Today, on December 10, 2018, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrates its 70th anniversary. After seven decades and many achievements, it is certainly important to honour the document which became a major milestone for the history of human rights and is now regarded as a yardstick by all nations. However, it is also necessary to highlight that the UDHR is not all black and white, as well as the declarations it inspired, like for example the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) or the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the European Union (2009).
All these papers, their articles and their words demonstrate the states’ commitment to the protection of human rights but, despite this, it is clear that today, nations and the institutions created to protect those rights are often failing. A simple example? Even if the three above-mentioned declarations prohibit slavery, servitude, forced labor and the trafficking of human beings, all these can still be found in many countries around the world and around Europe.
The practical failure in the protection of human rights is now of great concern especially in Europe, where these rights are some of the main principles on which the European Union was built. Recent events have questioned the willingness of Europeans to actually support other people to be able to enjoy their same human rights and have shown the difficulties the EU encounters in guaranteeing the fruition of these rights to its citizens, thus challenging the accomplishment of the entire European project.
But flaws do not only concern the practical protection of human rights. Considering the theoretical aspect, there are several obstacles in the understanding and consequent application of the UDHR. Continue reading “70 Years Later: Lights & Shadows of Human Rights”→
On September 12, the European Parliament voted on the triggering of Article 7 measures against Hungary. With 448 votes in favor of the motion, 197 against and 48 abstentions the required majority was achieved. Now, the Council of the European Union has to approve the vote unanimously in order to launch possible sanctions. The Hungarian government, accused of silencing critical media, targeting academics and NGOs as well as removing independent judges, said the decision was an insult to the Hungarian nation and people.
What is the Article 7 about?
Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU can take measures in case “there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2“. These include “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. Members of the European Parliament must support the resolution by two thirds in order to launch the Article 7 procedure as it happened last month in Strasbourg in the case of Hungary. With this vote, it is now possible for the Council of the European Union to make demands to the Hungarian government in order to improve the situation and even launch punitive measures if the requirements are not fulfilled. Possible sanctions may be a harder access to EU funding and can even lead to the loss of voting rights in the EU institutions. Continue reading “The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government”→
Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens. Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.
A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond. However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?
Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term, I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.” By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making, it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices. Continue reading “Bridging the Gap between European Citizens & Brussels?”→
February 20th was quite an ordinary Monday in Brussels: it was cold, grey and windy, a lot of traffic jams, a visit by an important high-level official – this time it was Mike Pence, by the way – in other words, a typical Brussels-like start of the week. Except for one thing – the offices of different organisations on that day were half-empty; something was clearly missing.
On that day, hundreds of interns refused to go to work in solidarity with the first Global Intern Strike. Instead, some of them went to the Schuman circle in the European Quarter to join the protest against unpaid and underpaid placements, and demand quality and remunerated internships for everyone. The event gathered about 100 people chanting “Pay your interns!” and holding placards that said “Interns are not slaves” and “Valuable experience does not pay my rent”. Several youth organisations, such as Global Intern Coalition, the local NGO Brussels Interns and European Youth Forum. The interns were also supported by some Members of the European Parliament as well. One of them, Terry Reintke, who belongs to the Green Coalition in Brussels, spoke at the protest and stated that the whole situation is “unacceptable”.
After the United Kingdom has left the European Union, it could very well be that English will cease to be an official language for the European Union, or so Danuta Hübner, head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, warned in a press conference. She explained that, “every EU country has the right to notify one official language. The Irish have Gaelic and the Maltese have notified Maltese, so you only have the UK notifying English.” This would mean that, “if we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English.” Although this might at first seem like a rather extreme measure, when you think about it, it really isn’t.
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.
On June 6 2016, a group of experts and students of European studies including Daniele Carminati, Christopher Heumann, Jesse van Amelsvoort, Marek Neumann, Senka Neumann-Stanivukovic, and Yining Chen, had a roundtable discussion on the November 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels bombings. Yining Chen, then the Editor-in-chief of The Euroculturer, had the original purpose of organizing this discussion to trace and reveal a specific mode of governance, a certain assemblage/arrangement of interlocking concepts, substances, forces including human and non-human agencies and organisms. If we see ISIS attacks as a specific part or so-called “event” of this assemblage/arrangement, how is this mode of governance organized/arranged/assembled within and through those attacks? For instance, who and what are made accountable? What kinds of affects, such as grief, anger, what forms of condemnation or approbation are deployed and mobilized? How do those two attacks rivet scholarly or political attentions? How is their “eventfulness” utilized by market and state actors to make sensible the social distribution of life and death, emergence and extinguishment?
