my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Good times for being a conspiracy theorist

Conspiracy theorist wearing tin foil

Conspiracy theorists rejoice over the Austrian presidential drama

Here we go again. My home country of Austria, a western liberal democracy – I thought – indeed seems unable to hold orderly elections. While my worries about our democratic system dominated at first, the issue by now turned into little more than a bad joke for me. And think about it: the fact that our whole electoral system is breaking down all because of non-sticking glue is pretty hilarious, isn’t it?

So Austria is right now in its sixth month of presidential elections with no end in sight. We had the first round in April and the run-off in May, which was then ruled invalid by the country’s constitutional court and had to be repeated. Now, the new date in October was postponed to December, because the glue on postal votes did not stick. Pure tragicomedy, really.

What is behind these defects?

First of all, this is devastating for Austria’s reputation abroad. Even if Austrian politicians constantly tried to play this down in recent months, I personally cannot think of a single occasion, when a presidential election had to be repeated in any other developed country. So there is really no point playing it down: this is an unparalleled embarrassment! The fact that even the new date did not hold only exacerbates this fact.

While this is all truly embarrassing and – at least for Austrian citizens – also a bit annoying, there is a much more significant problem involved though. The events in Austria just seem to confirm so many of the crazy conspiracy theories out there so neatly.

Conspiracy theorists rejoice

Conspiracy theorists and, more importantly, the right-wing populists that have started to cater their needs all around the world, have long claimed that elections are rigged and that the ordinary people are being deceived by the government. While of course no sane person could claim that the issues in Austria can be attributed to the government – at least not in a deceitful manner – all this clearly strengthens the populists’ argument.

After all, now it is very easy for them to claim they have been right all along. Voting is indeed a fraud, elections are indeed pre-arranged and the media is indeed lying to the people. And even worse than confirming the ill-conceived fears of conspiracy theorists, the populists of the FPÖ can now even claim that it was them to have finally uncovered this scandal and given the power back to the “decent people”. Yeah… great.

This is more than just bad PR

While in reality, the faux-pas around the Austrian presidential elections is of course just that, a faux-pas and a PR-disaster, the state of society in most western countries turns it into something much more significant.

The unfortunate marriage between right-wing populism and conspiracy theorists has opened up the gap between reality and individual perception all around the world.  This has reached the point where large parts of the population actually believe, the whole system – the government, the press and everything – is one big conspiracy and they are the chosen ones, the ones that realise.

Even if this tin foil hat brigade is still just a small part of the right-wing electorate, it does seem increasingly influential. Under these circumstances, the last thing we need is a mistake like that in Austria. It might not be much more than bad PR to us but I’m damn sure future elections will once more show that it is much more to many, many others.

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Political turmoil in the Balkans

Croatia - Balkans elections

Early elections amidst political turmoil in Croatia. Is it going uphill from here?

Ah the Balkans. It has been a while since I last talked about this little part of Europe that is so dear to me. This is rather odd once I think about it, because it really gave me a lot of material recently. As of today, the political systems in not just one, but three Balkan states show serious cracks as they move towards early elections and a highly controversial referendum in the remaining months of this year. Let me take you on a little tour.

Croatian parliamentary re-elections

In case you haven’t heard of it yet, Croatia holds its parliamentary elections today, the country’s second general election in less than a year. Last November’s round proved indecisive, when the national-conservative HDZ party won a majority but couldn’t find a coalition partner. In the end, a technocratic government was formed, with the independent Tihomir Orešković becoming Prime Minister, leading an uneasy coalition of HDZ and the MOST list of independents.

In June, Tomislav Karamarko, the leader of the HDZ, pushed a vote of no confidence against his own government, believing he could form a new majority himself. As this did not happen, he withdrew from the party leadership and the president had to call new elections.

However, today’s elections are unlikely to bring any clear results either. While the left-liberal group around the Social Democrats is predicted to win, they will probably only do so by a tiny margin. Similarly to HDZ last year, the forming of a coalition will be incredibly hard, as MOST is now even less willing to join government than they were last year. A grand coalition on the other hand, would be a first-time experience for Croatia and is highly unlikely.

