main streams. Firstly, there was abstract expressionism, which is seen as a symbol of freedom in the West. Then there is social realism which, according to these curators, has been seen as a conservative kind of art, an art bent to serve the communist political system in the East. This exhibition, however, is an effort to engage with the history of art in Europe in a less simplified manner. This exhibition explores these themes through comparison, by finding similarities, and understanding differences in a socio-political approach to interpretation.
While walking through this huge exhibition, taking up two floors with an immense amount of art work, I can sympathize with the curators and let myself get lost in the many pictures, sculptures, films and photographs. It is hopeless trying to discover everything: this exhibition is the product of more than twenty years, and 200 people, full of creativity and extreme emotions. It is by accident, that I find the small Picasso, “Pigeon, Blue Variation” from 1951, hidden on the back of one of the huge white walls. The difficulty of mapping this great quantity and variety of art in post-war Europe can also be seen through the different strategies of structuring the exhibition in the three hosting places in Brussels, Karlsruhe and Moscow. In Karlsruhe it is organized into the five chapters “Trauma and Remembrance,” “Cold War,” “New Realism,” “New Visions,” and “Utopia 1968”. While 1945 is interpreted as ‘hour zero’, 1968 is defined as the starting point for a new relationship between West and East. What might seem like a very linear and horizontal approach, is in fact an attempt to entangle spaces, to invite visitors to discover art works that have not shared the same space before. Curator Peter Weibel calls it an active plea for understanding Europe – a goal which is just as important today as it was in 1945.
The idea of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” was conceived already in 2012, and it was supposed to be shown in Russia first. However, after the crisis in Ukraine and the strained relationship between the EU and Russia, many important sponsors withdrew their financial support. It is in these grey and cold days, that it becomes more important than ever to take a break and discover new perspectives on what shapes Europe: memories and trauma, war, utopia, and new visions. Now, in times of a critical public discourse regarding Europe, and in times of planning the building of walls, it is maybe more appropriate than ever to consider the leading questions of “Art in Europe 1945-1968”: “what is Europe?”
What I take with me walking back from the ZKM, in the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe, over the Human Rights Square, is the idea to keep my eyes wide open and to search for hidden ideas. Ideas that are not omnipresent in the main discourse surrounding us today. There was a lot happening in the period between 1945 to 1968 in Europe. It seems like a period of conflict and inconsistency . There is also a lot going on in Europe today, and it is essential to reflect on the present patterns of perception and communication. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” shows that it is worth challenging established constructs and opening a discussion about a common past and a common future. Despite or precisely because of its confusing multitude of pieces, visitors of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can find a new way of looking at Europe in the past and in the present. I interpret this exhibition as a liquid reflection on arts and European society. It commutes between the East and West in Europe, and changes its setting in each location. It is not a fixed construct which needs to be consumed in a certain way, but one that underlines different perspectives. An exhibition is more than its images or sculptures. It represents a reflection on the everyday reality of artists and curators, and it grows in the space where it is shown, and with each visitor approaching it. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” communicates with its surrounding and with its audience and it is worth, I believe, taking your time to look, listen, reflect and respond.
The exhibition “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can be visited in the ZKM until 29th of January 2017 and afterwards in Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
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.
The effects of globalization are felt all around the world. The increasingly interconnected global economic system is the most obvious manifestation of the worldwide compression of time and space. However, the consequences of globalization are not limited to the economy. Globalization has had an effect on political systems, religions, and societies in practically every corner of the world. What is globalization exactly? Often globalization and Westernization are used interchangeably, but this proves to be a rather one-sided perspective. Although all around us, globalization can be a tricky concept to pin down.
The Geneva Centre for Security Policy defines globalization as “a process that encompasses the causes, course, and consequences of transnational and transcultural integration of human and non-human activities”. The European Commission, on the other hand, sees globalization as “the combination of technological progress, lower transport costs and policy liberalization in the European Union and elsewhere” that “has led to increasing trade and financial flows between countries”.