“Elements” thus refer to those “who”s and “what”s, and the “security/governing nexus” can be one of the “how”s. But we are not focusing on those “elements” and “how”s/dispositifs/mechanisms as independent or closed entities, but rather as dispersed and competing discourses and material anchors that constitute the aforementioned mode of governance/arrangement/assemblage.
What and how are the various elements made relevant in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks?
Is there any interaction, interrelation or interdependency among those elements?
What do those interaction, interrelation and interdependency reveal about how we are governing and being governed?
What I am expecting from the discussion, is a collaborative research on what is continually being cited, circulated, and formed among those various practices, and how those various practices produce substances that meet and mirror the presumption of the cited, circulated and formed.
My personal opinion on the various elements in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks is that there is an excessive focus on ideological belief. There are two main arguments that support this statement: the factors for radicalisation in Western European Democracies and political power that rests on radical Islamism.
First, the individuals who carried out the Daesh attacks in Paris and Brussels were radicalised in a predominantly non-muslim environment and factors such as social exclusion, identity crisis and lack of perspective for personal success are overwhelmingly responsible for this radicalisation rather than muslim socialisation. The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, grew up and were socialised in French and Belgian “banlieues” or “sensitive neighbourhoods” that feature high crime rates, high unemployment rates and poor living conditions. The dominant factor for their radicalisation was the resentment for the French and Belgium society resulting from these conditions, with radical islamism presenting itself as an outlet for this resentment. Although radical muslim ideology is a dominant factor for radicalisation, I believe that the factors pushing individuals towards radicalisation are overlooked.
The second argument is that the leaders of terrorist groups pursue radical ideologies in order to strengthen their own power through traditional legitimacy in the Weberian sense. Just as the power of European nations was legitimised by a holy alliance with Christianity, leaders of Daesh use radical Islam to inspire loyalty and obedience. Other examples include Wahhabism, a religious sect that the Saudi-Arabian royal family rests much of its power on since the creation of the Saudi Arabian State in the middle of the 18th century.
Overly focusing on increased presence of radical islam in Western societies distracts from pertinent social issues and polarisation of society. Neglecting the role of radical islamist ideology in strengthening the position of power of political actors such as Daesh leadership or the Saudi Royal family harms a crucial argument in delegitimising movements exploiting religion for their own political gains.
The song mentioned in the discussion: IAM – Demain c’est loin live Egypte https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYNeFxSrjHU. According to Christopher, “it is a critique of precarious living conditions in French suburbs that is still relevant today.”
The subtopic I covered attempted to gather the reasons, known and speculative, of why people join ISIS or support their ideologies, both the ones actually going to fight in Syria and the ones embracing the ‘terrorist’ actions in Europe. There are several theories recognizing the fact that most of the recruits are outliers, borderlines, people with mental problems or purposeless people who supposedly ‘failed in life’ and are seeking revenge against society. Yet, according to several experts, the reasons are deeper and more complex than it is commonly known. After every terrorist attack the media attempts to cover singularly every known suspect, deceased or not, while creating an aura of negativity around the attackers. This behavior is legitimate but oftentimes abused. One of the most recent cases has been acknowledging that there may be some specific areas where people are more prone to subscribe to ISIS ideals (e.g. Sint-Jans-Molenbeek). It is not fair to negatively label whole communities because of such events and, additionally, it fails to consider the greater picture. Recruits come from sensibly different walks of life. Several newspapers and experts wondered about what may lay behind the reasons pushing such a different array of people to these final acts, which are commonly fatal for the perpetrators. My part will attempt to gather most significative ideas revolving around the topic and combine them with the main discourse and, eventually, the recent events. A second step would be trying to speculate on the roots of recruits’ reasoning and how to oppose it without causing further social discontent from both parties (Muslim and non-Muslim). The final goal should be to demystify the idea that recruits are all coming from similar backgrounds of criminality and dig deeper into why, even people who apparently have no connection with such extremism, may be willing to join them.
We should always historicize current events, put them in a historical overview. Certainly, choosing the right perspective matters. Following the “wave theory” of terrorism, we could say of the current wave of Islamist terrorism that it comes after anarchist violence around 1900, decolonization violence around the 1950s and revolutionary resistance in the later decades of the Cold War and thus is part of a fourth wave of religious violence. To me, such a perspective seems to include both dispassionate historical observation as well as political motives. It is history of the longue durée, it does not reveal anything particular about our present moment.