We might just end up with another technocrat government and/or another round of elections soon, in a deadlock that already now resembles that of Spain quite a bit.

Chaos in Macedonia

Yet, what is going on in Croatia is mild compared to the absolute chaos in Macedonia. There, long-time Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was forced to resign earlier this year after a massive corruption scandal. Tapes of secret meetings released by the opposition brought to light some of the shady practices of his national-conservative government and sparked countrywide protests. After Macedonia’s president later planned to grant amnesty to a number of politicians and officials under investigation for corruption, the protests exploded.

An EU-led dialogue finally brought Gruevski’s resignation and new elections were scheduled for April. These were subsequently postponed to June and now again to December. If they should be held then (which now seems somewhat likely at least), this would still only be a first step towards normalisation in the country. You can read more about the general situation in Macedonia in one of my older blog posts.

Unease in Bosnia

Macedonia, even 25 years after its independence, is therefore still in a highly unstable situation, with widespread corruption, public distrust towards its political class and not to forget, ongoing ethnic tensions putting a heavy burden on the country’s development. While these are major defects in Macedonian democracy, they are pretty much everything ever known in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The country that has been put together in an unstable institutional framework by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, has since then never found a real balance to function on. Bosnia consists of two entities, the largely Muslim and Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or “Federacija“) and the largely Serbian Republika Srpska (RS). The latter now seems to be moving towards secession, sending shockwaves around the country and beyond.

The RS’s leader Milorad Dodik has for long threatened with a possible referendum on secession but has this far been held in check by Bosnia’s UN-imposed High Representative. Now, a referendum will be held, though on a – at least on the surface – very different topic. In two weeks, the RS is scheduled to ask its citizens whether to keep on celebrating its national holiday on January 9, the day of the RS’s establishment in 1992. This has been deemed discriminatory against non-Serbs by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and this open defiance of a binding federal court ruling is widely considered a test-run for an independence campaign, that Dodik has repeatedly called for by 2018.

The Balkans and the European Option

While many of these issues can be explained with the respective countries’ difficult histories, it is important not to forget the EU’s role in all of this. The fact that such widespread turmoil is taking place right now is directly linked to a weakened EU-perspective for these countries, which has long provided an overarching goal for these societies. As a result of the recent European crises and mistakes in earlier enlargements, appetite for accepting new members however grew very thin around Europe. This is felt on the Balkans!

With EU-membership nothing but a distant “maybe”, governments like Gruevski’s have little reason to comply with corruption rules and truly reform their country, Dodik and others are far less contained in their actions, with Bosnia’s EU-future more distant and EU influence in the country weaker than ever and while Croatia’s problems might stem from internal issues, they are nonetheless part of the problem, as Croatian opposition to Serbian EU-membership is a major reason for the EU’s weakening soft power in the region.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the prospect of EU-accession is Europe’s only trump card when dealing with the Balkans and other Eastern neighbours. We are fools to throw it away and we already start to feel the consequences.

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The EU’s problem with corporate taxes

Taxes

The economy is boring. Rarely do economic news raise our attention, let alone our emotions, but when they do, this emotion is more often than not outrage. This week’s ruling against Apple by the EU-Commission to pay back 13 billion Euros (!) in taxes was different. In this case, the overwhelming feeling to me was not outrage but satisfaction. It just seemed to inherently right. But first a bit of background.

On Tuesday, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager presented the tech giant Apple with a 13 billion Euro bill for unpaid taxes in Ireland. Vestager calculated that Apple has in recent years paid an average corporate tax rate of only 0.005% on its European profits. It did so by setting up its European headquarter in Ireland and shifting profits back and forth to achieve the lowest rate possible, a common tactic amongst multinationals. But if you think the Irish authorities were happy to take that money you would be wrong.

Ireland plans to appeal the decision

Now this is where the story becomes really interesting. Instead of happily taking the money – 13 billion Euros equal Ireland’s entire health care budget of 2016 by the way – the Irish government decided to appeal the EU-decision. And this actually opens an important question: can and should the EU Commission interfere with tax policies in member states?

