By Amy Waggoner
Germany’s government is based upon the 1949 Basic Law, containing the key components of democracy, republicanism, federalism, and social responsibility. The head of state is the President, currently Joachim Gauck, whose primary duties are ceremonial and supervisory in nature. The head of government is the Chancellor, whose primary job is to oversee the two houses within Germany’s legislative branch. Angela Merkel, Germany’s current Chancellor, has held this position since 2005. The German legislative branch is comprised of an upper house, the Bundesrat, and a lower house, the Bundestag. Chancellor Merkel’s political party, the Christian Democratic Union, formed a grand coalition in 2013 with the Social Democratic Party. While criticized by some for not doing enough to keep Europe’s economies afloat during the economic crisis, Merkel’s policies have been credited with maintaining a strong German economy.
Reunification of West and East Germany has been and remains one of the most prevalent social issues in German society, and the country’s National Team functions as a robust rallying tool for German citizens. Serving as a national cohesion, football gives Germany a measure of self-confidence and pride, as their World Cup statistics affirm. The National Team has obtained world-champion status three times—1954, 1974 and 1990—and has consistently placed 7th position or better on a global stage of 31 World Cup final round spots. Immigration issues have also pushed to the forefront of modern Germany’s social state with the advent of the European Union’s open border policies and the maturity of second and third generation German residents of Turkish and African descent. Germany’s National Team sets a progressive example in this area, as well, with four key players—Mesut Özil, Jérôme Boateng, Lukas Podolski, and Sami Khedira—of Turkish, African, Polish and Tunisian descent, respectively. German citizens have come to accept and appreciate their football team’s diversified squad, and 2014 is shaping up to be the year when all Germans unite towards the most commonly-desired goal: to be the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions.
Could anyone paint a Vermeer? This is the question inventor Tim Jenison poses in a provocative new documentary entitled Tim’s Vermeer. For Jenison, Vermeer’s paintings stand out from those of his contemporaries, artists who were all trying to master realistic painting. Unlike the work of his seventeenth-century colleagues, Vermeer’s pieces seem shockingly life-like. This suggests to Jenison that the renowned Dutch painter might have relied more on technological savvy than on innate instinct to create his masterpieces.
Using his extensive background in digital technology, Jenison therefore set out to reproduce Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. The inventor built a meticulously accurate life-size replica of the scene depicted in the work and, employing technology that he believed Vermeer either invented or perfected, was able to create a stunningly accurate reproduction of the Dutch master’s painting. While art historians have long believed that artists have for centuries employed the technique of camera obscura to project an image of a scene onto paper (a precursor to photography,) Jenison believes that Vermeer relied on the optical illusion of camera obscura in conjunction with the use of a concave mirror in order to create vividly realistic paintings. Essentially, Jenison worked on the premise that Vermeer created painted photographs by employing the above-mentioned technology to reproduce scenes pixel by pixel—and there seems to be some truth in Jenison’s assumption. After all, the inventor, whose background in art was entirely non-existent leading up to this project, was able to accurately reproduce a Vermeer.
So what does this mean for Vermeer’s legacy? For how the artistically-unskilled are to view art in general? According to Jenison, his theory regarding Vermeer’s use of technology should not detract from the Dutch master’s status as part of the cannon of classic works of art. While this may no longer make Vermeer an elusive genius, it does make the artist an extraordinary human being. As Tim’s Vermeer shows, employing Jenison’s technique for reproducing Vermeer’s works is a painstakingly tedious and drawn-out process which requires keen technological insight. In addition, although Jenison’s reproduction was quite close to the original, it nevertheless lacked the subtle touches of pure artistic vision that allowed Vermeer to produce breathtaking works of art. In the end, Tim’s Vermeer gives a provocative angle to Vermeer’s career and, while substituting artistic sublimity for mere human genius, poses exciting yet troubling questions regarding the “nature” of art and of artists.