For what is distinctive of contemporary Islamist terrorism with which the West is faced, as well as the West’s response to the recent attacks in Paris (of course “Bataclan” and other locations in November 2015, but also Charlie Hebdo in January of that year) and Brussels (just some months, but I am also thinking of the attack on the Jewish Museum) is that it feeds into Europe’s difficult and fractured history with Islam. Islam created Europe as we know it: for the Greeks, “Europe” referred to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and it remained so for the Romans. Yet when Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula into the Middle East and Northern Africa, “Europe” moved – emigrated – north, and became synonymous with “Christendom.” The Moors were stopped in Southern France, and consequently pushed back; the Turks came to Vienna, and were pushed back. Isabella and Ferdinand ended the Reconquista when they conquered the last lands of the Emirate of Granada in 1492 (and, in the process, expelled all Jews, too). Islam was pushed beyond Europe’s borders once more. (The Balkans, where we find the most Islamic countries, percentage-wise, have never had a place – that is to say, have held a very awkward place – in the European imaginary, of course.)
Somewhere after 1683, when Ottoman forces besieged Vienna, “Europe” lost interested in Islam and turned its eyes to the world. As the Ottoman Empire went into a long decay, Europeans conquered lands all over the globe and gained wealth until then unimaginable. And so it went, until September 11, 2001, when a small number of airplanes and an outrageous response refocused Western eyes on the Middle East.
It is the premise of scholarship on postcolonial Europe that Europe today has not sufficiently, nor adequately, nor even substantially, dealt with its colonialist and imperialist history. And although it has become accepted that “the Empire writes back,” when the Empire strikes back, those attempts are ill-understood. Europe and the U.S. have ruled over countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa for decades, if not centuries, and have muddled in its politics ever since. The result is chaos, disorder and anger at those Western interventions. Yet we in the West have forgotten about these histories, or chosen to neglect them; instead, we present these attacks come out of nowhere. That is blatantly untrue – could it ever not be?
What’s new or contemporary about postcolonial Europe’s pains? That “they” – Muslims, Islamists, terrorists – are no longer “there,” if they ever were. Pretending that Islam is not part of Europe is senseless and in fact dangerous in our day and age, yet I wonder if politicians and the media understand that.
The discourse surrounding the emergence/existence of ISIS and the recent tragic terror events has, in my view, revealed several interesting elements, of which I would briefly like to discuss two; the different ways of translating international events into domestic courses of various EU member states and the increasingly evident lack of true political statesmanship among EU countries. Furthermore, I will briefly assess which implications these will have on how the EU will govern us.
In the aftermath of recent terror attacks claimed to be committed by supporters of ISIS, all eyes were on the European political elite as these, with both their words and actions, would set the tone of fighting Islamic fundamentalism. It is here that I was puzzled by how the “Islamic terrorism/refugee wave” nexus got pronounced differently among the EU member states. More interestingly, one could observe the reemergence of a soft border between – what is often termed – “old” and “new” Europe. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that while it predominantly were the old, Western, EU member states that were directly affected by the terror, it was the political elite of the new member states that explicitly linked Islamic terrorism to the recent migration issue. Certainly, while the Western European states are not immune to increasing nationalism/populism, whether in the form of the German Alternative für Deutschland, its French counterpart Front National, or the Austrian FPÖ), at the level of the highest political leadership, the discourse was one of caution, moderation, and warning of hasty conclusions that could spark further controversy (think of Merkel, but even Hollande). On the other hand, what we have witnessed in the new member states was a political elite contributing to an atmosphere of fear among the society, heightening political tensions. Here, one only has to think of statements by such politicians as Czech President Zeman, or Slovak and Polish Prime Ministers Fico and Szydlo, respectively.
What, then, is such a division in discourse and way of governing one’s population indicative off? I believe that it speaks to three things predominantly. First, there is a clear difference in the level of democratic consolidation among the two “parts” of the European Union. One again only has to look at the recent policies introduced in Hungary or Poland. This is the more surprising as we have been led to believe that through close observance of the Eastern European countries’ transition towards democracies, the EU has ensured that only consolidated democracies would join its ranks. The recent events, however, beg to differ. Second, the political cultures among the individual EU member states are as far apart as they were two decades ago. The idea of an “ever closer Union” has not materialized. Of course, while now pronounced markedly, this comes as no news to those following EU politics over the last few years, particularly the intra-EU debate surrounding the Greek debt crisis. Third, I see that scholarship on the EU’s enlargement policy is not yet obsolete. While a few years back, the 2004/2007 EU enlargement round has been presented as one of the EU’s most successful foreign policy endeavors, with the recent events enfolding, the EU’s enlargement policy – both past and future – should be revisited critically.
