my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

The Balkans and their so-called EU perspective

Statue in Skopje. The Balkans and the EU remain to be in a complicated relationship.

The EU got used to pretending to care about the Balkans. Stop the theatre and offer a real perspective

With all the world news from Trump to Macron, Europe seems to have once again forgotten about the Balkans. Or at the very least, the public doesn’t seem to care much what is happening there. There would have been quite some newsworthy events to talk about though, as the Balkans are – once again – in political turmoil. Just last month, pro-regime protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje. This week, a lingering political crisis in Albania has finally been somewhat settled, Kosovo is heading for early elections and in the meantime, Serbia is drifting towards authoritarianism.

Many in Europe might have forgotten but this is supposed to be a region of special significance to the EU. Not too long ago, the Union failed miserably to broker peace in what used to be Yugoslavia. Since then, it tried to provide stability by offering EU membership to all Balkan states, an approach that actually proved quite successful for some time. Increasingly however, the EU is doing nothing. And that approach will inevitably end badly.

The EU’s historic role in the Balkans

The Balkans are important to the EU for a number of reasons. There is of course the fallout from the wars of the 1990s. More importantly though, each and every membership candidate is currently from that region (if you exclude Turkey which you definitely should). Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all in line to join the EU, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are waiting to be invited. And the European Union has an obligation here. In 2003, it offered a “European perspective” to all Balkan states, an offer it reiterated just last year. However, currently the EU is doing very little in that respect.

It is no secret that the post-Brexit EU (but already before) is enlargement-weary. I have said before that this weariness and the signals it sends to the Balkans – but also to those willing to exploit a vacuum left there – is by far the most damaging approach imaginable. Recent events in Turkey certainly don’t make the situation any less dangerous.

The EU is no longer the Balkans’ only option

The problem behind the EU’s growing disregard for the Balkans is therefore easy to spot. It opens opportunities for regimes like Erdoğan’s Turkey to step into the vacuum. Yes, the EU and the west in general are still active in the region but almost exclusively as crisis managers. Brokerage from Brussels has at least partially helped calming-down tensions in Macedonia recently. US-American intervention seems to have made new elections in Albania possible. But besides this troubleshooting, the EU and US are not doing much.

A quick look at Turkey’s activities in the region suffices to see the consequences of this. Wherever you go in the Balkans – especially in partially Muslim societies like Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia – you will spot Turkish influence right away. State-backed Turkish banks open branches all over the region. Gülen-associated and – after the attempted Turkey coup – increasingly state-run Turkish schools and universities open everywhere. Turkey therefore offers jobs, education and economic perspective to the people of the Balkans. The EU’s empty promise of eventual membership does none of that anymore.

No credibility in the Balkans means no credibility anywhere

The true underlying problem is this: the prospect of EU membership has in the last 15 years nowhere been as powerful as in the Balkans. The mere perspective of eventual membership helped calm down ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001. That same perspective helped bring justice to many victims of the Yugoslav wars by motivating Serbia and Croatia to support the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. But since the pace of EU talks slowed down everywhere, this effect has now long worn off.

In many cases this is self-inflicted, of course. After all, we do see a substantial reform backlog in many Balkan states. However, the real problem lies on the EU’s side. For almost ten years now, the European Union made it clearer and clearer that it is not interested in any further enlargement any time soon. Even for the frontrunners in current accession talks, Montenegro and Serbia, a date before 2025 or even 2030 is basically illusionary. But the problem runs much deeper than that. It is not just that the EU doesn’t offer a credible perspective to the Balkans anymore. Even when it does interact with the region, it does so only when absolutely necessary and with no long-term strategy. Wednesday’s meeting of Balkan leaders in Brussels will certainly give us more of that.

The effect of this is obvious. The European Union has lost large parts of its credibility already in Western and Eastern Europe, due to its handling of the financial, Euro and refugee crises. Now, it even loses this credibility in the Balkans – the one place where Europe for a long time actually stood for something. And if the EU doesn’t manage to sustain its credibility in the Balkans, it won’t do so anywhere.

Economic uncertainty. A theory of populist support

Rising populist support and economic uncertainty go together, that is at least a widely held belief. But is it true?