With June 28th around the corner, Bosnia is struggling to grapple with a hundred-year-old past. The country seems to be unsure whether its collective memory should selectively block out the recollection of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, or whether it should celebrate it with fanfare in Sarajevo’s streets. For a country whose history has long been one of conflict and violence, it is no wonder that the issue of remembering an event that has long been pinpointed as the trigger to WWI is a particularly weighty one. Bosnians cannot seem to agree on which Gavrilo Princip needs to be immortalized in the history books—should it be Gavrilo Princip, the hero, whose assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was part of a plot to gain Bosnia’ independence from Austria-Hungary, or should it be Gavrilo Princip, the terrorist, whose actions kicked off a horrendously bloody world war, leading to the death of millions, including a fifth of Serbia’s population?
A hundred years and several tragic conflicts later, Bosnia—and Serbs in general—cannot come to a consensus on one of their most controversial historical figures. History teachers in Bosnia and Serbia feel uneasy about their lesson plans on this topic and struggle with representations of the young assassin. Some feel bound to hail him as a hero, while others have been making an effort to present him in a more objective light, leaving room for their students to form their own opinions of Princip’s legacy. Bosnian politicians, however, seem less apprehensive about Princip’s heroism, and have been arriving in Sarajevo in droves to commemorate the shots fired there a hundred years ago. This could be interpreted as an attempt at forging a cohesive collective memory around which Bosnians could rally and come together—but would this encourage a re-writing of history and a creation of fanatic ultra-nationalism? Or would it be a benign way to bring together a conflict-ridden population? History has taught us that the balance could easily tip in either direction. Perhaps June 28th will provide an answer.
The recent European elections have struck a blow to the self-assurance of the EU’s leaders and stuck a wrench in the plans for a “greater Europe” by confirming Europeans’ growing commitment to far-right, anti-EU sentiment. Eurosceptic parties gained shockingly comprehensive wins throughout Europe, sounding off alarm bells in Brussels. While the success of the Danish People’s Party and the UK’s UKIP party might not seem incredibly surprising considering the traditionally high Euroscepticism within the countries they were campaigning, the success of France’s far-right National Front is a shock to many. What was once viewed as an extremist party on the fringe of French politics has now gained impressive wins in the European elections—and this in a country which, along with Germany, has historically been considered a leader of the European Union.
Although pro-EU parties still have the upper hand, the huge leap in support for far-right parties has the EU’s leaders justifiably concerned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are treading a bit more carefully, conceding that European politicians should concentrate more on what is most important—i.e. repairing the economy—and resolve issues of bureaucratic red tape. Although Merkel and Hollande still seem to believe that Euroscepticism will fade as soon as the European economy begins to improve, there is nevertheless much talk of the general need for ‘change.’ This has especially been the platform of Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a young upstart whose party was one of the only truly successful pro-EU parties in this year’s elections. However, much as has been the case with U.S. President Barack Obama, while the talk of ‘change’ is certainly appealing and, at its core, absolutely necessary, it nevertheless remains relatively vague and has an air about it of the unfeasible.
While pro-EU politicians might genuinely want to fix the Union’s glaring problems, their calls for ‘change’ sound as of yet naively optimistic. As the American case has proven over the past six years, the promise of ‘change’ must be accompanied by some concrete results. Otherwise, more and more voters will become dissatisfied and disillusioned and the far-right will be there waiting for them with open arms, ready to feed into their concerns. Considering the bleak results of the recent European elections, the EU’s leaders cannot risk throwing around empty promises. One hopes that the results of this year’s elections will act as a vivid eye-opener for Europe’s leaders and lead to greater cooperation across national and ideological borders in an effort to bring Brussels’ ideal of ‘Europe’ in line with the people’s vision of ‘Europe.’ If not, the European Union will quickly descend down the path of seemingly irreparable ideological cleavages and disillusionment that America has recently taken to with such great determination. It seems that both sides of the pond could stand to learn from each other’s challenges in a time in which cooperation across ideological and national divides is becoming increasingly crucial to the happiness and wellbeing of all.
