Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.”

The definition of the state of danger is specified in Act No. CXXVIII of 2011, which focuses on disaster management. Based on this Act and on the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the governing party, Fidesz, declared the state of danger in the current situation of global pandemic. [2] Shortly after, on 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament with 138 votes for, and 53 against had passed the bill on the Coronavirus Protection Act (2020.évi XII. törvény a koronavírus elleni védekezésről). [3]

Absolute power or powerful absolute

The new law allows the government to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, until the state of emergency is over. [4] According to the Coronavirus Act, the Government may exercise its powers to the extent necessary and proportionate to prevent, treat, eradicate the epidemic and to prevent or eliminate its harmful effects. [5] There were immediate accusations of abuse of power by many international media channels, as they feared the destruction of democratic values in Hungary.

However, putting on our “reality check glasses,” not much has changed in Hungarian politics with the passing of the Coronavirus Act other than at the theoretical level. Viktor Orbán’s party has two-thirds of the seats in parliament since 2010. Fidesz has the majority of votes and the power to change and construct (or deconstruct) the legal system in their favor. [6] Even without the new law that gives Orbán unprecedented emergency powers, the Fidesz-dominated parliament could theoretically extend the state of danger as long as they wish.

The trap is ready

On 31 March 2020, just one day after the two-thirds passed the Coronavirus Act, Viktor Orbán said in a Facebook video that “the opposition parties did not vote for the state of danger’s prolongation. Our boat got a leak.” What he meant by the video message is that the opposition does not take the pandemic situation seriously enough and would endanger the health and safety of Hungarian citizens by voting against the Corona Act. However, the opposition voted against the bill because they wanted it to have a defined time period.

Since Fidesz already had the power of majority, this Corona Act might just be another populist trick for the approaching national elections. Framing the opposition as the ‘other’ that is counterproductive in times of crisis fits perfectly within the party’s rhetoric. Hence, this pandemic could be another opportunity for Orbán to stay in power and heighten populist narratives of strong leadership. As a global economic crisis emerges, the pandemic can cause governing regimes to lose large parts of their voting bases. [7] However, if ruling parties handle the corona crisis well, they might gain even more supporters than before.

Gábor Török, a Hungarian political scientist, said he would not be surprised if Fidesz would propose an early national election right after the pandemic crisis. He suspects a trap set for the opposition – which they directly walked into. [8] Yet Fidesz already has a well-established ground with its two-third majority and they did not really need the new Coronavirus Act to stay in power. Were all these efforts only to fool the opposition while generating international outrage and risking aid restrictions from the European Union?

Pushing the limits

The passing of the Coronavirus Act resulted in center-right political leaders asking Donald Tusk to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP). [9] This happened before, for instance during last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when the EPP was reluctant to include Orbán’s party after controversial debates from member parties. However, the EPP needed the Hungarian votes and knew Fidesz supporters will be active and participate in forming the future of the EU. [10]

The EU is keeping a close eye on Hungarian politics since the report of Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini expressing concerns regarding the government’s abuse of migrants, restrictions on press freedom, corruption and conflicts of interest, and “stereotypical attitudes” towards women. [11] Sargentini called for urgent measures evoking Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union that permits the EU to suspend certain rights of a member state. However, the article does not contain any information on possible mechanisms to expel a member. Already two years had passed since the process initiated, but no sanctions were imposed so far. Moreover, Fidesz used the charges of the EU to build and strengthen their nationalist, Eurosceptic narratives.

On 2 April 2020, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed her concerns regarding the developments in Hungary saying that Orbán’s measures went too far. [12] Yet once again there is no real action taken, and the issue stays on the rhetoric level. Currently, it looks like the Hungarian government is winning this battle: It looks like the EU is unlikely to impose punitive measures on Orbán, Fidesz, or Hungary. [13]

To sum it up

Viktor Orbán managed to convert the communist Hungary into a vibrant democracy, only to then transform it into a semi-autocratic member state of the European Union under only one political party’s ruling. Since Fidesz has the majority of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, it has all the power with or without the Corona Act. Warning words of European leaders will not scare Viktor Orbán. In fact, they work counterproductively, since they provide the Hungarian Prime Minister with new narratives about the incompetence of the EU. You could say that Orbán has won because of the European response. It is likely the Hungarian government will continue strengthening its grip on power by outplaying and weakening the national opposition, thereby further challenging the democratic stability and the credibility of the European Union.

