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.
This is the second part of the interview with Michael Hindley. You can read the first part here. In this part, the interview focuses on the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, but also on Trump, Ukraine, Germany…
We would like to thank Michael Hindley for his time and his insightful answers.
You can also follow him on Twitter and watch his video about Brexit.
B: Moving a bit to the left on the map, let’s talk about Northern Ireland, which also has a feeling of sometimes not being part of the UK at all. But because of the Brexit, is there any chance of another “trouble times” happening again?
H: This often comes up in the present debate on Brexit. I think sometimes it is inaccurate or somewhat hysterical. People on both sides of the border agree that being in the EU certainly helped the Irish/Irish dialogue. Both “Irelands” in the EU helped. There is no question about that. Also, to some degree the EU has guaranteed the peace process. The fact that there was no border helped. If it becomes a “harder border”, I think it is false to assume that it would simply go back to hostilities. Sinn Féin long ago bravely disbanded its link with the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. It is a constitutional left-centre party enjoying shared government in Northern Ireland and has members in the Republic [of Ireland]. So the Party of freeing Ireland by the “ballot and the bullet” has become constitutional. Martin McGuinness (1950-2017) was an active member of the IRA and subsequently shared power with Ian Paisley the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Very difficult if not impossible to go back to the dark days of the “Troubles”.Continue reading “Interview with Michael Hindley – Part 2”→
What is Europe?
If you honestly think about it, could you pinpoint it out? If yes, where does Europe end or most importantly where does it start? Is Europe an ideology or does the idea of Europe ends with its dynamic borders?
Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden – these ‘Cantons’ laid down the foundation of the modern-day concept of ‘Culture’. You may wonder – How exactly has that evolved?
Well, ‘Cantons’ – the administrative division of states – make up nowadays’ confederation of ‘Switzerland. “Bundesbrief” – the oldest constitutional document of Switzerland documents the alliance of these three ‘Cantons’. In one of these ‘Cantons’, the birth of a prolific intellectual would take place – Jacob Burckhardt was born in the Canton of ‘Basel’ in 1818, he later wrote the 19th century’s masterpiece – ’The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’. Published in 1860 and then revised in 1867, it was a sensational description of the Italian Renaissance.
Burckhardt’s vision that ‘Renaissance’ was the beginning of the modern world would later be expanded into modern politics, economics and aspects of modern society. His ideas encapsulated the idea of social, political, and cultural transformation in Europe. Burckhardt is thus known as the father of the notion of ‘Culture’ and its developments since the 19th century. Today, the stern look of his portrait on the Swiss franc is reminiscent of the path-breaking work for the cultural history of Europe and modernism. Continue reading “Why the Idea of Europe Matters”→
After a cold and rainy winter in Southern Brazil, springtime has already come with some sunny but not so shiny weeks. As time runs towards the national election on October 7th, a land worldwide known for its clear sky and spectacular shores seems to be a bit cloudier and darker than usual. The feeling may come from the fact that things will remain the same for the next hundred years: stagnant, conservative, late, backwards and with its best minds leaving it behind. Is there anything worse than that? Well, maybe yes.
Democratic since 1985 and with direct elections since 1989, Brazil now faces a campaign full of hate. Violence has dropped off from the internet directly into the streets. Almost a month ago the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) was stabbed while campaigning in the midst of a crowd in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Southeast.
If migration has continuously been in the spotlight since the beginning of the refugee crisis, it is only during the past few months that Italy has really hit the headlines of European newspapers, despite having been one of the main doors to Europe for several decades.
It is no coincidence that this persistent interest for in Italian migration policies has been renewed since Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took office last June . His decision to shut ports to rescue boats carrying migrants has been hardly discussed and criticised, as well as his attacks to Maltese authorities and European leaders, accused of leaving Italy alone in front of the continuous arrivals of migrants that apparently no Italian government has never concretely tackled before.
Salvini’s determined response to the problem of illegal migration might seem very harsh and cold-hearted – and it actually is. But what Salvini is efficiently doing is simply making good on the promises made during the last electoral campaign. Being the leader of the right-wing and anti-immigrant party “League” (Lega, in Italian), it is no surprise that one of his most urgent goals is halting the flow of migrants into the country.
Actually, this is not only an Italian priority. Hungary has built a double layer barrier stretching for 155 kilometres along the Serbian border. France has rejected migrants at its border with Italy. Spain has built fences around the Moroccan cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Greece is at the core of the EU deal for the readmission of migrants coming from Turkey. Obviously, European countries have done their best to stop the arrival of migrants, but apparently more can be done – for example the EU could follow Trump’s advice and erect a wall across the Sahara Desert. Continue reading “Italy is Salvini or Salvini is Italy?”→
Freshly arrived in Uppsala, my mind filled with the idealized Swedish role model, it is with great surprise that I learn that Sweden is now facing the rise of populism and Euroscepticism. Rumours has been the situation in Sweden was slowly decaying but I had not realized the extent this phenomenon had taken in this country often considered as the peace haven of Europe, until I arrived and witnessed the tensions surrounding the legislative elections. After France and the Front National, the UK and UKIP, Austria and the Freedom party of Austria, Italy and the Five Star Movement, it is now Sweden’s turn to deal with Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats party. Indeed, the Swedish elections that occurred on the September 9 has for the first time seen the everlasting left-wing Social Democrats party’s monopoly on the government endangered by nationalism and anti-immigration ideologies.