One key explanation for populist support has always been economic uncertainty. Time to test that theory.

No one can plausibly deny that we have been going through a populist age in Europe.  For years now, growing support for populist parties seemed like a political inevitability. And when I say years, this trend can actually be tracked down pretty accurately to the year 2009. After all, a major explanation for right-wing and populist support has always been economic hardship. It was the global economic meltdown of 2007 and 2008 and its resulting “Euro crisis” that drove more and more people to such political alternatives, goes the theory. But seldom has this theory been tested.

Now might be the right time to do so as the European Commission just published its growth forecast for the EU. It states that even though growth rates are still not spectacular,  the overall EU economy is set to grow for the fifth year in a row this year. And even more importantly, every single national economy is growing as well – yes, even Greece! Obviously, economic circumstances don’t change overnight. But it begs the question: could this economic recovery spell an end to the rise of populism in Europe?

“It’s the economy, stupid”

First evidence suggests: yes, it could. While populist parties themselves like to make us believe their success stems from issues such as migration and European centralism, the famous Clinton-era saying still keeps its value. A major reason for many voters is still “the economy, stupid”. Recent electoral results seem to support the theory. As the economy slowly recovers, populist support is in decline. We can follow this trend from Austria in December via the Dutch elections to Emmanuel Macron’s stunning victory in France last week.

Of course, this superficial correlation does not prove that a recovering economy can stop populism altogether. The numbers in the Commission’s report are promising nonetheless and over the next year or two we will have plenty of occasions to test the correlation. Just look out for the imminent snap elections in Austria for a guideline.

Europe cannot leave difficult topics to populist parties

Whether economic recovery can truly spell an end to populism is only part of the question though. Populists have successfully campaigned on tangible issues as well. No one can deny that the Brexit vote happened also because the immigration argument trumped the economic one. While we can hope that improved economic circumstances will reduce the attractiveness of populism, these issues will remain. Pro-European, progressive parties will have to attack the populists on these grounds. They must offer alternatives, especially in the field of immigration.

That being said, an improved economic situation can give “mainstream” politicians back some credibility while taking that very credibility from the populists. And if progressive parties again fail to take the chance now, we at least know for sure that it is not just the economy, explaining right-wing success. Then it’s officially the failure of traditional politics.

Brexit turns nasty. That escalated quickly…

Brexit got nasty before talks even took off with politicians on both sides of the channel picking at each other

The Brexit talks turned to nasty infighting before they even started

It’s another one of these Sundays when we are all waiting for results to come in from France and I have nothing better to do than talk Brexit. But unfortunately, developments keep forcing me to do so. The latest source of tension in the Brexit talks was a particular unusual one. It all started with a dinner last week when EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and others were invited at Downing Street.

What seemed like an innocent working dinner escalated quickly though. In the aftermath of the evening, parts of the EU entourage started to leak information about the discussions that took place. One diplomat, when asked how the evening went later simply answered: “Badly. Really badly”, before adding concerning the exit  bill: “I’m not going to tell you their number, because you are going to laugh.”

This started a war-of-words between the two sides. Juncker’s top aide Martin Selmayr later went on record to say that Brexit will never be a success, no matter what. Theresa May meanwhile went all out declaring “war on Brussels” and that Brussels is trying to disrupt the UK election. Later, Brexit minister David Davis plainly called the EU side “bullies” and urged the British public to resist. So yeah, the atmosphere can safely be described as tense.

Brexit, general elections, and a whole lot of emotions

Clearly, things are not looking good in the Brexit talks and they have not even started yet. In the UK, we can already see campaign fever taking over. The country is holding general elections in just over a month and Theresa May is now increasingly betting on the nationalist card. She tries to establish herself as the candidate of the “people”, bravely facing down hostile foreign influences. This strategy might well pay out for her in the elections. For the Brexit talks though, this is pure poison.

However, the EU is also to blame here. First of all, it is highly unusual for information from a private dinner to leak to the media and many suspect Selmayr himself to have revealed them. Comments about unrealistic expectations in London and the UK’s “exit bill” certainly did not help either. It seems that disillusionment about the fact the Britain is about to leave the EU led people in Brussels to turn unjustifiably hostile towards London. Not a great basis for discussion.