On June 2, 2014, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced King Juan Carlos I had requested to begin the process for abdication after 39 years on the throne. Explaining his desire for “a younger generation to step into the front line” and a “new era of hope,” King Juan Carlos I abdicates in favor of his son Felipe. The King is widely credited with leading Spain’s transition into a democratic state following Franco’s death, but has faced plummeting public support amid personal and familial scandals in recent years.
The abdication ushers Spain into uncharted territory as the 1978 Constitution has no formal law regarding the succession process. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government quickly set out to draft a new abdication law. Once the law receives the approval of parliament, speaker Jesús Posada explained Prince Felipe could assume the throne after 18 June, when the law is expected to come into effect. Spain is also expected to change the law to make certain Felipe’s first born, daughter Leonor, can succeed him, which would not be the case under current law if Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia were to have a son.
Prince Felipe has largely managed to stay above the scandals and maintains an approval rating of over 66%. Following King Juan Carlos’ announcement, 55.7% of those polled by Sigma Dos supported the monarchy as an institution in Spain, up from the 49.9% reported six months prior. 57.5 per cent believed the prince could restore the royal family’s lost prestige.
Nevertheless, the succession is not without dissent. Following the announcement of King Juan Carlos’ abdication, thousands flooded the streets of Madrid to contest the nation’s economic woes and the royal family’s annual €8.3m budget. Protestors demanded a say in the future of the monarchy. Some called for a referendum to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. Their call was bolstered by the more than 245,000 people who had signed an online petition calling for a referendum. A Metroscopia poll published in El Pais shows 62% of Spaniards said they wanted a referendum on the future of the monarchy “at some point”.
The demands were countered by the government. “I think that the monarchy in Spain has the support of the majority,” Rajoy later responded. “If someone doesn’t like that, they can propose a constitutional reform. You have the perfect right to do so. But what you cannot do in a democracy is bypass the law.”
Felipe, the current Prince of Asturias, is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Catalan and studied in Canada before completing three years of training as part of Spain’s military. He earned a law degree in Madrid as well as a Masters in International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He will be the first university educated successor to the throne. He is expected to be crowned King of Spain on June 19 at the Spanish parliament.
Today the Netherlands and the UK launch the start of four days of voting for EU-wide European Parliament elections, the full results of which will be announced after the final poll has closed on Sunday, 25 May at 11:ooPM Brussels time. The vote will decide who will hold the 751 seats in the parliament wherein seats are allocated in proportion to each member state’s population. Most of the 28 member states will vote on Sunday.
In the first elections that will enact the changes ratified by the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s 500 million citizens are voting to shape a parliament that has much more power than it used to have– a crossroad quietly, but problematically, underscored by the institution’s steadily declining voter turnout. The Lisbon Treaty has produced significant changes in many areas of the EU, two of which are of particular importance to today’s elections. First is the notable increase in power given to the Parliament and its MEPs in policy decisions. Since 2009, the parliament has yielded a growing voice in the Union’s decision making process. Second, is an impact that up to this point has remained entirely speculative– that is, an election result’s effect on the selection of the next European Commission President. Morphing the parliamentary elections into a segued presidential race is a hope for growing democratic legitimacy by way of increased voter turnout.
Families within the main political parties – center-right, center-left, liberal, green, and left- are not simply campaigning for a spot in the parliament, they are also announcing their lead candidate for the Presidential position should their party win the most seats. Why is this important? Because the President of the Commission is voted in by a qualified majority. The majority of political parties agree that Barroso’s successor should come from the most popularly elected party. This means the candidate of the largest political group is likely to win the vote for the Presidency, just as Barroso came from the largest party, the EPP, when he assumed the Presidency in 2004.
Voters must realize, then, how their vote influences the selection of the commission president. Guy Verhofstadt, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schulz seem to be among the frontrunners for the Presidency within their respective parties, and each of whom represent various support for the policy preferences of the Big 5 in EU politics. Though perhaps more importantly is the implication of each candidate’s succession and his ability to successfully navigate interactions between the EU’s various institutions all the while managing- or encouraging- Germany’s, and Merkel’s, ever-growing influence in Brussels.