Picture: Pedro Antunes, Flickr

Sources: 

[1] “The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).”

[2] “Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

[3] Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence, “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

[4] “Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/

[5] “2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről,” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020, http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

[6] “Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

[7] Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz, “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

[8] “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner,” mandiner.hu, accessed April 5, 2020, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_aorszagot.

[9] Sarantis Michalopoulos, “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

[10] “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” Hungary Today (blog), May 27, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

[11] Alice Cuddy, “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary,” euronews, September 12, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-Article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

[12] “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 3, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

[13] “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” Hungary Today (blog), September 19, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

Bibliography:

“2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről.” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020. http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

“Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence. “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

Carlsson-Szlezak, Philipp, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz. “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus.” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

Cuddy, Alice. “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary.” euronews, September 12, 2018. https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

Hungary Today. “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” May 27, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

Hungary Today. “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” September 19, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

“Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

“Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/.

Michalopoulos, Sarantis. “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP.” Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

“The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).” Ministry of Justice, 2017. https://www.kormany.hu/download/f/3e/61000/TheFundamentalLawofHungary_20180629_FIN.pdf.

mandiner.hu. “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner.” Accessed April 5, 2020. https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_az_orszagot.

http://www.euractiv.com. “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” April 3, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

What the hell is (still) going on in Chile?

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

Since October 2019 Chile is (almost literally) on fire. Just to have an idea of the situation, let’s start taking a look at some numbers regarding the protests that since then erupted against the government and the whole social and economic system in the South American country: At least 30 dead as well as thousands injured and jailed. Among the injured, many went blind because of rubber bullets shot by police – it is estimated that more than 200 people have got eye problems. The demonstrations have also affected the daily life, the public transport and the political spectrum. Monuments, buildings and historical places have been constantly damaged, as the streets are still full of people angrily protesting.

That is the summary of something that might have been postponed for decades.

During my internship at Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, I had the opportunity to meet people from different newsrooms. DW has newsrooms in more than 30 different languages, so imagine that it is a piece of the world inside its own world. One of the journalists that I met was José Urrejola, from Chile, who has been covering the whole situation and its developments. With a local perspective but also through an international coverage of the facts, in this interview he explains what is going on in his country, and explicitly argues that “the protests will continue until this president resigns or a ‘miracle’ happens, and he decides to make the changes that people are asking for.”

Euroculturer Magazine: What is actually happening in Chile? Tell us a little bit about the paths that the country took in the last decades and also why the protests erupted now, by the end of last year.

José Urrejola: Firstly we have to put it into context. From my perspective as well from the perspective of many other political experts and scientists, the current problems of Chile originated mainly in the periods of dictatorship and post-dictatorship. During this dark period in Chilean history, with Augusto Pinochet in power, the country established a constitution in which, among other things, gives the country’s economic elite the power to buy and sell whatever they want. Private property is stronger and more protected than what belongs to the state. That has led, for example, to the fact that even something as basic as drinking water supplies belongs to private companies. Even though Chile has actually grown economically speaking after the dictatorship, the wealth has been accumulated among families of the economic elite, and only a small percentage of this money goes to other social classes. The people in Chile are not protesting because of lack of food or because they cannot buy shoes for their children. Chileans are protesting because of a thousand abuses featured by the economic and political elites that have ruled the country over the last three decades, after the return to democracy, in 1990. People are demanding “dignity”, that is, systems that cover basic needs, with a decent health system, a decent pension system and qualified education, among other things. It is hoped that with the plebiscite for a new constitution new systems can be established for the society.