In August of 2016, the EU mission to Kosovo finally initiated its project to redevelop the main bridge in the city of Mitrovica. The project had been in a state of limbo since around August 2015, when construction workers first enclosed most of the bridge within a fence of corrugated steel sheeting, leaving only the footpath on the western side open to foot traffic across the river Ibar/Ibër. Still, the ‘closure’ of the bridge itself was nothing new; it now merely took on a different form and look. I recall how in 2009, on my first visit to Mitrovica, the bridge, though still passable on foot, was blocked to traffic by lines of barbed wire and concrete pyramids. For a short period spanning 2010 and 2011, it once again became open to vehicles, but this changed in the aftermath of the ROSU incidentin July 2011, when roadblocks were erected by local Kosovo Serbs to hinder troop and police movements in northern Kosovo, including on Mitrovica’s main bridge. This time the improvised barriers came in the form of huge piles of building rubble and sand; not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, but effective nevertheless. Some years later, in June 2014, the rubble roadblock was removed, only to be replaced by a so-called ‘Peace Park’; stretches of grass interspersed with rows of concrete planters, filled with lines of miniature conifers, which covered the northernmost portion of the bridge.
As part of the EU-brokered dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, an initial agreement reached in August 2015 foresaw the reopening of the bridge to road traffic. However, following the placing of the aforementioned steel fencing, progress stalled until the last remaining details of a deal were ironed out on 5 August 2016, in part due to disagreements on relative jurisdictions and administrative lines between municipalities in the north and south of the city. Finally, on 14 August, work began to clear the ‘Peace Park’ and commence with the bridge’s revitalisation. It is intended that the redevelopment should be completed by 20 January this year (2017).
The case of the bridge as explained in these opening paragraphs is not meant to be the main focus here; however, an understanding of the developments surrounding this particular area of public space is important to enter the discussion I now wish to move on to. Whilst it would be possible to dedicate an entire piece to the symbolism of the bridge itself, my intention here is to discuss walls instead. Or rather, one specific wall which has become the source of controversy in Kosovo as of late.
Alongside the EU-funded and -fostered project to reopen the central synapse between the south and north of the city, the municipality in Mitrovica North simultaneously commenced revitalisation works to create a pedestrian zone from the area’s main high street, Kralja Petra (King Peter), which runs northwards directly from the end of the bridge itself. Discussion and planning of this redevelopment has been underway in the north for several years now; thus it was eventually decided to harmonise the two projects so the reopening of bridge and street to the public could take place on the same day. According to a statement by the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), “the revitalization of the bridge, as well as King Petar (Kralja Petra) Street, will greatly contribute to facilitating contacts between all people of Mitrovica North and South and will thus contribute to exchanges and understanding.” Moreover, “the Mitrovica Bridge will become the symbol of normalization of relations between the Kosovo Serb, Kosovo Albanian and other communities.”
Yet as the construction work proceeded, it appeared the implementation of the ‘harmonised’ project for Kralja Petra was developing rather differently to what was imagined. In early December, the municipality commenced with the construction of a 2-metre high wall, essentially cutting off access from the bridge to the main street, not only for cars (as was to be expected), but (at least symbolically) for people also. According to media sources in Kosovo, the decision to build a wall in this fashion seems to have been made quite suddenly, as members of Mitrovica’s Serb community have also been caught by surprise.
You say wall, I say amphitheatre?
In the reactions to the controversy emerging from both sides of the Ibar, we already see disagreement and confusion. The head of urban planning construction in north Mitrovica states that the wall was “clearly agreed upon” during talks in Brussels. This is denied by Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue, Edita Tahiri, and the mayor of south Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri. Yet original plans obtained by Prishtina Insight show that a wall was indeed to be included, although in the preliminary design this was only to bearound a metre high. After negotiations on the issue took place on 10 December 2015, some of those involved claimed the finished wall was now to be torn down completely. This was in turn denied by northern Mitrovica mayor Goran Rakic; as Prishtina Insight reported over the following weekend, the mayor now states that the wall will be “redesign[ed]…into an amphitheatre” in order to become “a summer theatre open to citizens from both sides of the bridge”. Having made the transformation from wall to amphitheatre in the space of a week, it appears that even a stretch of grey concrete can potentially become all things to all people. Perhaps it is just a matter of perspective; indeed, Dragan Spasojevic, Mitrovica North’s urban planning chief, observed that “[w]hoever looks upon this as a wall sees something that divides, but whoever looks at this as an amphitheatre sees something that connects, because I believe this amphitheatre will one day be used by Serbs and Albanians.” Thus a wall may not be a wall, if we decide to call it something else.