This is not as obvious as it seems. Even in the US, a supposedly more unified country than the EU, states have a lot of freedom regarding tax collection and openly compete against each other for the lowest taxes. On the other hand, Vestager’s argument of illegal state aid is also valid, as Apple clearly did not even pay the low 12.5% Irish corporate tax.

While Ireland should in general have the right to set its own tax rate, the massive influence of companies like Apple to impact a government to give more and more tax exemptions and now even appeal the EU’s decision are a real problem. This is why we need a European solution.

Multinationals – the old foe

This is actually a problem, people on the left have predicted for a while already. While many leftist intellectuals have turned globalisation into more of a monster than it really is, the Apple case really does seem to prove some of their points.

What we see in Ireland, is a tax system designed for multinationals, in particular US-American companies. Its sole purpose is to attract those companies to English-speaking Ireland by offering them access to the single market and help them save money in the process.

The Apple ruling now clearly shows the dark sides of this practice. The Irish political class seems so dependent in these companies now that they turn down 13 billion Euros just to not anger them! This is a truly questionable business model and highly problematic for the EU as a whole.  A US-style tax race to the bottom between EU members really serves nobody.

Capitalism versus democracy?

So is this global capitalism versus democracy? Well… yes and no. The Irish approach towards Apple and others is in a way antidemocratic. It is antidemocratic because the Irish tax payers – its citizens – don’t have a real say in corporate policies and while the average person has to pay close to 50% tax on their income, companies pay 12.5% or in many cases much less. The 6.000-odd jobs created by Apple in Ireland can in no way justify this.

But it doesn’t have to be this way and Vestager’s approach is therefore an important step. The European common market is important to the likes of Apple. There are after all close to 500 million consumers in this market. The EU therefore can afford to raise serious and fair taxes and also force countries to fall in line.

Apple, Google and Co. are not going to leave the EU-market – they can’t! Until now, they could however leave Ireland for, say, Luxembourg if Irish tax policies were to worsen for them. This is what Vestager wants to change and she is absolutely right to do so.

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Some thoughts on the burkini issue

Burkini

In my very first blog post on here, I talked about the Paris attacks. I said something back then that I had to repeat quite a bit over the last couple of months: that Europe and France in particular can only face increasing terrorism with more openness and democracy and not by closing down. Well, at least now I know decision makers don’t read my blog.

The whole discussion around the so-called “burkini” this last week have impressively shown that, when the French government gave its municipalities the right to ban face coverings, leading to this bizarre scene on a beach in Nice. Since then, the country’s Supreme Court has ruled these practices unconstitutional. Well… surprise, surprise.

Why the burkini is no problem whatsoever

It is hard to believe that such a non-issue drew this much attention. No free and liberal society can tell anyone what to wear and what not to wear. This is banal and should be unworthy a discussion! And while every state should be careful and investigate cases of religious extremism thoroughly, everyday symbols of religiosity that hurt absolutely nobody really should not be a point of contention. Not in France and not in 2016.

The argumentation used by those calling for such bans is equally nonsensical. In order to cover up their own narrow-mindedness they – once confronted – try to justify themselves by claiming they fight for the rights of these women. This begs the question: who are you to judge?

Are Muslim women that are wearing burkas, hijabs or burkinis also often oppressed? Yes they clearly are, at least for our standards. Are we the ones to liberate them? Well, to put it like this: men have rarely liberated women and Europeans have rarely liberated other cultures. Pretending to act in their interest on issues that are not violating our laws or civil liberties will be of no help to anyone. Instead, we are making a problem out of clothing. Clothing!

Why people think the burkini is a problem

So if burkinis so obviously are not a problem, why do people make them one? The answer takes us full circle and is really quite simple. In the end it is nothing but increasingly open racism within certain right-wing pressure groups, more widespread fear of the unknown in the general population and a political class not learning from its mistakes. Again, a social democratic government chose to try and appease the right by adopting its policies and again it failed.

All this is once again playing into the hands of the right-wing populists of Marine Le Pen and severely damages France’s reputation along the way. If politicians don’t start to stand up to ill-guided fears and blatant racism and provide real solutions, we are really heading for trouble. The burkini issue might be banal but it might also just be the beginning.