Both sides need to calm down!

Elections or not, this verbal face-off cannot continue. The EU and UK will soon go through a year and a half of painstaking negotiations. It will be hard enough to find common ground and make the best of it there, also without such comments. But whether we (both on the continent and in Britain) like it or not: making the best of it must be the aim of the talks. We might not like the fact that Britain is leaving – and Brexiteers probably don’t like the fact that there will still be links of some sort between Britain and the EU afterwards. But the UK in 2019 will still only be 33km from France and a major trading partner for many EU countries and vice versa. Claiming that the two will not need to work together closely and amicably also in the future is denial, plain and simple.

I personally hate the fact that Brexit is actually happening. The UK was an important member of this European Union and without it, things will not be the same. However, I refuse to believe that the Brexit talks are a zero-sum game either. One side’s win is not the other side’s loss. So instead of exchanging insults let’s get this thing over with and try to get the best possible outcome for both sides. The EU will not seize to exist just because it doesn’t “punish” the UK hard enough and the UK will not become a failed state any time soon either. What will happen though, is that there will be a 27-state, 450 million inhabitants EU bordering an independent UK with one of the largest financial hubs in the world. They better not hate each other for decades to come.

Elections in France. Show some optimism

Elections in France brought a surprising clear victory for Emmanuel Macron in the first round already. Why are his supporters so pessimistic then?

France is still a well-fortified democracy. Let’s not forget that

A short disclaimer. I’m in Vienna this weekend – gotta visit the imperial capital every now and then – so I just want to put out some quick thoughts. In last week’s turmoil with the Turkish referendum, the announcement of early elections in the UK and the elections in France, I simply could not discuss everything. So I want to go back and talk about the French elections a bit.

When the results came in from France last Sunday night, I have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised. After all, my preferred candidate Emmanuel Macron won 24% of the vote, beating Marine Le Pen at 21%. And yet, since then most people I talked to were very pessimistic and anxious about the upcoming second round. The overarching sense seems to be that far-right success is too hard to predict and we might still be in for a surprise next week. I want to challenge this fear a bit. Because if I took anything from the first round of French elections it’s the feeling that the worst might actually be behind us.

Optimistic as I am, I expected Macron to win (though to be fair, I also thought Remain and Hillary would win). However, I did not expect Macron to win the first round. Experiences from elsewhere told me that a Le Pen victory in a field of 11 candidates is just very likely. Take the Austrian presidential elections as an example here. There, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer crushed his five opponents in the first round, taking 35% of the vote ahead of now-president van der Bellen’s 21%. Take a look at this map to get an idea of what a landslide victory that really was. (Everything coloured blue went for Hofer).

There a reasons to be hopeful

Of course, we now know that this 14% lead turned into a neck-on-neck race in the second round with van der Bellen ultimately winning first 50.3% and then 53,8%. Also France has experienced elections along these lines before. In the 2015 regional elections, Front National gathered 27% in the first round just to be annihilated in the second round thanks to tactical voting.

But this time it’s different. Now, the “compromise” candidate, who would under normal circumstances be expected to only gather the moderate vote in the second round (if that), already won the first. That is not just promising, that is extraordinary!

The likes of Le Pen are of course strong and we should not underestimate them. But at this point it seems like their rocket-like ascent is reaching a bit of a dead end. So please, fellow moderates, liberals, leftists and what not: show some optimism.

Snap elections! Time for another ride on the Brexit rollercoaster

The snap elections announced by Theresa May take the Brexit rollercoaster on yet another ride.

The Brexit rollercoaster keeps on going as the UK is now officially heading for snap elections.

Theresa May is a remarkable Prime Minister. Seriously, how does she just keep a decision as important as snap elections secret for this long and then take everyone by surprise with a short-notice statement? This seems like it should be virtually impossible and May’s predecessor proved that on more than one occasion. But Theresa May did it and with her surprise announcement on Tuesday, she sent the UK into snap elections on June 8th. And that has the potential to change everything.