EM: The government has already pointed out signs for reforms, but the protests continue. Do you believe in a possible deadline for the protests?

JU: It doesn’t matter which reform this government establishes, nothing will satisfy the demands of the people. The president Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, represents the questionable economic elite. He is not the right man to solve this crisis. Basically, if he was up to accept the reforms claimed by the citizens and subsequently change the system, structurally speaking, he and other rich people would be affected and would have to give up the power. Therefore, the protests are going to continue until this president resigns or a “miracle” occurs and he decides to make the changes that the people are asking for.

EM: Do you believe that the riots were already predicted by all sides of it, government and students, unions and the social classes most affected by liberal policies? I mean, they all knew that one day it was going to happen?

JU: Personally I don’t believe people who say “we didn’t see it was coming” or “we didn’t know this could happen”. This social outburst was foreshadowed some years ago, but no one really took it seriously. We can agree that it took long for Chileans to show their dissatisfaction, that they were “asleep” and allowing these abuses for a long time. However, I would describe this as a ticking bomb that sooner or later was going to explode and the trigger was those 30 Pesos in the transport (the demonstrations started after the Chilean government has raised the price of public transport tickets).

EM: How do you face the fact of students now having migrated the protest to the intellectual part of the process? In this case, in Chile, you have to take a test to get into universities, and the students said that this year they will not take this test. What do you think about this and which can be the consequences of this act?

JU: Well, the first people that started doing something regarding the price of the public transport tickets were high school students. It’s the young people who started moving the country. And we could say that this social explosion was “agglutinating” because it binds up all the demands of the citizens: health, education, pensions etc. In the case of the education sector, young students are aware that the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test) is part of the bad Chilean education system. This test endorses social segmentation: while the richest have a better education through a private system, those with less income do not get high scores and have no options to study. In addition, they are forced to get into debt if they want to study. Therefore the problem is not the final test, but the education system that results in enormous differences through income levels. Regarding the actions taken by young people, unfortunately they could not manage to change anything by boycotting the test. Perhaps they managed to get people talking about it, but the underlying problems are rather structural in society. The fault is not the test itself, even though I don’t think it’s good either because it only measures knowledge and not skills.

EM: More liberal sectors have said that the situation in Chile could be even worse if liberal policies had not been launched in recent decades. In this case, these people want to say that Chile could be in an even worse financial situation. What do you think about that?

JU: Part of the society is asking for an overall change in the country’s economic system. I don’t think that’s possible. To me it seems that it is not arguable that Chile has grown through liberal policies in recent years. Meanwhile the wealth has mainly remained with the economic elite, as I mentioned earlier, and just a small percentage of that went to the rest of the society. Chile still has a neoliberal or capitalist system, whatever you want to call it. Nevertheless the country is not growing anymore. It is stagnated, though that meets the current financial situation in a global context. So it is not because the system in Chile is effective or not. Anyway the problems of the Chilean economy are different: it is not dynamic, it is an old-fashioned economy, in which the exploitation of raw materials such as copper, lithium, agriculture and wine are its main markets. If Chile is not capable of developing in terms of innovation, technology or industries, it does not matter what model it has: it will not grow economically. In modern times, it is also necessary to aim at a circular economy, with a focus on the environment. Chile is far away from this and it does happen precisely because of the country’s economic elite. Most of these people are concerned in accumulating more wealth for their personal well-being.

EM: In your point of view, what is the future of Chile and Latin America?

JU: It’s hard to answer this question. In Chile, I don’t see a possible short-term solution. The first thing the country should do is changing the constitution, which was idealized during the dictatorship. Otherwise the economic elite will continue to rule the country. But even if a new Magna Carta is written, there is still a long way to define which society the country wants to build, which pension system, which health system, which education system, among other important ones. In Latin America, I believe that we should focus our efforts on promoting policies that are aligned with the global context, that is, adopting a circular economy, concerned with the environment, and also fighting against the continent’s economic inequality. However, I do not imagine that this will happen soon, unfortunately.