Irony aside, it is clear from the disparate political reactions that this construction is a divisive act, regardless of where you stand. Yet as observed in an article on the Albanian-language news siteInsajderi, this wall-building action comes at a time when it appeared relations between the two communities were becoming more relaxed, with interethnic tensions somewhat in abatement. Hence it might seem an odd moment at which to carry out such a heavily symbolic act. So is the structure indeed as controversial as it appears to be (and as it has been viewed by the Albanian community)? To better understand the motivations behind the building of the wall, let us examine a number of questions regarding both the real and symbolic purposes such a wall might serve, especially in light of the positions of the actors involved. How can the wall be perceived, evaluated and constructed by different actors or members or society? Does the wall serve only to block, or does it also have a protective function? If so, who exactly does it block and/or protect (and in the latter case, from whom does it provide protection)?
Walls of meaning
It is interesting to reflect on how much meaning can be packed into what is essentially a simple and oblique physical formation; plain, unadorned, with apparently little to say at first glance. Walls are, after all, some of the most basic structures humanity creates. And yet they are also a vital means of shelter. Moreover, it seems that walls may also have a lot to communicate, even where they apparently say nothing at all. Theirs is a message which goes beyond language. In essence, walls might first appear to keep things out, be that the wind, the cold, or other people. But it should be remembered that they also keep things in; warmth perhaps, as well as those people one wants to ensure stay inside.
What does the wall in Mitrovica mean for the builders, first and foremost? They are, after all, the primary instigators of this action. From the Serb perspective, one could foresee that the wall presents a means through which a local actor might intervene in the political processes currently being determined at a higher level. Thus while the decision to reopen the bridge was made in the context of interstate negotiations at the European level, one might question to what extent this is fully backed by local political actors. Whilst still complying with the agreement (and with Belgrade) on the face of things, building a wall might appear as a way of simultaneously resisting and rebelling against the will of said national and international political actors. Moreover, it may also serve to exert reverse-pressure on the Belgrade-based authorities, as a reaction to the pressure local authorities are presently placed under to obey these agreed terms.
Still, for those commissioning the building of a wall, there are sure to be other motivations. This act is also an apparent securitisation of the public space which borders the end of the bridge. But if this is the case, who does the added ‘security’ defend, and from whom? According to the official word, the structure should protect “pedestrians from traffic”. Thus as a design principal, the primary point would be to stop people from driving onto the newly pedestrianised street. But is this a general precaution, or a specifically targeted one? Who is then seen as the threat? Would it be reading too much into things to assume a case of ‘othering’ here? One might indeed interpret this as a typical example of out-group construction, the fear of attack by the ‘Other’, be that an individual member of the Albanian community, or an organised assault conducted by government or international forces. Given such a reading, the sense appears to be that the reopening of the bridge, and its linking with a major public thoroughfare now potentially filled with strolling members of the public, would create a vulnerability which needs to be defended against.
But if this is the fear being addressed, does is it still seem necessary to create something of this height? After all, looking at the present construction, although tall, it seems rather thin; surely if one wanted to prevent vehicular access it would make more sense to use thicker, heavier, lower-lying obstacles? This potential weakness of the wall, combined with the height aspect, makes one think that the structure aims to present a visual, symbolic message and function beyond that claimed by its creators.
The wall appears not only to deny direct physical access. It blocks the natural line of sight one has to the main street when crossing the bridge from south to north. As such, it prevents visual access to the world beyond the wall; from a symbolic perspective, it creates an abrupt, stark and unnatural division within both the physical and visual realms of public space. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that such a barrier works in both directions; it is not a one-way mirror. What is blocked for one is also blocked for the other.