Why Theresa May was right to call elections

But let me start by saying that the PM was right to call snap elections and do so now. First of all, she has a serious issue of “mandate”. While the UK has voted for Brexit last year, nobody ever had a say on the negotiating team. It was David Cameron calling the referendum and the Tory party deciding on May as his predecessor (though not even they voted for her). While she now can of course repeat saying “Brexit means Brexit” over and over again, this does not solve the PM’s legitimacy problem. A new election with a fresh mandate for the Tories would do just that and would do so until 2022.

This is also the perfect time for snap elections. May has just triggered Article 50 so Brexit is officially underway. Negotiations, however, have not yet started and won’t in earnest until after the June date anyway. Furthermore, now seems to be a pretty decent time for elections from a strategic perspective as well.  Labour, still the – don’t ask me why or how – main opposition party in the country, continues to be in disarray. Jeremy Corbyn is probably the least popular Labour leader ever (which is an achievement) so this time represents a chance for Theresa May to crush her opposition for years to come. Because after all: who knows who would lead Labour into the regular 2020 elections?

Combined, this gives May plenty of good reasons to hold snap elections now. All polls predict a landslide victory for her Tories giving her an iron mandate to conduct the Brexit talks starting from June. Yet, the elections could also mean more turmoil and (even if just a little) hope for remainers and the EU.

Don’t underestimate the potential turmoil of snap elections

That being said, the move is not entirely risk-free for Miss May and that should be a source of hope for everyone opposing a hard Brexit. Even though polls put the Tories at close to 50% of the overall vote at the moment, two months are a long time in politics. And while we shouldn’t expect much coming from Labour (no seriously, don’t), there is one party to keep an eye on during the campaign: the Liberal Democrats. This former coalition partner of the Conservatives lost many of their seats in the 2015-elections and are widely expected to recapture most of them while possibly adding quite some more. A poll by Business Insider magazine recently even put the party at a whopping 40%, thereby crushing the Tories (take that with a grain of salt though).

Whether you buy into these admittedly creative numbers or not, there is a lot of potential for Lib Dem. They were the first to label themselves as the party of “the 48%” and they still are the only credible pro-EU party in England. Why shouldn’t a significant part of these 48% take the chance and vote for them?

On top of that, there is of course also another pro-EU party guaranteed to take 50+ seats in Westminster: the Scottish National Party. And SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon already announced she would back a “progressive alliance” with Labour, Lib Dem and others to prevent a Tory majority. While this majority is therefore still the most likely outcome of the elections, it is not at all set in stone.

Have faith, remainers!

Theresa May wants one thing from these snap elections: a strong mandate to fence off the opposition and her own backbenchers for years to come. The stronger her post-election majority therefore, the less of a say Parliament will almost certainly have in the Brexit process. And that is exactly why every vote against the Tories counts in this election. A conservative super-majority might bring “stability” but it would inevitably lead to a hard Brexit, ignoring by and large the will of 48% of the country. The only way to prevent that is to have a loud and strong parliament with as many Liberal Democrats in there as possible.

Lib Dem will probably not win the elections. A theoretical progressive alliance would most likely still end up with less seats than the Tories. But a, say, 30-odd seat majority for May makes her much more reliant on Parliament than a 90-seat majority. And that is why everyone who opposes a hard Brexit needs to vote against the Tories now. The so-called stability provided by a strong mandate is not in the interest of the 48% or any progressive person for that matter. And who knows? Maybe the Liberal Democrats do end up with 40% of the vote. One can still dream I guess.

5 reasons why you should join a political party

There are many ways to be active in a party. This is a photo of me playing with the Green Party cabaret.

Me performing with the Green Party Easter cabaret this week.

Populism and radicalisation in politics are topics I have discussed a lot on this blog. Today, however, I want to take a look at the other side of that coin. I want to elaborate a bit on an emerging trend of re-politicisation in our societies that is still often overlooked. Because even though we tend to hear only the bad news – Brexit, Trump, Pegida and so on – all these developments also come with new chances.

Just recently, the German weekly Die Zeit has dedicated a major story to these chances. They went out and talked to people who were appalled by the developments in world politics but reacted not by becoming more apathetic but by becoming more political. They decided to join parties.