Picture: Nelson Anguita, protestas Santiago, Flickr

1989-2019: “You will be the generation to suffer the consequences of these changes.”

By Maeva Chargros

The story is known – some would even say simple: on November 17, 1989, a large demonstration in Prague triggered the Velvet Revolution, that would peacefully end four decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia; Václav Havel would be the President of the new federal Republic, which would split between the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Then, both countries would join NATO and the European Union, keeping close diplomatic ties. Czechia would constantly be confused with Chechnya, and Slovak diplomats in Brussels would have to organise regular mail-swapping meetings with their Slovenian counterparts. Meanwhile, everyone would keep talking about Czechoslovakia as if these two countries only made sense when together.

Nonetheless, if you sit down and listen to Czechs and Slovaks, you realise the story is not that simple: for them, the Velvet Revolution cannot be reduced to just one demonstration, one election, and one painful breakup.

Therefore, instead of a banal memo about various events organised around the Czech Republic to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this major historical milestone, here is an attempt to help international readers to see the events from a Czech, or actually Czechoslovak perspective, through the eyes of people who actually saw the events as they happened – on TV, in the newspapers, or on the main square of their city or village. I interviewed three historians, who were in very different locations in November 1989. They were between 7 and 19 years old, thus each gives a very different perspective on the events that unfolded thirty years ago. All of them are now part of the Euroculture team at the Department of History of Palacký University in Olomouc. You will find more information about them at the end of this article; their age at the time of the Velvet Revolution is given next to their names in the article. Continue reading “1989-2019: “You will be the generation to suffer the consequences of these changes.””

Brexit and the generation that was robbed

By Hannah Bieber

Starting my first semester in Uppsala, Sweden, I have encountered a lot of students who came from the United Kingdom to do their Erasmus+ year abroad. We discussed extensively about Brexit and the uncertainties that currently hang over their head. These young British citizens who may be the last to enjoy the Erasmus+ experience as we know it today, have made me realize that students may be the first to suffer the consequences of Brexit.

Brexit and the higher education system

No one knows for sure what consequences a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will have on the British – and European – higher education system. 

First of all, British universities may become less attractive for students from the European Union (EU) countries. In January 2019, the Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA) published a bulletin which showed that, in the year 2017/2018, 5% of the undergraduate students in the United Kingdom came from EU member states. At a masters level, EU students accounted for 8% of the total of postgraduates. However, previous reports reveal that since the referendum, Britain has experienced a slight but significant drop in the number of EU students enrolled in its universities.

In addition, in the event of a ‘no-deal’, EU students would lose their privileged status. Indeed, as fellow European citizens, they had to pay the same tuition fees as other British students – while international students from outside the EU had to pay twice the price. When Britain leaves the Union, no one knows for sure if EU students will still benefit from this status. If it is not the case, many could be discouraged from turning to the United Kingdom for their studies, as argues a ‘No-Deal Briefing’ published by a consortium of 136 Universities in August 2019.

On the other hand, the question of residence permits might also make British universities less attractive. The government has already promised that, even in the event of a ‘no-deal’, EU students would be able to remain in the country for up to three years. But for these universities, this is not enough. Longer curriculums, such as Bachelors with a year abroad, some Scottish Bachelor and PhD last longer than three years. What would happen to these students? Universities demand more efforts from the government in this respect.

Finally, what makes the United Kingdom such an attractive place for students is the quality of education, greatly due to the high level of research. But this has been reached partly thanks to EU funding, such as the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA), as the briefing argues. Without these funds, British research might be hindered and the universities could become less competitive than others in Europe and the world. In an article published in March 2019, the International Students House also pointed out that students were a very benefitting immigration on many levels. Thus, the United Kingdom higher education system has a lot to loose in the event of a ‘no-deal’.

What about Erasmus+?