What, then, are the experiential effects of this interruption of the visual space? Firstly, it disrupts the ability of each side to look into and make connections with the visual world of the other. This, moreover, leaves one both restricted in seeing who is present in the world over the other side of the barrier, and limited in catching a glimpse of the life taking place there. As such, it makes the socially and psychologically constructed boundaries between communities all the more real.
Yet perhaps the wall simultaneously provides a shield from observation for those who would pass between the two social realms, from one side of the mirror to the other? In this sense, it might offer a certain security to all. Still, the effect here is questionable, as rather than allowing a freer flow of people, this obstacle channels them into narrower spaces (the gaps at the edges of the wall), where they can be more easily observed or challenged when attempting to go beyond the barrier. Hereby the social osmosis of individuals can be more easily policed and controlled, a control directed not only towards the ‘other’, but also towards one’s own community. Hence a wall such as this is a mental barrier to people’s freedom of movement; a warning to those on both sides that it is not so straightforward to transition back and forth across a divided yet essentially singular space.
From the Albanian perspective, the experience of the blocking of physical and visual access is perhaps felt particularly keenly. Again, this is more in the symbolic sense than anything else. Practically speaking, few Albanians in fact make use of the main road in northern Mitrovica at present; those that pass over the main bridge on foot tend to live in areas close to the northern bank, and their world usually turns immediately to the left or right upon crossing the bridge. In the current socio-cultural environment, there are probably few who would want or need to head straight on.
Thus the construction of the wall here can also be read as an act which is predominantly communicative, but consequently visually and physically manifested in public space. The mental barrier which results from the idea that you can’t go somewhere, or that it is unsafe to do so, is here brought into existence in the real world. It is irrelevant that it will probably be possible to get around the wall if one chooses to (for there will have to be a way for local residents to gain access to the high street); the effect of what is transmitted to the individual citizen confronted by such an object is far more important. Here it doesn’t much matter where one stands in relation to the wall. The feeling generated, whether it be the sense of being unwelcome, or that of being trapped, reinforces the notion of divided communities and spaces, strengthening the barriers in the mind.
For those on either side, especially older generations, the appearance of the wall may hit particularly hard when accompanied by a sense of loss for the world beyond. The feeling here is that a part of the city which one once knew and lived is gone and will not return; that the fault lines will no longer be overcome. From the interviews I have held with Mitrovicans on both sides of the bridge, it is abundantly clear that personal memories of life in the city are closely tied to particular sites and spaces, and often with places that in the last 16 years have become strange and unknown, but for which a yearning remains. While this physical piece of one’s past remains distant and intangible, the individual’s sense of self may never feel truly complete.
The future potential of walls
What will happen remains uncertain for now, for we are dealing with a developing narrative. Will the wall indeed become an amphitheatre, the conjoined social space for all? The latest vision of the EU apparently foreseesstairways on either side, leading people up and over the wall in both directions. But should the wall remain in its present form, one wonders what will become of it. Noting the already-prevalent graffiti surrounding the bridge area, I could imagine that such a vast expanse of blank concrete would present an irresistible new canvas for audacious urban artists and activists. What new messages might then find their way onto and into this particular public space? What will the wall ‘say’ in future? What steps might civic actors take to claim ownership and reappropriate this object, in order to present other symbolic meanings? What forms of ‘resistance, resilience and adaptation’ may yet be to come?
James Leigh is currently working towards completion of his PhD within the Department of History at the University of Groningen, where he is also involved in teaching on the Euroculture programme. James graduated from Euroculture himself back in 2009; he subsequently spent a number of years working in educational development in Kosovo, the area upon which his research is presently focused.
Some people start a new year with new year’s resolutions. Some are just trying to get over their New Year’s Eve hungover. Here in the offices of Euroculture, we have a different tradition to start the new year. I introduce to you: the Management Meeting.
For a Management Meeting, directors and coordinators from all Euroculture universities get on trains, planes and automobiles to meet each other, to battle it out in an arena (meeting room) in one of the Euroculture cities. The upcoming meeting will take place in Göttingen, which means that in between debates we get to regain our strength by eating sauerkraut and drinking beer.