The second element the ISIS-related discourse revealed is the process of political statesmanship giving in into political populism. Naturally, in any times of (perceived) crisis populism flourishes, but the more important it becomes that mainstream political parties row against such populist waves. However, lately, we have seen very little of this among major European political parties. Rather, what we observe is a slow pupulization of mainstream politics, with the extremes becoming acceptable and promotable. We have seen this in the recent Slovakian presidential elections, but also in parliamentary elections across Europe, whether in France, Finland, Croatia, or Hungary. This further impacts on how liberal democracies understand the term “party politics.” First, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average voter to distinguish among the many competing parties as these increasingly become each other’s lookalikes. Second, by incorporating some radical rhetoric – yet never going the extra mile to becoming fully extremist – into their political programs as they fall into the populist trap, traditional mainstream political parties alienate some of their core voters. Third, as a result of the first two, we see new political movements emerge to answer very specific electoral wishes. This further adds to the political fragmentation that we have been observing in the past few decades in EU members states, making deliberative politics increasingly difficult.
Finally, I would like to conclude by a short political forecast. The domestic political fragmentation described above will have – and to some extent already has – far-reaching implications also for EU politics. The EU’s carefully crafted compromise between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism also worked thanks to the underlying logic of carefully balancing the interests of the center right and center left. As such, for instance, introducing the single European market has been offset by more emphasis on re-distributory and market-correcting policies. With the center right and center left losing in strength at the national – and by extension at the EU – level, it will becoming increasingly difficult for the EU to govern us.
Senka Neuman Stanivukovic
Every year, students of the Euroculture program are asked to organize a trip to Brussels for themselves and their fellow students. The trip takes place in the second semester of the 1st year; usually in March or April. Students go to Brussels to gain a glimpse of the Brussels bubble. Sooner or later, some of them will also become a part of this bubble. This year, the trip was scheduled for early April. On the morning of March 22nd, only a few days before planning for this year’s Euroculture trip was to be finalized, Brussels was attacked in three coordinated bombings; one bomb exploded at the Brussels Airport and one and the Maalbeek metro station. A third bomb was found during the Airport search, but it failed to activate. The attack left 35 killed and 300 injured. In my contribution to the panel, I would like to revisit the debate among the Euroculture students and staff that took place in the aftermath of what soon became the Brussels attack. The debate concerned if we should proceed with the trip or not.
I start my discussion – rather unoriginally – with a simple static. On average, 2 million people younger than 75 die yearly in the EU-28. The leading causes of death are heart-attack and cancer. 3% of all deaths are non-natural. The dominant cause of non-natural deaths are transport accidents; 0.3 %. The second most dominant cause of non-natural deaths is falling accounting for 0.2%. Since 1980, there have been roughly 4000 terrorist related deaths in Western Europe. The highest number of deaths by terrorism was in 1988, when 270 people died in the attack on the Pan Am flight. Last year’s attacks in Paris left roughly 150 dead. This year, 35 people died in the Brussels attack. That is roughly 59,965 deaths less than those caused by transport accidents and 39,965 deaths less than those caused by falling.
Now, Euroculture students and staff are a fascinating crowd; surely not easily upset or frightened. We tend not to be afraid of flying, driving, or eating fries. We travel gladly and extensively. We take stairs, ride bikes and walk, so falling is not perceived as life-threatening either. But, in the aftermath of the Brussels attack, whether or not to travel to Brussels was extensively debated. Some were relatively reluctant to go for safety reasons or a general feeling of discomfort. Others were supportive of the trip taking place, arguing that life should continue regardless of (or in spite of) the attacks.
So, why were some of us afraid and why was the trip debated in the first place? Cultural studies (partially security studies also) will tell you that being afraid of terrorism is similar to being afraid of ghosts as neither are real. Terrorism, accordingly, is interpreted as a discursive construction that prevents us from reading these violent acts as counter-hegemonic forces. This is certainly not a justification of terrorism. Rather, the analysis examines practices through which the state, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, disgraces its rivals and reinterprets old disputes. Furthermore, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, the state makes its citizens feel vulnerable and consequently more supportive of illiberal practices such as surveillance or even torture. Accordingly, in some very twisted way, terrorism legitimizes and enhances the state.