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You want to secede? How mainstream!

Secession Scotland Sturgeon

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after the EU Referendum. Picture: Scottish Government

In my studies, I have dealt with political theory a lot and for us students, one specific question was particularly frustrating: the discrepancy between the right to self determination and the right to territorial integrity.

In short, this conflict revolves around the contradiction that while nations (whatever that is) have a right to self determination under international law, the territorial integrity of existing states shall not be violated. Secession – as I have learned it – is therefore undesirable. But is it still?

How secession has become normal

When thinking back to the last couple of years, we have all grown accustomed to politicians in certain European regions talking openly about secession. The referendum in Scotland was merely the peak of this development.

What we forget is how extraordinary a referendum on such an issue really is! In fact, the mere idea of secession in a non-colonial context goes against everything that has guided international law since World War II!

And yet, we see an impressive number of secessionist movements all over Europe today. Catalonia seems well on its way to a referendum (if ever allowed by Madrid), Scotland might hold a second one, Northern Ireland‘s situation in the post-Brexit world is less than certain and even Gibraltar raised the question of its allegiance to the UK after the EU Referendum.

Encouraged by these movements, many others in Europe have called for independence, Northern Italy, Flanders, the Basque country and South Tyrol just being the more prominent examples. Immediately after the Brexit vote, there were even (if not too serious) talks about a London Exit or “Lexit”, London joining an independent EU-Scotland (“Scotlond”) or the entire Glastonbury festival seceding from the UK (“Glexit”).

In fact, the first reaction of many remainers was considering their regions’ chances of seceding from the UK. It is just remarkable how normal the thought of secession really has become!

The common denominator: Europe

One thing all the independence movements mentioned above have in common is their reliance on the EU. In the case of the Brexit-inspired calls for independence, this is all too obvious. However, also in all other cases, the plan is to “break free” from an unwanted nation state (that is an EU member) to rejoin the EU as a newly independent country.

The problem is: the EU does not support this, which is understandable. After all, the EU council represents national interests and you can hardly expect Spain to offer Catalonia EU membership on a silver platter in case they want to secede. But there are reasons for the EU to rethink this stance.

It is rare to see pro-EU sentiment these days and regions with strong secessionist movements are currently the places, where this sentiment is strongest. Think about it: 62% for continued EU-membership in Scotland. Would your country achieve such a rate? In times of rising Euroscepticism all around, the EU should acknowledge this fact just a bit more.

Of course, this is not going to happen as long as national governments have this much influence on the EU level. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had to learn this the hard way when visiting Brussels after the Brexit vote.

A chance lost for Europe? What do you think? Leave me a comment or send me a tweet!

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The dictators on our doorstep

The dictators in Europe's East are moving together

Erdoğan after the failed military coup – a dictator in the making?

With Vladimir Putin, people in Europe have grown quite accustomed to having a dictator in front of their doorstep. His presence is so well-accepted in fact that no one in Europe seriously questions it anymore and that Russian democracy has become nothing but a spectre.

One thing many have underestimated, is Putin’s influence on countries in Russia’s neighbourhood, where his style of leadership has become an alternative to liberal democracy for some. It now seems that Putin’s autocratic family has grown by another member and that should give the EU a lot to think.

Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan visited Saint Petersburg this week to meet with Putin in an attempt to forge a new alliance. With another one of its major neighbours joining Putin’s club, the EU’s problem with autocrats in and around Europe certainly won’t get easier.

Trouble on the Eastern front

The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia will soon have severe consequences for the EU. Both major EU-neighbours to the East are now run by autocrats or de-facto dictators and now they start to work together.

But the geopolitical consequences of this new setting – the uncertain future of the refugee deal, further EU-enlargement in the Balkans and political stability in the Caucasian states – are not the only thing to worry about. If we fail to act, this new partnership in the East may actually become an alternative for Eastern European states on their way to EU-accession and make them move away from the EU altogether.

The European model is not as attractive as it should

For years we have now witnessed how the Russian model of government turned into an attractive path for certain European leaders and groups in society.