The Meeting happens twice a year: once in January, and once during the Intensive Programme, which also includes delegates from the non-EU partner universities. The January meetings are somewhat bleaker: less sun, less partners, less students (none at all!), which leaves all the more room for what needs to be done: talk, discuss, manage, meet. All work and no play.
So what do we discuss during these sessions? Boring stuff mostly, but vital for a complicated international programme like ours. Important decisions are made here too: which students will get to go to a non-EU partner for the third semester? Which applicants will be selected for Erasmus Mundus scholarships? (Spoiler: none, we’re in a gap year.)
Despite the high level of boring discussions and endless note-taking, I see the meetings as a treat. Not only do I get to see all Euroculture cities, it’s always great to see the extended Euroculture family, meet new additions to the team, and most of all to take part in the best tradition of them all: gossiping about the students we share.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a.o. Bundesparteitag der Alternative für Deutschland am 4./5. Juli 2015 in Essen, Gruga Halle
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 Holocaustsurvivor 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.
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”.
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.
“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”→
At the German conservative party’s annual meeting in Essen on December 4, Chancellor Merkel was elected head of her party for the ninth consecutive time. The show of support comes only a few weeks after Merkel announcing her willingness to stand for reelection in 2017. For those fearing the populist wave in Europe, driven in Germany with the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, Merkel’s candidature comes as a sigh of relief. However, her last term has not done her any favors on the left or the right and she was selected by only 89.5 percent of the 1,000 CDU delegates at the meeting. This marks her second worst result ever.
For the next ten months, Merkel will be forced to walk a fine line between hard-line anti-immigration policies proposed by her own party and taking care of the 1.1 million refugees that she herself welcomed in late 2015. After serving for over ten years, many question whether the Chancellor still understands the German electorate. Meanwhile, others are exalting her as the last stalwart of liberal democracy in the face of worrying populism.
Is she right for the job?
Were this a normal election cycle, pundits would be questioning whether Chancellor Merkel is good for Germany at all. After serving has the head of government for over a decade, Merkel has earned a reputation as the ultimate politician. Her speeches are measured, her policies are rarely radical, and her standard hand position, dubbed the Chancellor’s rhombus, has become iconic.
Nevertheless, Merkel’s third term has been wrought with crisis. After a narrow victory in the 2013 general election, Merkel’s CDU was forced to form a grand coalition – nicknamed the “GroKo” – with the SPD, Germany’s center-left party. Reaching consensus in a coalition government can be tricky in the best of times, but as crisis after crisis unfolded in Europe, consensus seemed impossible. Chancellor Merkel’s attempts to navigate smoothly through these crises, as she did during the eurocrisis of her second term, proved impossible.
Merkel’s migration policies in particular have drawn sharp criticism from all sides. In 2015, when the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa hit its peak, Merkel famously touted Germany’s so-called “Willkommenskultur,” and insisted that Europe could manage the refugee crisis with compassion and solidarity. In a speech following an attack on a asylum center in Heidenau, Germany in 2015, Merkel stood by her decision, calling the attacks on refugees “shameful” and declaring, “I have to honestly say that if we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in the presence of need, then this is not my country.”
While Merkel’s generosity was initially met with domestic and international support, the mood quickly soured as thousands more asylum-seekers poured into Germany. Many have commented that the Chancellor’s initial reaction, so unlike her usual measured decisions, marked a clear disconnect between the Chancellor and her constituents. In 2016, when Merkel’s party only managed a third place victory behind the populist AfD and the SPD in her own district, it became all the more clear how out of touch she has become.
Is she our only hope?
Out of touch she may be, but with the threat of populist parties taking charge across Europe, Chancellor Merkel’s shortcomings become easier to swallow. The AfD, led by the startlingly Merkel-esque Frauke Petry, lists as its priorities curtailing further immigration; putting participation in the Euro up to a referendum; halting further negotiations on CETA and TTIP; and limiting Germany’s commitment to Europe with the motto “Germany first”. In other words, it is yet another iteration of the standard populist ticket seen around Europe and in the US in 2016.