For the first time in many, many years, entries into political parties are on the rise in many European countries. The mere candidacy of Martin Schulz for the German Social Democrats, for instance, convinced 13,000 people to join the party since January alone. I myself am no exception to this trend. Last summer, I joined the German Green Party and I want to lay out the top five reasons why I believe every politically minded person should at least consider joining a party.

1 | Being in a party adds another layer of political participation

As an Austrian national, I am not allowed to vote in this year’s German parliamentary elections even though I live here for two years now. This to me is a real problem, so what I chose to do instead is to join the Green Party and vote in their primaries. Differently to other German parties, the Greens offered a postal vote amongst all members to decide on the two party candidates. This at least gave me a little bit of democratic participation in the country I live in.

But I believe that this argument is valid for everyone. Even if you are eligible to vote in your country of residence, joining a party can increase your say in politics dramatically. By voting internally, supporting candidates you like and campaigning for them, you can make a difference in the overall politics of your country. Even though you might not quite change the world, you can certainly do far more than by just going to the polls every couple of years.

2 | Being in a party sharpens your own political profile

Another perk of being in a party is that it makes you reflect on your political beliefs. In my experience, a lot of the convictions we hold are shaped in two main ways. First, they develop in opposition to something. In my case that was nationalism and isolationism, exemplified by the Austrian Freedom Party. Secondly, they are shaped by discussions with likeminded people. The problem with that is that in these discussions a lot of the same or very similar ideas we already hold tend to simply be reflected back at us.

And that is exactly where being in a party comes into play. With party colleagues – a group of largely likeminded people – you also discuss your political beliefs. However, you are far more likely to go in depth, discuss details and thereby sharpen your understanding of topics you care about. Take the Green Party as an example. Of course, we discuss xenophobia or nationalism as I would amongst my friends but party members tend to have a more acute sense for politcial reality. Discussions more likely move towards concrete proposals, especially when talking to party colleagues in higher functions. And breaking down your ideas into proposals really helps sharpen your personal convictions and fill them with real meaning.

3 | You can actively shape your community

People often say that a single person cannot change much, also not when being a member of a political party. And to a certain extend that is probably true. By simply joining a party you will not immediately get elected to parliament or gain a lot of media attention for your ideas. However, one area where you can very quickly make your voice heard is local politics.

Most parties lack qualified and motivated personnel when it comes to municipal politics and those who want to be active in their city or district councils have a fair chance of being able to do so fairly quickly. Moreover, local party structures tend to be very flat and members have a chance to discuss issues with their colleagues in the respective position and have their voice heard. Whether you want to have a say in traffic regulations in your quarter, public events or municipal support for local artists. Being in a party will give you a chance to shape such discussions in a meaningful way.

4 | You will develop a better understanding of politics as a whole

Simply by being a party member and attending meetings every now and then, you will gain a lot of insight into politics as a whole. For me personally that part was truly rewarding. Dealing with politics for years now, both academically and on this blog, this technical insight is something I lacked. I am talking about how exactly parties develop and communicate their ideas. How they reach out to the media and how the media reacts to this. How they decide on candidates and how other internal procedures work. How local, regional and national politics are intertwined, who links them and so on. Adding this sort of bottom-up understanding of politics – from your local party branch to the national parliament – to your overall knowledge of politics gives you a whole new understanding of how everything works.

5 | It’s just good fun

But finally, being in a party is also just good fun. You will meet people from all walks of life, from all ages, professional, social and economic backgrounds and you will be working together towards a joint goal. Also, there are plenty of ways to do that and nobody will force you to sit in city council meetings all day if you don’t want to. You can simply pick the activities you enjoy most. In the photo above, for instance, you see this year’s “Maundy Thursday Cabaret” organised by the Green Party in my home town (the German “Gründonnerstagung” makes for a much catchier title), that I supported on guitar. So just being a member of the Greens gave me the chance to stand on a stage in front of 250 people and play some music. Now if that isn’t fun, I don’t know what is.