The country has gradually seen the rise of populism ever since the beginning of the 2000’s, following the first arrivals of asylum seekers coming from Iraq. From then, the number of asylum seekers has constantly increased up until 2015 when it reached its peak with 162,877 asylum seekers[i] entering the kingdom, before the government changed the immigration procedure, making it tougher. Sweden, almost unharmed by the 2008 economic crisis, remained prosper and did not seem to be the most fertile environment for such a breakthrough from the nationalist factions.
To have a better understanding of the current political landscape and the point of view of a Swede on this situation, I had an interview with our teacher Lars Löfquist, doctor in Theology, director of studies in Uppsala for the Euroculture programme as well as two other programmes concerning Humanitarian Action. Starting from this, I was able to draw some observations that could explain how Sweden got to this point, what is the current situation and what is to expect in the coming weeks. Continue reading “The Swedish Elections: The End of the European Role Model?”→
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?”→
At the end of the 20th century, it seemed barely possible that nationalism would come back to the West. The international community was supposed to learn the harsh lessons of the past and reach the important conclusions. Terms like globalization, multiculturalism and internationalism were no longer just a part of political discourse, but also entered the language and the reality of common people. Being cosmopolitan became trendy – especially to younger generations in the West. The fifteen years following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty became a sort of Golden Era for the European Union. The integration process seemed unstoppable – three enlargements of the EU took place, including the biggest in the history of the Union in 2004. The common currency was established in 2002, replacing the national currencies of twelve member states within the Eurozone, which also kept on growing. Nationalism in Europe was close to dying out in the new millennium.
However, reality has collided with this optimistic picture, and despite the common trends of globalization and integration, the right wing started gaining popularity. Nationalism has changed its look, and has probably become more moderate and polished, but it did come back. This turn in the development of Europe is not illogical: the economic crisis, the so-called Islamization of Europe, and financial inequality of member states have all contributed. The recent European migrant crisis tops the cake.
Yet, what’s really striking is how fast something that was commonly seen as intolerant, odd or just shameful can get significant support in Western society. In this regard, the only thing more impressive than this phenomenon itself is the speed of its evolution. Right-wing politicians and public figures that were formerly treated with disdain suddenly achieved high-profile positions.
The French National Front, with its charismatic leader Marine Le Pen, serves as a shining example. Even though the ultra-right populist party experienced a decline in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s managed to rise from the ashes like a phoenix in this one; seeing success first at municipal elections, and then in 2014 winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in European Parliament – an unprecedented number for the National Front. Now, the scariest thing for liberals is Le Pen’s presidential campaign this year. Considering the events of the past five years, her candidacy should not be underestimated.
Similar things are happening in Germany, where luckily they have not yet reached that extent. The right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland is represented in the majority of German states, despite the fact that the party is fairly young and was only founded in 2013. In the European elections of 2014 AfD gained 7%, significantly less than the National Front’s 24.9% in France. Nevertheless, this number is very impressive for Germany, where the Nazi past makes the population less likely to support ultra-right political parties and the state was paying attention to the issue. Somehow, AfD leader Frauke Petry managed to successfully apply the bottom-up approach and gain the support of some people, often with low income and lower levels of education.
Those were the founders and the main political powers in the European Union. However, the “right turn” is typical for other countries as well, including Austria, Switzerland, and those in Southern and Eastern Europe. While nationalism has traditionally been rather strong in Eastern states like Poland and Hungary, the “right voice” in Scandinavia – considered to be incredibly tolerant – is much newer. In May 2016, the BBC published a brief Guide to Nationalist Parties Challenging Europe. The article is well-structured, and worth reading for those seeking basic information on the phenomenon.
From 2014 to today, the trend has become too obvious to ignore, and naturally begged the question: “Why?” As mentioned before, normally financial crisis and refugee issues are named as main factors. The ideals of the European Union did not equate to those of certain cohorts of people. The establishment, in turn, did not always react appropriately, failing to suggest working solutions to current problems, and people started to look for alternatives.
Having faced multiple problems, the European Union as a huge bureaucratic machine appeared to be slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, it turned to be fertile ground for populist parties that often suggest rather extreme solutions. The European idea has definitely known better times, yet despite Brexit, it is too soon to speak of the decline of the European Union and the concept of supranational government. The EU’s history is rather short to make conclusions, as it was started in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community.
It is more a speculation, but maybe, using the terms of Samuel P. Huntington, there are certain waves of democratization; in this case waves of nationalism. Or, to be more precise, they are not simply waves but spiral bends, if one can see the process as a spiral rather than a sine curve. If so, the phase is temporary – the only question is its intensity. It does not help that nowadays the “right turn” does not seem to be unique to Europe, as evidenced by the recent US elections. On the bright side, European integration has gone so far and economic binds are so tight that cutting ties often means losing profit – which should make the politicians think twice. The most challenging aspect for the establishment is getting closer to common people, a skill that has been mastered by right-wing populists. So far, we have not passed the point of no return, and this “wave” is a good lesson for the EU to learn from its mistakes. To cite a famous saying: history repeats itself until the lesson is learned.
Olga studied Political Science in Russia and the USA, finished her M.A. Euroculture studies in Germany, and currently lives and works in Moscow.
This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.
It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.
The surge and decline of Geert Wilders
In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.
It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.
Puzzling for a coalition
With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.
Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.
The Netherlands in Europe
What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.
However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?