Following the Brexit vote, which was driven by the populist UK Independent Party, and the US election of Donald J. Trump, the self-proclaimed “ultimate outsider,” moderates in Europe are understandably terrified. Less than a week ago, the Italian constitutional referendum prompted the resignation of Matteo Renzi. A week before that, French President François Hollande announced his intention to step down in 2017. Cameron, Renzi, Hollande, and Merkel – four of Europe’s most powerful leaders, and only one will remain in 2017.
To characterize Merkel as Europe’s “last hope” or as the “last defender” of liberal democracy, as some in the media have, seems a bit hyperbolic. The AfD did have a surprising turnout in 2016, but the likelihood that it will garner enough support to form – or even be a part of – the next coalition is slim. As of now, the party does not have any seats in the national parliament, though it does have 143 of the 1855 state parliamentary seats. Still, the rise in populism cannot be ignored and the CDU and other parties may have to cater to ideas that would have, in any other election year, seemed too far right. That was clear during the annual party meeting when delegates debated the merits of banning face veils for Muslim women and doing away with dual citizenship. The tone of the nation has shifted, and the Chancellor will have to consider this in order to run a successful campaign.
Can she win?
It may not be clear if she is the right person for the job, or if she has the full weight of the CDU behind her, but Chancellor Merkel has been in power for almost 12 years. For many Germans, she seems almost like a permanent fixture atop the governmental pyramid. Not the most effective leader, or the most likeable, but the best option for right now.
Still, Merkel’s approval ratings have seen constant fluctuation in the past year. Over the summer, she reached new lows – in an August 2016 poll published by Zeit Online, only 42% of Germans wanted to see her run again. However, immediately following the US election of Donald Trump, Merkel’s approval rating rebounded. According to a Stern Magazine poll, 59% of Germans signaled their wish for her to run again on Nov 9, perhaps a reactionary poll driven by a glimpse of real populism in the US. However, as the dust settles Merkel must find a way to make these ratings sustainable, otherwise she faces an uphill battle in September. ”You have to help me,” Chancellor Merkel told CDU members gathered in Essen last week. Someone has to.
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the consequence of the success ofpost-truth politics, and signify its threat for further integration of the European Union. Despite Europe’s ability to overcome times of crisis to further European integration, (as the response to Brexit has shown with discussions over further European defence cooperation,) Brexit nonetheless shows that the emergence of post-truth politics is a threat to the European project.
Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have been the catalyst behind the emergence of post-truth politics. If we’re honest most of us are guilty of selectively choosing news sources that we agree with or those which best speak to our views, hence we live in our little social media bubble in which we share views and opinions with people who already have the same opinions. ‘People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed to‘, and selectively choose information to support those views while resisting perceived falsehoods. The ubiquitous nature of social media, and news media facilitates the ease with which people can seek out news sources which conform to and strengthen, their beliefs, while at the same time driving partisan divide and shutting out contradictory information. This played out in the UK referendum campaign, with a key talking point being Turkey’s potential membership of the EU, playing on the fear of millions more migrants entering the UK. Though proven false as Turkey can only become a Member with the agreement of all EU Member States, this claim was successful in framing the narrative of the campaign to the wider issue of immigration, which drove the Brexit campaign. Another example is the rejection of research based evidence by experts on the implications of a Brexit. This shows, as one conservatoce put it: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’. Attempts to challenge these claims and falsehoods were dismissed as project fear, which makes it difficult to engage in open debate as people become increasingly entrenched in their views.
Brexit is a warning that the EU must address its existing faults and weaknesses, it must take a step back and acknowledge the shift in the political discourse towards post-truth politics. Social media is a key driver in the emergence of Post-truth politics and is key in giving greater voice to Euroscepticism and populism. In the age of post-truth politics, facts and reason are not enough to engage and mobilise voters and signifies the need for the EU to engage citizens through a bottom-up approach, in constructing a positive image for the Union and engaging those who feel left behind.