Good, so now we know what happens when and after we feel frightened. But, why are we so afraid of terrorism when statistics tell us the real danger lies in the innocently looking patat met mayo? Here, focusing solely on discourse and politics of fear does not provide a complete picture. I will therefore argue that problematization of terrorism as a discursive strategy is a serious case of reductionism. I would therefore, slightly rebelliously, like to move away from the script that was so kindly provided to us by Yining and say that there is more to the story than just discourse.
I therefore argue that – rather than deconstructing the official discourses – we should start by agreeing with them. First, terrorism does present an ultimate challenge to the Westphalian system. It is more than an act of war. It is more than an act from the fringes of society. Terrorism is an anti-thesis of the system because it is fluid, irrational, non-hierarchal, and constructed through the affect. Second, terrorism shifts the us-them binary because it comes from the in-betweens/the lack. Terrorism comes from the gaps of our society. Terrorist organizations may replicate state structures or mode of organization and we do see terrorists relaying extensively on modern technology. But, terror itself denies sovereignty as the main principle of social organization. As such, it is anti-us rather than against-us. Terror is not a counter-sovereignty or counter-reason, but it is anti-sovereignty and reason. Third, and this brings me to my final point, Bush jr. was correct that one can’t negotiate with terrorism. Once negotiations begin, reasons starts and terrorism ends. Bush jr. was, however, wrong on multiple other points including the illusionary that one can fight or enter a war with terrorism.
Good, so, Bush was right, your books were wrong. Still, why are we afraid? Terrorism is ultimately subversive. It destroys the order through which the system is created and shows potentials of a different one. In terror, we are all equal as potential victims. Immediate reactions to terror are physical; we are shocked, afraid, disoriented, angry or unprotected. Terrorism destroys reason. We see production of discourses (legitimizations) before and after terror, but these are always dislocated. Terrorism is therefore not a counter-force to the self, it is the negation of the self. The only way a state can respond to terrorism is through destroying itself. Fascism, as an extreme form of a control society, is ultimately self-destructive.
I will end with an anecdote. Last Saturday, the City of Groningen has organized an open-day at a Groningen police-force and fire-brigades. My son follows “Fireman Sam” almost religiously, so we went to see firetrucks, etc. Among others, we were shown a police-bus used for transport of inmates. We were explained that because the Dutch penal system is highly efficient, home-grown convicts are no longer held in prison but often serve time under house arrest. This, however, creates a surplus in a prison capacity and these busses are often used to bring Norwegian and Belgian inmates to Dutch prisons to serve a part of their sentence here. It is a good system, we were told, because in-house sentences have proven a dropping rate of recidivism, while the expensive prison system continues to be financed by foreign capital. However, this situation turns Foucault on his head. Is the fact that “the mad”, “the bad”, and “the ill” are no longer closed away, but are walking freely among us, a sign of diminishing state and a greater liberty? Alternative being that we are all – in the eyes of the state – potentially “mad”, “bad”, and “ill” and live in an overarching yet invisible madhouse, prison, and a hospital.
In conclusion, I gladly accept Yining’s request to discuss discursive responses to the recent terror attacks in Europe. We can discuss how acts of terror were reasoned/normalized by the elite, media, or even Euroculture discourses. Yet, we should not forget that terror and terrorism is not normal, that it is anti-normal. Accordingly, I would like to push the debate towards terror as a subversion of normality.
James W. Leigh (Absent due to illness)
I broadly propose that many of the narratives concerning recent terrorist acts perpetuated in mass media do not reflect carefully enough on the relationship to certain ‘internal’ issues in European or Western societies. Here I am not referring to questions of foreign policy (and therefore to a view of terrorism as a response to the actions of Western states), as I see this as another potentially misleading argument. Instead I suggest that because recent acts of terrorism in Europe have tended to be perpetrated by citizens of European countries, people who grew up in those states, our understanding of them needs to become more focused on internal factors.
Essentially what makes an act ‘terrorist’ is not just the act in itself, but more so the framing of it and the transmission of fear/terror via mass communication. Thus when an attack takes place, it is our mass narration of it which determines its precise nature. Yet in our desire to construct a terrorist bogeyman, a frightening ‘other’, out of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, we do not merely fulfill the destiny of the act by constructing it as ‘terrorist’; we may also overlook the more ordinary/banal (criminal) nature of those responsible. This is problematic, as it means we focus on a particular set of extremes, those which can be tied to religion/belief and therefore fit in with the idea of Islam as the ‘other’, the non-European enemy without.