On March 27, 2019, the European Parliament adopted a regulation to ensure that British students who had started their year abroad could still get their grant even after Brexit and even in the case no deal was reached. Thus, these students are assured to get their mobility grant – on which their entire mobility relies for most of them. But it will not be possible for students to apply for the Erasmus+ grant after Brexit. If their mobility starts after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union, they will not be benefiting from the Erasmus+ program. This could keep many of them from doing a year abroad.

Another downside is the question of residence permits. In countries like Sweden, international students from outside the European Union have to apply for a visa in order to live and study there. These administrative measures make the mobility more complicated prior to the departure, it can also be a drawback for many students in the future.

In February 2019, Universities UK launched a #supportstudyabroad campaign to demand financial support from the government for international mobilities. Apart from the human and personal journey one experiences when they study abroad, this campaign highlighted the fact that students who have spent time studying abroad are more likely to get a first-class degree and have higher chances of getting hired at the end of their studies. In the last three years, British universities have been increasingly pressuring the British government to allot funds that would allow students to do a year abroad, even in the event of a ‘no-deal’, which would mean the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Erasmus+ program. The recent reports and briefings have been requesting a ‘full-funded replacement scheme to Erasmus+’ to allow students who are supposed to go abroad during their degree to do so. But will this be enough?

The generation that was robbed

What particularly struck me when I met British students here in Uppsala and talked about Brexit is that they did not recognize themselves and their country in this situation. This generation of young people has been growing up in a Europe where they could fly and stay anywhere without residence permits, where they could feel themselves both British and Scottish and European. In a book published in 2019 called Youthquake 2017: The Rise of Young Cosmopolitans in Britain, James Sloam and Matt Henn observed that 80% of the full-time students voted to remain in the European Union. According to the authors, this category of people is more open to cosmopolitanism, mobility and cultural exchanges. In August 2018, the BBC News published a survey that revealed that over 80% of the people aged 18-24 would vote to remain in the European Union if a new referendum was launched. 

The problem is that, at the time of the referendum, most of the people who are now on exchange and did not have the right to vote. This is the frustration that many of those I encountered have manifested. They feel robbed and have also chosen to do a year abroad because they knew that they might be one of the last generations of British Erasmus+ students. This is not to mention that some of the Scottish and Northern Irish think that, since their region voted to remain, it is unfair that they have to suffer of the consequences of the Brexit. 

Many of them also evocated the fact that their last two Prime Ministers – Theresa May and Boris Johnson – had not accessed their position after democratic elections. But more than that, what is particularly difficult for these students right now is the uncertainty. Brexit should have happened in March 2019 and ever since, the situation seems to only get more and more complicated every day. These students do not know if they will have to apply for a residence permit any time soon, or what repercussions a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could have on their year abroad. They are powerless, waiting for a government which they feel does not represent them any more to make decisions that might have a tremendous impact on their life.

No one knows when Brexit is actually going to happen, nor how it will happen. Lately, the British government has been heading towards a ‘no-deal’, but this process is so long and complicated that we may not see the end of it any time soon. However, one thing is certain: these young British citizens will keep on carrying the European dreams and ideas – of freedom, mobility and exchange. Whether they transmit them to the next generations is now up to us all.

HK Protest – Not Only about An Extradition Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Municipal elections in Turkey: what did happen there

By Sumeyye Hancer

On March 31, 2019, Turkey held its municipal elections. According to the BBC, 57 million people were registered and the turnout displayed an outstanding 85%. After 25 years of seat in Ankara, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), known as the Justice and Development Party, has lost its seat in the capital city as well as in Istanbul metropolis and other municipalities. The recession announced last March appears to have played a decisive role against the ruling party.

The event took a tragic turn as clashes occurred and four people died in south and east Turkey. Dozens were also reported injured in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir. In Istanbul, one person was stabbed in Kadıköy district as reported by The Guardian.

In the European Union, the German magazine Der Spiegel announced the “Ende eines Mythos” (“The End of a Myth”, in English). In France, Le Monde spoke of “un revers cinglant” (“A scathing reverse”). In Spain, El País mentioned “un duro revés” (“a harsh reverse”) and the loss of the “islamistas turcos” (“Turkish islamists”).