Thus today citizens are not simply voting for parliamentarians, but for the future trajectory of the EU as a whole.
In 2012, Norwegian filmmaker Margreth Olin released a new documentary. “Nowhere Home” follows the stories of several teenage boys, all lone child asylum seekers, who fled to Norway to escape their war-torn countries. They all thought that making this journey would be their salvation; that Norway, in the “enlightened” West, would take them in her arms and act as the mother of which those children had all been cruelly deprived. They all made treacherous journeys, unaccompanied, only to find that the West was not quite as welcoming as it promised to be.
As the documentary begins, we meet Goli, a hardened youth from Kurdistan who had fled to Norway two years prior to escape from his home, in which his stepfather regularly abused him and threated his life. Like most of the boys in the film, Goli gets deported once he turns 18. Goli, however, is determined. He feels like he has absolutely nothing to lose, so he risks making his way back. He is arrested for stabbing another boy, is deprived psychological care, and is deported once again.
Then we meet two brothers, Hasan and Husein, who fled Iraq after their entire family was brutally killed. Husein, a year younger than Hasan, had been stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet when he was 12 and became paralyzed. In Norway, he moves back and forth between the refuge centre and the hospital, not being administered proper care. From the first time we meet him, Husein says he had lost hope a long time ago. Hasan, however, is more optimistic. He has to be, for his brother’s sake. He visits with Husein in the hospital for 4-5 hours a day and tries to help his brother exercise. Hasan has to take care of his only brother, the only family he has left. Towards the end of the documentary, Hasan calls Olin, enthralled, saying that he spoke with an official on the phone who told him that he and his brother will most likely be allowed to stay in Norway after they turn 18. Olin gently warns him that without official paperwork, nothing is certain. By the end, we find out that the two boys’ lives are still in limbo. They are still denied residence permits and the right to go to school. By the end, Hasan still lovingly looks after his brother, but he has lost all hope.
Finally, there is Khalid, a boy of 17 who fled Afghanistan to escape from a sure death. He smiles often, but his smiles are not happy ones. He feels completely alone, hanging in limbo along with the other boys in his refuge centre, dreading the decision of the Norwegian government concerning his appeal for residence. He plays the Playstation often—the only time he gets to be in control. When we first see him he wonders, “Who can we shout to?” When Hasan and Husein learn that they might be granted permission to stay in Norway on the basis of protection of human rights, Khalid thinks, “So, are [the rest of us] not human?” The boys are all alone, and the Norwegian state waits for them to reach their 18th birthdays so they can be “legally” disposed of. When that day comes for Khalid, he celebrates by sharing a cake with his friends. Then he receives his present from the Norwegian state: a final denial of his appeal. “Game over,” he says.
“Nowhere Home” brings to light a crucial problem in the West—that of the protection of child asylum seekers’ lives. It shows how even the most advanced countries in the world can still be so backward in their treatment of foreigners, even when those foreigners are children. This problem extends far beyond lone child asylum seekers, and is deeply intertwined with the West’s (often) veiled racism and xenophobia.
Olin’s documentary was filmed right after Anders Breivik, a white Christian Norwegian male, blew up the Prime Minister’s building in Oslo and then opened fire on a youth camp, killing 77 (most of them teenagers) and injuring 200. Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, in a 3-cell suite fully equipped with exercise equipment, a television, and a laptop. The young boys in “Nowhere Home” each had a small room, an almost inexistent allowance, and were given the death sentence—deportation back to countries in which they no longer had any support system and in which they would most likely be killed; deportation to the same countries in which much of the conflict had been caused or exacerbated by Western interference.
Breivik was deprived of only 21 years; the lone child asylum seekers were deprived of their lives. In the context of the ever-growing nationalism and xenophobia all over the West, this situation only hopes to get worse. If even those countries that are the most advanced and proclaim moral superiority still choose, in the 21st century, to not uphold the basic human rights of those whom they claim to want to save, what hope is there for those more “backward” countries to which the West has offered its moral guidance?