Instead we could look towards the more commonplace social problems of those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, which may be considered as challenges ‘within’. These individuals appear drawn to extremes, whether religious or non-religious. Prior to religious fanaticism, the majority were at some point involved in activities which would appear somewhat contrary to social norms; drugs and arms dealing, etc. Thus radicalisation is important, but it is only one factor, and moreover is a later stage in a larger process; it is not necessarily the root of the problem. Focusing on the Islamist character of the attackers or links to ISIS has two particular effects; it emphasises the alien, ‘other’ nature of the perpetrator without reflecting that they originate ‘within’, and it overlooks the somewhat broader sociopathic and criminal characteristics of these individuals (and how they arise). The result: We are too focused on asking how to address radicalisation itself, rather than asking how certain people become open to radicalisation in the first place, and how we might deal with the social ills which give rise to such openness before it gets to that stage.
In 1992, forty years after the European Union was established, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the notion of a “European citizen”.
It did not go well. Not only did this new term awaken mistrust between the peoples of the EU’s different Member States, it even caused such considerable internal controversy states such as Denmark that the European Council had to release a statement in order to confirm that “citizenship of the Union is a political and legal concept which is entirely different from national citizenship (…)”. In the same year, the European Commission sought ways to create common EU symbols but faced strong resistance from the Member States. A good example of this was the Commission’s proposals to have athletes from all Member States appear as one delegation during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, a proposal which was fully roundly by governments.
Now, 1992 seems a long time ago, and surely, one would think, that after more than twenty years, with a generation already born as European citizens coming into adulthood, this term would have to be something warm and familiar, something, we cherish as much as our nationality.
But, for most, it is not.
In the European Union’s web portal, it is still stated that “EU citizenship is additional to and does not replace national citizenship.” Eurosceptics keep arguing that to overcome nationality is impossible, and those who think otherwise are to be regarded as utopian fantasts. With Brexit, it feels like the utopian idea of a one strong, united Europe is slowly drifting away. More and more people from the Member States reject the idea of an ever-closer Europe, often out of fear that their state might lose its sovereignty under the pressure of common policies. On this note, one might even argue that it is the lack of trust and general indifference among the Europeans that is the main reason why the European Union is facing such problems now.
A survey conducted by TNS political & social at the request of the European Commission in 2015 shows that there still are people in the Member States – fortunately, not too many, and the share of them is declining – that do not even fully understand the term “European citizen” and the mystery hidden within the term . In 2015, 13 % of the respondents stated that they have never even heard the term “citizens of the European Union”, while 35 % of respondents said that they have heard about it, but do not know what it means exactly.
Maybe this is the reason why, when looking at the statistical data from 2015, over 30 % of the Europeans admit not feeling like a European citizen. In addition, 38 % of all Europeans admitted that they not only do not feel like a European citizen, they actually see themselves as exclusively a member of their nation. This, again, might be the reason why European citizens distance themselves from European affairs – this can be seen in all its “glory” when looking at the 2014 European Parliamentary election where only 42.6% of all people holding European citizenship voted. 42.6%! Not only it is that the lowest turnout since the first European elections in 1979, it also makes one think – what happened?
It is not like the idea is not being promoted. There are different levels of Erasmus programme available to encourage exploring other Member States, there are European days, information centres in every country, videos, information campaigns and the homepage run by the European Commission – europa.eu– can be accessed in every single official EU language. But somehow, the notion does not reach its target. It seems that on the way from Brussels to our homes, the information gets lost and never really reaches us, the citizens of the European Union.
So what does it mean to be a European citizen?
Let’s put it in an everyday perspective.
To be a European citizen means that you can finish your dinner with your Spanish family, and carry on your night with drinking a nice, cold bottle of German beer, maybe snacking on some French macaroons while watching Downton Abbey and texting with your best friend from Bulgaria. It means that you can say “Hello” in at least five languages, and your “bad” words collection is enormous thanks to your friends from Italy, Estonia and Greece.
Being a European citizen means you can spontaneously buy some low cost airplane tickets and have a nice weekend whether up in the snowy mountains, deep into mysterious forests or sunbathing in the sunny beaches, regardless whether you are from Latvia, Portugal or Slovenia.