Indeed, the results seem to showcase patterns of a new momentum vis-à-vis the 2023 national elections, albeit the outcomes have been contested by the ruling party which at first denounced “invalid votes and irregularities in most of the 12,158 polling stations in Ankara”, then “irregularities” and “organised crime”. The result of the election in Istanbul was appealed as announced by Ali İhsan Yavuz, the deputy chairman of AKP. However, on April 9th The Guardian announced that the partial recount process confirmed the lead of the CHP (Republican People’s Party) candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu.

Today, half of the citizens support Erdogan and the other half despises him for polarising the country, according to the analysis by Mark Lowen, BBC Turkey correspondent, in article published on April 1st entitled “Turkey local elections: Setback for Erdogan in big cities”.

How do I approach the event as a Euroculture student? Continue reading “Municipal elections in Turkey: what did happen there”

The ghosts are back

By Ismail El Mouttaki

Je voudrais vous demander quelque chose, est ce que vous croyez aux fantômes? (I would like to ask you something: Do you believe in ghosts?)

Back in 2010, a bunch of young freshman finally could smell a wave of change, a wave that hypnotizes mind, and its magnetic aura did raid the whole world. [1]

“The political system must change”, screams one. Proudly, another one responds with a confident tone as if he knew it all: “The dominant culture would simply reproduces the same political system and its authoritarian practices. You will change a dictator for another… Anyway”. The third boy, in an attempt to outsmart the other ones, whispers: “Forget it. Let’s start a new community, a self-sufficient community with our refined elitist pure values: a kibbutz.” [2]

These memories are already mummified in my head and I could not care less about change anymore. Running away from the spectre of this conversation led me to the far east of the globe, its centre, and then back to the west.

Nine years later, on another saturday evening, it is time for my ritual, a kind of a few pleasurable residues of a boring childhood, glancing at Strasbourg’s ruelles, Rhine, Cathedrale and the monk who inhabits the church – but stays outside it -, my favorite street saxophonist. It does not leave me any option at all. Let’s roam again.

As I am tasting the pleasures of the city, I cannot stop thinking how spoiled I am looking through these shop windows where the most recent fashion is displayed – to everyone. Everyone is looking through the windows, nobody enters. I mean, it is still beautiful to look at. Some esthetic truths or realizations do not require possession, hasn’t Osho said it? If you love a flower, you appreciate it as it is, you do not have to own it, right? Anyway, these things are overpriced and rich people pay for the flashy light bulbs, not for the quality or for the function of these brand new cool clothes. Continue reading “The ghosts are back”

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: The EU’s failure on violence against women and abortion

By Agnese Olmati

Last January (2019) I had the opportunity to get in contact with the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels. There, I discussed the current situation of women’s right in the European Union, focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
The EWL, which is the biggest European network of women’s associations, aims at influencing the general public and the EU decision-makers in support of women’s human rights. It is continuously working to ensure every woman’s dignity and the respect of SRHR in the Union.
Here are some reflections following my contact with them.

Looking back at the events and debates that occurred across Europe in 2018, we are likely to notice that, on some issues, the European puzzle is rapidly falling apart. For several decades, the different puzzle pieces have been struggling to get closer through a long and demanding process of integration, but recently many of them have started to outdistance and even to crumble. Brexit was just the most evident expression of breach and disagreement, yet the EU appears quite fragmented also in other domains, including women’s rights – and especially SRHR.

Gender-based violence, surrogacy, pornography, abortion – the facets of SRHR are numerous and intricate and thus require a deep analysis. This article will concentrate on violence against women and right to abortion in Europe, as these topics have been in the limelight during the past year and have caused great disagreement among the member states, contributing to the breakdown of the puzzle.