In short, I can only stress what all the interviewees in the aforementioned Die Zeit article said. If you care about politics and are worried about current developments, sticking your head in the ground is no feasible option. I’m not saying that joining a party is the only option for you, of course it isn’t. You can be active in NGOs, stage protests or be active online. However, all things considered, there are plenty of good reasons to join a party. I just gave you five.

How would you like your Brexit? Ireland wants it well done

A graffiti in Ireland saying "the struggle goes on". A subtle reminder for the Brexit talks.

Ireland is the EU country with most to lose from Brexit. The EU has to take that seriously.

This week, Ireland’s PM – or more correctly, its Taoiseach – Enda Kenny went on an important mission. For the second time since the Brexit vote, he visited Germany and this of course has a simple reason. There is a lot at stake in the Brexit talks for Ireland. And who better to discuss that with than Angela Merkel. So what exactly is the Irish position on Brexit and why is Merkel right to take it seriously?

No one has more to lose than Ireland

It is obvious that Ireland has by far the most to lose from Brexit, especially from a hard and unorderly one. While other EU countries, like Germany or France, have strong business ties with the UK as well, the Irish situation is special. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner by far. Up to 10% of all jobs on the island depend on exports to the UK, which is why Enda Kenny is rightfully alarmed. A hard Brexit or no post-Brexit trade deal at all would be disastrous for his country. And clearly, this goes beyond mere economics.

Ireland is also the only EU country (or only country for that matter) sharing a land border with the UK. And even though the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is today almost invisible, it has a more than troubled past. In the north, one government already fell in the last year partially because of Brexit and its repercussions on Ireland. Further conflict – though luckily unlikely – cannot be completely ruled out.

How do you like your Brexit?

Angela Merkel during Kenny’s visit supported the Irish PM. She clearly stated that “this is about economic links […] but it is also about questions of peace and war.” Furthermore, Merkel promised all possible support from Germany and the rest of the EU. But that puts Germany and other EU players ina complicated position.

In the last couple of months – and the last weeks in particular – Germany has appeared tough on the Brexit negotiations. The German government has repeatedly made clear that it does not wish to grant Britain an overly beneficial deal, falling in line with other “hardliners”, such as France and Belgium (btw. here’s a handy map on the EU27’s positions on Brexit by country). This seems at odds with supporting Ireland in every way possible. In fact, it gives us a pretty good idea of just how messy the next two years could become.

Will the EU be able to speak with one voice?

So far, Brussels has shown a consistent face towards Brexit. So far it was clear that Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier will be the one, coordinating the talks and individual member states have aligned behind him. However, the obvious contradictions between the interests of countries like Ireland and those of Germany and others could make that hard to sustain. It is crucial for the EU to not let Britain have its cake and eat it – by giving Theresa May an overly favourable trade deal for instance. However, legitimate interests like those of Ireland cannot be ignored either and the mere mentioning of renewed violence should make all of us shiver. The Brexit talks will therefore be a real test for the European Union. Nobody should underestimate that.

Hands off my university! Orbán’s regime attacks CEU

Central European University (CEU), my alma mater, in Budapest is directly attacked by the Hungarian government

The doors of CEU in Budapest might soon have to close forever

Yesterday, I woke up to disturbing news from my alma mater, Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, when the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán – an old friend of the blog – officially went on the attack to close CEU for good. While

I have spent a lot of time here attacking Orbán and his friends for their authoritarian moves, it never felt this close and personal. Obviously, I cannot ignore this development, which is also why I chose to move this week’s blog post ahead by a couple of days. So, what happened here and why is it a big deal?

CEU is a Hungarian university!

CEU is a university founded right after the fall of the iron curtain, initiated by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros. Its mission was clear from the beginning. Promoting open society, supporting the democratic transition in Central Europe and helping educate people to shape this democratic society in the future.

In its early years, CEU has already taken some hits. At first, it had branches not only in Budapest but also in Prague and Warsaw. In the mid-90s, changing political circumstances in Czechia (in the form of Václav Klaus) forced CEU out of Prague which made the small Warsaw-campus hard to sustain as well.