On a more serious note, it means that you can make your voice heard by a petition, or a letter, or even by becoming a candidate for Parliamentary elections and you have the fundamental right not to be discriminated whether by race, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation. It means that, as long as you stay within the borders of the Union, you are never “illegal” and you can work and live abroad, and are always protected by the diplomatic and consular authorities in another twenty-seven countries, excluding your homeland. Being a European Citizen means that under certain conditions, if you feel that the national court of your homeland has ruled unfairly, you can bring the country to Court of Justice and fight for your truth.
To have the fortune to be a European citizen means that you have the rare opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world in new ways again and again, and yet – stay true to your own nationality.
That is what being a European citizen means. Simple as that.
Elizabete Marija Skrastinais new to The Euroculturer. Keep up with her latest stories by following The Euroculturer on Facebook or by subscribing to our newsletter.
As jars of Marmite auctioned online for £10,000, following a price dispute between Tesco and Unilever, and parliament locked horns over the right to a debate of Brexit negotiation terms; the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced she would instigate another Scottish Independence referendum if the UK was forced to leave the single market, at the Scottish National Party conference.
This would be the second referendum in two years. Scotland voted to remain part of the UK by a 10 per cent margin in September 2014, after a prolonged and intense referendum campaign that ended with the removal of long-time leader of the SNP Alec Salmond. Many UK politicians, Theresa May included, are describing Sturgeon’s announcement of a second referendum draft as a temper tantrum over Brexit.
Whenever I tried eating Dutch spice cake, Ontbijtkoek, during my semester in Groningen or Swedish cinnamon buns, Kanelbullar, during my time in Uppsala I couldn’t but wonder at the long history of Europe’s culinary tryst with spices. It is these spices that allured Europeans to cross difficult terrains and set sail to distant shores. The fascination with spices made a group of Europeans take part in maritime trade across the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were the first, the Dutch were not far behind, followed by the French and pursued by the Brits. Spice trade gradually gave way to trade in cotton, followed by Europe’s stake in the global slave trade and the mobility of indentured labourers. However, the nature of trade and the interaction in the early modern era between European traders and local communities in various littorals around the Indian Ocean were much different from what they came to look like in the days of high colonialism. In most of cases during sixteenth and seventeenth century, the European maritime powers could only access a few places nearer the sea, not the continental hinterland lying beyond it.
Our narrative is about such a patch of landmass known as the lower Gangetic basin of Bengal, where the Ganges, one of the mightiest rivers in Asia meets the Bay of Bengal. For strategic reasons the mouth of the Gangetic delta, the largest of its kind in the world, allured maritime traders throughout the early modern era. Land-based trading communities, such as the Turks and the Armenians in the India of that time were met with seafarers like Portuguese and Dutch traders. Conflicting interests controlled their destinies; and Gangetic Bengal became what would later be known as the potboilers of wandering traders and changing communities. Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of British India till 1911, and the second city of the vast British Empire, grew out of this unique story of conflict and reconciliation. However, this was never a unidirectional and easy narrative, for multiple political actors from Europe flocked into a tiny patch of landmass and made this region a unique exception in an otherwise homogenous story of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent.
Long time before the Brits got involved in lower Gangetic Bengal, the Portuguese were busy operating their riverine ports of Hooghly and Bandel, some forty kilometres upstream on the river Hooghly (Ganges) from what would later become Calcutta. This dates back to mid sixteenth century CE. As the navigability of the river decreased with time the Dutch East India Company settled some three-four kilometres south of Portuguese Bandel. The Armenians got their fair share within Dutch territories, allowing them to operate Armenian Orthodox churches in the region. The French East India Company settled in farther South, nearer the sea, in a place they named Chandernagore, managing to keep it under their hold until 1952, five more years after India gained its independence from the British Empire. Greeks were in the next town called Bhadreswar, and the Danish were busy with the next town, Serampore, the only Danish colony in eastern India. With the decreasing navigability of river and a want to have a British fortress in an advantageous position closer to the sea, British Calcutta was founded some twenty kilometres south of Danish Serampore. To make this long story short, the essence of it is that for almost two centuries in this small patch of land on the bank of river Hooghly, hardly forty kilometres in length, there were trading posts or proto-colonies of so many European communities that it was not surprising for later historians to refer to this tiny area as ‘Little Europe’, way before Brussels got its theme park of the same name.