First of all, it is important to recall the strong commitment of the EU to women’s rights. The Treaty on the European Union (TEU) upholds the principle of gender equality and non-discrimination (Article 2), whereas the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) confirms the political commitment of member states to fight against all forms of domestic violence (Declaration 19 on Article 8). The Charter of Fundamental Rights warrants people’s right to dignity (Title I) and equality (Title III) and includes specific provisions on people’s right to physical and mental integrity, outlawing any form of discrimination on the grounds of sex.
These (founding) documents present concepts and positions in a dreamlike manner – but do the reality of the EU and the actions of its decision-makers correspond to them? Continue reading “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: The EU’s failure on violence against women and abortion”

Get out of this jail!

By Guilherme Becker

Berlin, August, 2006. After two weeks traveling from London – where I used to live at that time -, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, I had arrived in one of the most fascinating cities of the world – at least in my imaginary, which could easily be confirmed later. Summer breeze was blowing through the cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Kastanienallee was the perfect picture of how Berliners could enjoy their lives on a Saturday afternoon, with groups of friends and families hanging out and experiencing all types of foods and drinks, listening to different kinds of music and appreciating the sunny weather. All way down to Alexanderplatz distinct generations were sitting together in front of yellow, blue, green and red buildings talking about life and keeping problems completely away. Alone, I observed that and could barely believe that only a little more than 15 years earlier that part of the city was not that colourful and had nothing similar to that.

On the other side, Mitte was also full of people on the pavements observing passersby. Unter den Linden was like an anthill made by tourists that after walking the whole day could finally have some rest in the “Biergarten(s)” around. The city was beautiful, alive and tender following a World Cup that Germany had hosted less than a month ago and only a few days after the Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and Jon had launched the classic “Young Folks”. You could feel the tenderness in the air. You could feel the spirit of happiness flowing freely in such a vibrant and great atmosphere. It was simply wonderful.

I knew, though, that at least in one of the seven days that was going to stay there I needed to take some time to cross the city and leave all that happiness and good vibrations behind. It would not be easy or pleasant, but I needed to do it. The goal was tough: Sachsenhausen.

Continue reading “Get out of this jail!”

REPORT: What Happens in Venezuela Does Not Stay in Venezuela

By Maeva Chargros

Everyone should be aware of this fact, after two world wars, many genocides and a major crisis triggered by terrorism worldwide: when something happens in one specific country, the entire region surrounding this country is affected; and when a whole region is impacted, the entire world ends up facing consequences of this local event. It is the principle of the well-known butterfly effect. Therefore, how can we not hear the call for help coming from Venezuelans fleeing their country? How can we ignore the growing tensions on the borders between Venezuela and its neighbours?
Seen from Europe, the ongoing crisis in the north-west of the Latin American region reminds of another crisis that Europeans had to face and are still facing – the so-called “refugee crisis”. One might be stunned by how relevant this comparison is, but also puzzled by what it means for our governments and international organisations. After two resolutions failed to pass at the United Nations in the last few days[1], here is a timely reminder of what is actually happening at the border. Nicolás Javier Pedraza Garcia, currently an exchange student from Universidad Externado de Colombia (Externado University, Bogotá, Colombia) at the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, agreed to give his insight to help us understand the situation from a local perspective.[2]

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela are a very good example of what can be achieved when two independent states decide to cooperate for the better good of their respective economies. Who needs a hard border when both populations speak the same language, work and live together, and benefit from this soft border situation? Until the political crisis hit the Venezuelan economy, “the border was just a line”; now, the border area is described mostly as a “war zone”[3], or a “conflict zone”. “The border is experiencing a very bad situation both economically and socially; most of Venezuelans who are fleeing are poor, so they stay at the border and are forced to engage in criminal activities such as drug trafficking or prostitution to survive. We, Colombians, try to help as much as we can, but our local government does not have the institutional nor the infrastructure capacity to attend to the situation. Maybe the situation is better in some other cities, but at the border, it is a crisis situation. We have been asking for more financial and human resources from the national government, but so far we are left alone to take care of these people.” Continue reading “REPORT: What Happens in Venezuela Does Not Stay in Venezuela”