Viktor Orbán’s calls for “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, Viktor Ponta’s old attempts to centralise power in Romania and the likes of Nikola Gruevski and Milorad Dodik on the Balkans are just some examples. Jarosław Kaczyński and his followers in Poland – whether they like the comparison or not – are another.

With Turkey, another important player in Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular, joining Russia’s club, the attractiveness of the autocratic model is likely to rise.

What can be an appropriate answer?

What needs to be done in order to deal with the emerging Russia-Turkey alliance is in my opinion twofold:

  1. Europe must recognise the autocratic developments in Turkey and answer them appropriately. This means ending the dreadful refugee deal, cancelling the Turkish EU-accession talks and making clear that sanctions are a real possibility, should the systematic infringement of human rights continue. Erdoğan’s Turkey can be no partner!
  2. The EU must strengthen the appeal of membership and continue to offer candidate countries a clear perspective. We already see autocratic tendencies in candidate countries like Serbia and Macedonia and only a credible European option can effectively safeguard Europe’s influence. Recent comments by Jean-Claude Juncker not to allow new members for the time being are a disastrous sign. The EU would be foolish to give away its only trump card!

If Europe fails to face the new autocratic alliance in the East, it will soon run into more problems with leaders in its neighbourhood moving towards Russian or Turkish style practices.

Another task to add to our post-Brexit to-do list.

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Europe’s New East

Visegrád castle: a symbol of Europe's new East

Visegrád castle overlooking the Danube bend. A symbol of Europe’s new East

The early weeks of this summer were characterised by a sequences of ground shaking events. From the Brexit vote to terrorist attacks, shootings and the military coup in Turkey, the very cornerstones of the European political framework seem to have changed. Now that these events have calmed down at least a bit, we need to take some time to reconsider some old questions in the light of these new circumstances.

All the developments mentioned above have one thing in common: they directly impact the state and future of the European Union. The Brexit vote and the coup in Turkey in particular, will force the EU to reconsider its key policies and adapt to a changing surrounding.

With Britain gone, one increasingly powerful player in all this will be the countries in Europe’s East. More precisely the semi-authoritarian Visegrád states – Europe’s New East.

The Turkey coup and the death of the refugee deal

The attempted military coup in Turkey and its aftermath have obvious repercussions on the EU. President Erdoğan’s mad purges of recent weeks and his pondering with reintroducing the death penalty have strained the country’s relationship with the EU and Austrian PM Christian Kern was now the first to openly call for ending the Turkish EU-accession talks as a result.

While this is certainly the right approach, it also puts into question the refugee deal the EU has arranged with Turkey. I have always believed that this deal was a terrible idea from the start (see here and here), even without the recent events. The strained EU-Turkey relations could now likely bring up old problems that have not been solved properly.

While many might have forgotten, the so-called refugee crisis is far from over. The blocking of the Balkan route and the agreement on the Turkey deal have stopped the flow of migrants into Europe (or at least out of Greece). However, this obviously did not stop people from fleeing Syria or other areas. There are still thousands upon thousands of migrants stranded in Turkey, North Africa and elsewhere, hoping to make it to Europe and we will need a real solution!

With the EU’s New East being as irresponsible and devoid of solidarity as it currently is, such a solution will continue to be hard to come by.

Brexit and a shifting balance

While the crisis in Turkey puts into question one specific area of European policy, the departure of the UK from the EU has far more wide reaching consequences. The EU will have to redefine itself once Britain is gone and again, the New East will take centre stage in the process.

For the Visegrád states, Brexit is no good news as Britain has for years been their key ally when it came to opposing further integration regarding migration or the Euro. While the federalist vision of Europe is not particularly popular at this point, the intergovernmental ideas of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have also lost their fiercest supporter.

The EU’s future path will strongly depend on how a new balance between federalist and intergovernmental forces will be struck. The Visegrád Four will play a crucial role in this process.

Can this be done with the East?

The big question is: can this be done with the New East? To me it is obvious that a common European migration scheme and a strengthened Eurozone will be key in getting Europe back on track. However, these are approaches that are overall strongly opposed by countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Poland is on its path to a more authoritarian system, with crackdowns on the judiciary and the media in full swing. Hungary is already well beyond that point and heading towards a new confrontation with the EU, when Viktor Orbán asks his country about the allocation of refugees. And while Slovakia’s PM Robert Fico is comparably quiet at the moment since his country is currently holding the EU presidency, come 2017 this is also likely to change.