However, on its main campus in Budapest, CEU has achieved a lot over the last 25 years. The university developed into a beacon of high-quality liberal education in the region. It attracted some of the best academics in the world and – more importantly – brought people and knowledge from all over the globe to Budapest. Throughout this time, it has also strongly contributed to the Hungarian academic scene and, not to forget, the country’s public finances. In 2004, this success resulted in a joint declaration by the Republic of Hungary and State of New York that made the awarding of joint US and Hungarian degrees possible. In short, CEU has become a Hungarian accredited university.

What happened now and why it matters

Tensions between Orbán’s government and CEU have been rising ever since 2010 though. While Orbán himself enjoyed support from George Soros in his youth, the two grew into staunch opponents over the years. In Hungary, like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Soros is somewhat of a legendary figure. For right-wing authoritarians, he embodies everything they despise. He is liberal, American, Jewish, rich and simply inconvenient. However, up until Trump’s election victory, Soros has enjoyed US-backing. No surprise that Orbán took his chance, now that circumstances have changed in the US.

He did so with a bill presented to the Hungarian parliament on Tuesday night. In it, the government proposes amendments to the country’s higher education law. The law is entirely designed to target the CEU and CEU only. If it passes, all foreign universities active in Hungary will need to have a physical campus in their home country that is significantly active. Of the 28 foreign universities in Hungary, CEU is the only one without such a campus. The law would also eradicate a good-faith paragraph that allows international academics to teach in Hungary without the need for a work permit. CEU is the Hungarian university with the most non-EU professors and staff by far.

Should this pass, the university would therefore be forced to open a campus in New York until spring 2018 – an impossibility – or close down next year. This simply cannot be allowed to happen! Central European University is one of the few Hungarian institutions left, that support an open society and liberal values. Closing it would make the Hungarian state and society even more authoritarian than they already are.

Things look dim for Hungarian democracy

Unfortunately, also reaching a new agreement with the (Trump-)US, as proposed by Hungarian politicians, would be dangerous. Orbán would probably insist on putting CEU’s activities under the supervision of the state, as it does with state-run universities.  This would take him one step closer to full control over every aspect of the country and crucially, it would take away one of the last remaining bastions for young, open-minded Hungarians to get quality education in their own country.

In one word, forcing CEU to close would be a tragedy and we cannot count on Donald Trump to step in on behalf of the university’s home country. Instead, the European Union needs to finally step up. This is ultimately just another move away from democracy in Hungary and Europe has ignored too many of these moves already. Attacks on the media, the judiciary and democratic institutions are just a few examples. Hungary is still an EU member state and attacks like these simply cannot be accepted in this club. The EU needs to step in now, save CEU and save the last hope for democracy and open society in Hungary and Central Europe!

You can find CEU’s statement here

Happy birthday, European Union. You look old.

The EU celbrates its 60th birthday. But whatever so-called "doctors" like to make us belief, it is not dying yet.

The EU celebrates its 60th birthday this weekend. It sure looks older.

This weekend, the 27 EU heads of state (yes, 27, it’s official) met in Rome for a very special occasion. March 25th – yesterday – marks sixty years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s birthday! And what better way to celebrate that than with…  a council.

Oh well… at least they celebrate, I guess.

Unfortunately, on its 60th birthday, the European Union indeed looks very, very old. In fact, its condition even seems critical. In the last ten years, self-proclaimed doctors of all sorts have repeatedly told us, the EU might not make it much longer. The institution’s body is frail and the removal of its diabetic food called England certainly does not improve this overall situation. This weekend’s celebration might therefore quickly turn into a mourning.

Notwithstanding the critical condition of Europe, the EU needs this celebration. After so many bad years, it feels good to celebrate for once. And this also gives us the chance to look back on what is still a huge success story. The sixty years that the European Union has been around mark – after all – the most peaceful, wealthy and open period this continent has ever seen.

It is an old story that wars between EU members have become all but unrealistic. However, the EU-period marks much more than that. It opened up new opportunities for people living in every corner of Europe, from Spain to Lithuania. People can today move more freely, think more freely – simply live more freely – than they ever did before. We are currently living through our heyday. No matter what these so-called doctors tell us, the patient is therefore far from dead.

That of course doesn’t mean, the EU does not also need to change. Recent discussions around the future of this union lead in the right direction. Yes, the EU will have to reinvent itself. But it always has.