These small towns, which now make up the northern suburbs of the metropolis of Calcutta, were once very distinct from each other in their respective culture and architecture. Portuguese Bandel boasted its culinary distinctiveness, as it provided modern Bengal with Bandel cheese, a Portuguese variant of cottage cheese and were responsible for the invention of Bengal’s national sweetmeat, Rasagolla. Dutch Chinsurah was an amazingly fortified city with a fort named Fort Gustavus. French colonialists were so invested with their Petite France in Chandernagore that they remodelled the Gangetic riverbank with French-styled promenades. The Danes followed suit. The church of St. Olav in the heart of Serampore and the Danish cemetery were distinct from the British architecture of Calcutta.
One might notice that although the different ‘national’ actors were competing with each other for more than two centuries in a tiny space like this, the political structures gradually became homogenised, as it was seemingly impossible to practice exclusivity within the otherwise British surroundings. Brits were late in reaching the shore; but following the saying that slow and steady wins the race, Brits were the ones who remained in pursuit of colonial power and eventually got hold of most of these other European trading posts in exchange for something or the other. The Dutch East India Company left Chinsurah in 1825 in exchange for complete hold over Java in Indonesia. Brits gave up their stake in the Dutch East Indies, modern Indonesia, and occupied Chinsurah; the Dutch fortress got demolished and with the dismantled Dutch material they made a British Chinsurah. However, the civil institutions conceived during the final days of Dutch rule over Chinsurah remained as a bizarre mix of Dutch, British and indigenous Bengali customs. Hooghly Collegiate School, established in 1812 and the oldest European styled school in Eastern India bears testimony to this rare Dutch-English-Bengali conjunct.
Danish Serampore’s fate was a bit different, mostly because of the Christian missionaries. Since the late eighteenth century Danish Serampore had become a melting pot of missionaries coming from different European backgrounds, eventually making it a prominent centre of scholarship and printing. Whether or not all these activities were Danish or English or Scottish does not make the narrative less fuzzy and complex. Panchanan Karmakar, a master craftsman from Danish Serampore, assisted Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and Charles Wilkins, two Englishmen coming to serve the British East India Company; and together they made possible the first ever moveable typefaces for Bangla script. With this Danish-English axis in the background there came out the first ever book in Bangla printed with those moveable typefaces. A Grammar of Bengal Language by an Englishman Nathaniel Brassey Halhed was printed in 1778 in Hooghly, the erstwhile Portuguese port next to Dutch Chinsurah.
Chandernagore, ‘la petite France en Inde’ for the French colonials, was perhaps the only place that passionately resisted, for more than three centuries, the cultural influence the English could exert from its surroundings. Chandernagore, along with a few other French towns like Pondicherry in the south of India, remained a symbolic and ideal space of what could have been a French-influenced Indian subcontinent, had the British not defeated them in the Indian extensions of the Napoleonic wars. Chandernagore continued to be a French town up until 1952, making it a safe haven for French architecture and culture to flourish. It was the only town in eastern India to have a school-curriculum with French as the medium of instruction. Generations of Bengalis in Chandernagore were taught in Bangla and French, with little or no English interference whatsoever.
In a nutshell, this small patch of land, affectionately called ‘Little Europe in Bengal’ garnered among generations of Bengalis a sense of Europe in its totality. This awareness of an ‘other’ Europe, a Europe outside the immediacies of British colonial interests, kept fascinating the Bengali psyche for a rather long time. Bengali revolutionaries who were struggling against the British Empire often took refuge in these non-British territories so as to avoid arrest, eventually taking French ships to flee to the mainland of Europe, the Continent in British parlance. This, in turn, gave rise to a different pattern of mobility that was quite different from usual colonial mobility within the metropolis and the margins of a single empire. Little Europe’s legacy transcends those otherwise homogenous patterns of binaries. Just like the theme-park in Brussels, this Little Europe had also tried casting the idea and image of Europe in a multi-national and pluri-cultural mould. The narrative, however, does not end there. Permeating its historical specificity etched in a distant past, Little Europe has again started attracting various European nation states to have a closer look at the somewhat forgotten territories they had once occupied. The early twenty-first century has brought back Dutch historians to Chinsurah, allowing them to have a closer look at their forgotten Dutch-Bengal style of painting and architecture. Danes, as usual, are not far behind. The National Museum of Denmark, under a project named ‘Serampore Initiative’, has plunged into one of the biggest urban conservation projects in recent times, taken by a European state outside Europe’s territorial outreach. These renewed national interests are manifold, involving more and more historical nuances to unearth and contemporary narratives to explore. Little Europe continues to be an incessant point of convergence between Europe and South Asia.