All in all, too much of the legitimacy of the Visegrád leaders is built on the idea of “defying Brussels”. It is therefore unlikely that they will stop this confrontation any time soon.

How can the EU reconcile this?

It will remain to be seen how the EU can reconcile these diverging trends within its member states. The European parliament and some core members like France and possibly Italy might call for “more Europe” in the following months and years. The commission and Angela Merkel seem to take a more cautious stand but they neither will be willing to significantly weaken the EU’s central powers in favour of more national competences.

With the loss of their key ally in fighting for the intergovernmental vision of the EU, Orbán, Fico and Kaczyński will likely strengthen the cooperation amongst each other, which will consequently again put them on collision course with the rest of the EU.

One possible solution I see – and I have said this many times – is the idea of a two-tier Europe, trying to reconcile these tensions by creating two tracks of EU-membership. But this will not be easy, as the Visegrád states are after all interested in staying as close as possible to the EU fiscally and politically. And don’t forget: Slovakia is even a Eurozone member.

One thing must be clear however: the time for cherry picking needs to be over and Europe must consolidate itself in the post-Brexit world. If and how it can do this will now strongly depend on the European New East.

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Europe’s referendum mania

Referendum on the allocation of refugees in Hungary

The trend of pointless European referendums continues. Next up: Hungary

We are just half way through 2016 and the year can already be described as a year of pointless and unnecessary referendums. More and more European leaders recently chose to shy away from difficult decisions and hand them to the population, which I think is a more than problematic trend.

The first such case this year was in the Netherlands, where PM Mark Rutte consulted the country about whether or not the EU should sign an association agreement with Ukraine. The trend continued – as everyone can still well remember – with the Brexit frenzy and next up is Hungary, where Viktor Orbán will ask the people about the European allocation of migrants in autumn.

All these referendums have one thing in common. They are all decisions that should not or cannot be made by the general public but by qualified experts and elected officials. While direct democracy sounds attractive and truly democratic on paper, on closer inspection it quickly turns out that the public is just not qualified to give a well-founded answer to certain questions. This is exactly what we have politicians for!

So let’s go through the three referendums this year to give you some background:

The Ukraine-Referendum in the Netherlands

In early April, Dutch voters were called to the ballots to decide whether or not the EU should offer Ukraine an association agreement – an agreement that was by the way already decided on. I have also written about this before in this article.

Apart from the argument I put forth there – the fact that less than 1% of the EU’s population could decide on a European foreign policy issue – this referendum was unnecessary for a whole different reason. Those few who actually turned up and voted, by and large did not care about the agreement with Ukraine! Instead, most interviews after the referendum showed that it was used as a protest vote against the Dutch government and the EU in general.

This is a general problem with referendums, as you can probably all remember from the Brexit vote.

The Brexit referendum

While the Dutch government was obliged to hold their referendum (more than 300,000 people signed a petition), the Brexit referendum was even legally unnecessary. Again, people were called to the ballot for something they by and large could not possibly acquire all necessary information for. To make things worse, they had to do so solely because then-PM David Cameron wanted to fend off eurosceptics in his Tory party.

The result was – as is commonly known – the British departure from the EU. A game-changing event with political, economic and social consequences not even the most distinguished experts in their fields can truly foresee. And it was decided by a largely ill-informed public, in many cases on the basis of lies and misunderstandings and for all the wrong reasons.

Hungary’s migrant quota referendum

A final example is the upcoming referendum on the Europe-wide allocation of migrants in Hungary. In contrast to the first two examples, this referendum was not called because of a leading party’s fear of populists but by the populists themselves.

In October, the people of Hungary will be asked a simple question (and as you can see, that’s not a good thing):

Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?

Considering the wording, we can already assume a high ‘No’-majority with likely low turnout and once again the referendum is absolutely pointless.