What is the true tragedy is that so many people living on this continent no longer connect the historical accomplishments they enjoy each day – their personal freedoms, their wealth and their possibilities – with the political structure of the EU that made so much of it possible. As I said, we are now living more freely than ever. It is no coincidence that this unprecedented level of personal liberty and wealth came alongside the development of the EU.

On this birthday, let us therefore rightfully celebrate what has been achieved on this continent. But let us not forget to also think ahead. To discuss – and yes, fight over – the future of this European Union. Many paths are possible. All but one: going back to our petty nation states, falling for the populists’ promise that this would magically solve all our issues. The EU is not the problem. It has always been the solution but as the problems change, so must the solutions.

It only seems fitting – in the face of the celebrations in Rome – to end on some Latin wisdoms. One in particular comes to mind here, the Habsburgs’ old slogan now used by Spain: plus ultra – “further beyond”. That is indeed the only direction open to us but it is a damn good direction. It can be done. Viribus unitis.

The sick man upon the Bosphorus

Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul. The days when Turkey was a bridge between East and West are long gone. Thanks to Erdoğan.

Turkey was once considered a bridge between East and West. Under Erdoğan, those days are definitely gone

Once again, it’s time to talk about an old friend of this blog: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aka the sick man upon the Bosphorus. I have mentioned him here over and over again in the past. And of course, that is because a lot has happened in Turkey recently. There are the refugee deal with the EU, the attempted military coup last summer and Erdoğan’s ongoing project to become sultan. A lot to cover. However, in the last couple of weeks, Erdoğan offered even more reasons to turn our attention to him. Now he went full-on mental.

Erdoğan, still loving the N-word

I understand it’s a difficult time for our little sultan. Next month, he is holding his referendum to cripple Turkish democracy a bit more by giving himself semi-dictatorial powers. Surprisingly though, a victory is not certain at all. People in Turkey are decidedly mixed on the issue, with 40% in favour, 40% against and 20% undecided. No surprise, Erdoğan is getting a bit nervous now, just four weeks ahead of the referendum. A key element of his strategy for still winning this, was gathering support amongst Turks abroad. Unfortunately for him, authorities in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands now upset this plan.

After a number of German municipalities stopped Turkish politicians from holding rallies there, Erdoğan first exploded. He ranted against Germany, drawing one Nazi comparison after the other – nothing that’s very welcome in Germany, as you can probably imagine. Austria was soon to follow suit and call for a full ban on Turkish propaganda on Austrian soil. Again, the sultan and his followers responded with Nazi claims, basically calling the whole country racist. But the climax was reached in the Netherlands. When the country banned two of Erdoğan’s ministers from entering last week, what do you think he did? Right! Calling the Dutch Nazi remants. Yes, the Dutch – a country occupied by said Nazis for five years.

Remember, this man is our partner!

That all sounds pretty bad. But then again, having megalomaniac autocrats oppose you is generally a good sign you’re on the right track. If it wasn’t for one problem. Recep Erdoğan is not just a crazy autocrat on our doorstep, he is also our partner. We made him an ally when we signed the refugee deal in 2015. Ever since then, he routinely threatened with ending that deal and “flooding Europe with refugees”. Unsurprising then that no strong answer came from Berlin for weeks after Erdoğan’s attacks. It’s Merkel’s refugee deal – it cannot just fail.

Yet, it clearly should. Why should we make ourselves dependent on a dictator-to-be for no reason? We need to end that deal to be able to show Erdoğan his place. Let him “open the floodgates” – it has never been proven anyway that it was the Turkey deal stopping the flow of refugees in the first place. Ending the deal now won’t bring 2015-conditions all over again. And even if it did, that would at least force Europe to come up with a real solution instead of outsourcing our problems to a psychopath.

There is no good reason why we should play nice with an autocrat who is at this moment demolishing democracy in Turkey. There is also no good reason why we should have him and his people hold rallies in the EU or tolerate him calling all Europeans Nazis. In my eyes, we therefore need to do three things: end the refugee-deal, end the EU accession talks with Turkey and start treating Erdoğan like we treat other autocrats and dictators. With appropriate distance.

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