First of all, a referendum in one member state could not stop this relocation, if it was decided (and carried out) in Brussels. The Hungarian government can of course try and block it in the EU-council but it doesn’t need a referendum to do that either. The sole purpose of the referendum is therefore for Viktor Orbán to position himself as a strong, national leader!

Additionally, the question whether or not Hungarians want migrants in their country is completely beside the point! The idea of European quotas is a question of solidarity with Greece, Germany, Sweden and others, who take in way more migrants than other EU members. The fact that people in another member country vote against it does not mean that the EU can’t legitimately demand this solidarity from them.

Politicians, please do your job!

It all boils down to this: politicians increasingly choose to shy away from decisions and instead call referenda. While this is not problematic in general, the issue is that they do so for topics that have either no direct consequence for the voters, are hard to grasp in their entirety and/or are simply abused as a protest vote. It is not the public’s job to be informed in detail about all issues. That’s what we elect politicians for after all!

Policy makers in Europe have to stop being afraid of populists, who keep on demanding referenda, calling that “true democracy”. As you can clearly see in Hungary, they only do so because they believe they can get any outcome they want from a referendum, as they are the ones pushing the questions and providing easy solutions. The fact that their “solutions” don’t actually work ultimately does not matter.

The Netherlands, the UK and Hungary show that this logic works out for the populists. Policy makers therefore shouldn’t answer their threat by giving them what they want. They should do what they were elected for: to take decisions and govern!

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This time it’s personal: Munich

Munich

The city of Munich, where I work and spend most of my days. Luckily not yesterday

So it happened again and this time right in front of my doorstep. For the third time in just a week, Europe was hit by a devastating attack and for the second time it was in Germany. Yesterday, it hit Munich, the city I work and spend most of my days in. This is personal now.

Last night was obviously very emotional. While I myself luckily wasn’t in Munich at the time of the shooting, my girlfriend and many friends of mine were. Gladly none of them was near the Olympia shopping centre and it soon turned out everyone was ok. It could have easily gone the other way.

To be entirely honest, if this would have happened anywhere else but Munich, I probably would not have dedicated yet another blog post to it. These attacks have become too much of a sad routine. One of the friends I talked to yesterday used the only right word to describe it: tiresome. It is all so painfully tiresome. But let me share some of my experiences and possibly draw some lessons from yesterday night nonetheless:

The police acted really professionally

I was following the developments from the safety of my home in Freising, thirty kilometres from Munich. As I said, my girlfriend and other friends were in Munich at the time, so I practically spent the evening with the TV on and my computer and phone in front of me, trying to grasp what is happening, while checking on everyone.

One thing that quickly stood out for me was how excellent the police seem to have been prepared. Their communication with the public was truly beyond criticism. From the beginning, they tweeted in German, English and French – later even Spanish and Turkish – to keep people up to date about the security situation in the city. Their spokesman Marcus da Gloria Martins even turned into somewhat of a celebrity on Social Media for his incredibly cool handling of the situation and even the most speculative questions from the media.

It is important to add here that I personally was never fully at ease with the police and their competences. There were too many incidents of police brutality and general unfairness that I encountered over the years and yet, yesterday night, the Munich police really made me feel well-served. It was the first time I can remember, that I actually bought the slogan “protect and serve”.

You can count on people to help you out

The second lesson I can draw from yesterday is the immense helpfulness of the population, both towards the police and other people. On Twitter, people heavily retweeted the police, especially their call not to upload photos from police activities. Similarly to the Brussels lockdown earlier this year, many users then resorted to uploading photos of cats, not to give possible attackers any hints of police activities.

I also used Twitter to try and find a way out of Munich for my girlfriend and the reactions were stunning! My tweet asking for an emergency accommodation using the hashtag #opendoor was retweeted 40 times in less than 20 minutes and a huge number of people contacted me to help out. This seems to have been the same for pretty much everyone.

While there will always be people who complain that it takes such a crisis for people to move together, I still find it incredibly encouraging! The world is not such a dark and hopeless place after all.

Beware of the “ISIL-reflex”

Finally, I want to also talk about the “ISIL-reflex” within us. While after Nice, Brussels and Paris this is understandable, it is still worrying how quickly people started talking about a possible ISIL connection. In Europe we have grown so accustomed to the idea that every attack is a terrorist attack and that ultimately, the Islamic State is behind it, that it seems to have turned into a reflex.

Subsequent information has debunked this but ultimately, that doesn’t change much. The mere fact that so many people (including me) instinctively connect attacks and shootings with Islamic terrorism is worrying. It says a lot about our society, our expectations and our view of the world.

With this reflex so deeply embedded in the population, this can’t go well for long. Germany is a country that has just taken in one million mostly Muslim refugees and this mindset will in the long run put them in danger as well, while further polarising the population.


If you or any of your friends were in Munich and if you have any thoughts about this, I’d love to hear your experiences! Leave a comment or contact me on Twitter! Until then: I’ll be back next week. Then hopefully with a lighter topic (seriously, where’s our summer slump?)

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3 lessons from the coup in Turkey

Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul, Turkey

One of the Bosphorus bridges that were seized by the Army on Friday night

Most of the time, international politics are a predictable game. Wholly unforeseen events are rare and more often than not, the media already receives the most important information beforehand (as again seen this week with Donald Trump’s pick for running mate). The attempted coup d’état in Turkey however, was a complete surprise!

My first reaction on Friday night was mixed. First of all, like most others I was completely taken by surprise by the news. But I also quickly processed it and put it in the long line of military takeovers in Turkish history. It all did not seem that unusual and significant, once I thought about it.

After the events unfolded however, I had to reassess my position: this is significant and I think it is because it shows three main things about present-day Turkey:

1 | Kemalism is now more irrelevant than ever

As I’ve said, Turkey has a long history of military coups – successful and attempted – and they all had one thing in common: they have to be seen in the light of Kemalism, the base ideology of the Republic of Turkey. This doctrine, amongst other things, heavily emphasises laicism as a guiding political principle and in all coups this far – 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993 and 1997 – the military portrayed itself as the defender of said Kemalism. So it did on Friday.

Viewed from the Kemalist perspective, President Erdoğan and his AKP Party are clearly breaching the founding principles of the Republic of Turkey. Under the AKP’s leaderships, laicism was step by step abolished as a guiding policy. That is a fact. The fact that not even all parts of the military supported Friday’s coup on the other hand, therefore says a lot about the state of Kemalism in Turkey today.

2 | Erdoğan does enjoy popular support – like it or not

On Friday night, President Erdoğan (ironically via Facetime) called on people in Turkey to breach the curfew proclaimed by the putschists and gather outside. Thousands and thousands heeded his call, as you can clearly see in this video footage from Atatürk Airport.

This comes to show that Erdoğan, despite his authoritarian behaviour and crackdowns on critics, still enjoys widespread support in Turkey. This should not be underestimated (considering point three).

Some people, it should be added, also interpreted this more positively. They say maybe even Erdoğan’s critics don’t want him removed from power undemocratically, which is why they took the streets.  Austrian TV correspondent Karim El-Gawhary took this stance on Facebook (in German) and articulated some hope for Turkish democracy because of that. In the light of Erdoğan’s ever stronger grip on power, I cannot really share this optimism.

3 | On the fast lane to authoritarianism

The immediate aftermath of the failed coup clearly showed how Erdoğan plans to use this event to strengthen his grip on the country. He was quick to blame the coup on his personal nemesis Fatullah Gülen despite not having any proof for his involvement, which he then used to not only purge the military but also the courts. For no reason but their alleged sympathy for Gülen and therefore the coup (in Erdoğan’s reasoning), he dismissed 2,700 judges. That’s one fifth of all judges in the country!

It is clear to me, where Turkey is heading. Erdoğan has less and less in his way to creating the authoritarian presidential system he wants. The Kemalist opposition party CHP is more irrelevant than ever, the army will be left crippled after all this, and wide parts of society are actively backing the president.

Turkey is well on its way to becoming a less and less democratic state but nobody seems to care. While European politicians were right to voice their support for Erdoğan on Friday night – after all he is the elected president – this country cannot be Europe’s partner in dealing with the refugee crisis. It can be no reliable partner for anything, really.

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