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Director’s Statement, Fall 2020

October 12, 2020

Over the past 8 months, three events have changed the world in which we live inexorably.  First, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Europe and the United States, exposing weaknesses in our globalized economy, altering our way of life, shifting the political calculus of both the forces of democracy and the forces of authoritarianism, and further undermining an already weakened transatlantic relationship.  Next, the heinous murder of George Floyd sparked a growing movement for racial justice in the United States that has spread to Europe and the rest of the world.  Last, but not least, the climate crisis continues unabated.  California, the new epicenter, is experiencing an unprecedented wave of forest fires, the smoke from which has darkened skies up and down the coast. 

Over the coming year, the Institute for European Studies will be doing its utmost to respond to our changing world and to continue to provide our constituents with a variety of resources that will help them stay informed and think critically about the contemporary global moment.  We are committed to initiating discussions that we hope will facilitate the emergence of the kind of far-reaching, international solutions that these global problems require.

Our first commitment this year will be to helping you, our constituents and partners, stay informed about events in Europe.  This past Spring saw the debut of our EURO News Summary, a weekly news round-up that provides an overview of European current events focusing on foreign affairs, economics, political developments, and the refugee, public health, and environmental crises.  We hope that the News Summary will build a common information base and a sense of community among our constituents, increasing interest in the European Union and European affairs among students and faculty at IU alike. 

We are also planning two event series that we hope will address the contemporary moment.  First, we are continuing and expanding upon the film series that we organized last year, “(En)Countering Dictatorships in Post-WWII Europe.”  This year, in addition to providing streaming access to films and hosting virtual discussions, we will be hosting academic talks, including “America and the Greek Colonels: The Making of Cold War Foreign Policy” (Neovi Karakatsanis of IUSB and Jonathan Swarts of Purdue University Northwest), which is on tap for the Spring Semester.  A screening, followed by a discussion, of Agnes Vardas’ Nausicaa is also planned for this semester. 

We are also launching a new series, “Understanding Race and Racism in Europe,” which we hope will provide our constituents with comparative perspectives on the way that race is conceptualized and racism is mobilized in a variety of European contexts.   On November 6, we will be hosting Jeffrey Coleman of Marquette University for a talk on “Black Spain: Consumption, Rejection & Necropolitics” that will include, among other things, an intriguing exploration of the Spanish candy, Conguitos, which translates as “little Congolese.”  We are also planning on discussions of two films this semester:  Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and a recent documentary produced by the Onassis Center in Greece that is titled “Nine Afro-Greeks Discuss What ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Means in Greece.”  The two coordinators of the project, Jackie Abhulimen and Eirini Niamouaia Ontoul, will be joining us for the discussion.

After being derailed due to the COVID-19 Crisis, our mini-conference on “The Future of the European Union” is back on track, this time as a virtual event scheduled for November 12 and 13.  The event will feature two panels “What COVID-19 Hath Wrought: How the Pandemic is Altering the European Union” and “The Transatlantic Relationship in the Wake of the American Elections.” Scheduled participants include Anna Diamantopoulou (former Greek Parliamentary Deputy and Minister, former European Commissioner, and President of the Athens-based think tank, DIKTIO Network for Reform in Greece and Europe), Senator Chris Van Hollen from the State of Maryland, George Papakonstantinou (former Greek Parliamentary Deputy and Minister of Finance and faculty at the European University Institute), and Meglena Kuneva (Bulgarian and European politician and currently the EU Ambassador to the Council of Europe).  We are also working on several other big names, so please stay tuned!

We will also be hosting the Midwest Model EU (MMEU), an annual competition that simulates the EU’s legislative process that we have hosted at IUB since 2009, when it moved here from IUPUI.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to cancel last Spring’s MMEU.  This year, we will be hosting the event, the second oldest of its type in the United States, virtually.  We are hoping that the virtual format will allow for even wider participation.  We are also looking forward to once again hosting the event in person here in Bloomington in Spring 2022.

Every year, EURO’s Title VI grant helps to fund faculty travel to conduct research and to participate in conferences.  Please join me in congratulating last year’s winners: Gunther Jikeli, Asaad Ansaleh, Gergana May, Laszlo Borhi, Maria Bucur, Ke-Chin Hsia, Peter Sposato, and Kathleen Meyers.  Due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions we are extending the window in which these funds may be used and working with recipients to find other means to utilize the funding.  We also fund graduate student research—this past year from donations to our IU Foundation account.  This past Spring Semester we made awards to Beatriz Barros, Szabolcs Laszlo, Fionan Mac Gabhann, Hallie Gillespie Chu, Maria Cintra, Kirby Evers Haugland, Jonathan Lanz, and Jessica Storey-Nagy. 

This coming year will be a busy one for our Title VI grant.  We continue to make great progress with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the African Studies Program on our shared Digital Toolbox project, which provides digital access to cultural objects and standards-ready lesson plans for K-12 teachers.  Many thanks to Annie Mangus, our European Content Coordinator, who has been working tirelessly on this project identifying objects from IU collections for the Toolbox, researching them, and developing networks of connections by linking them to other cultural and intellectual resources as well as other objects in the Toolbox.  This year, the topic of our Summer Teachers Institute, which aims to enhance K-8 teachers’ global competence so that they can create meaningful and high-impact global learning opportunities for their students, was the UN Sustainable Goals.  The Institute was held in two virtual sections, one each in Summer and Fall, and was a great success, breaking previous attendance records.  In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, EURO collaborated with our fellow National Resources Centers to develop and present a 4-webinar series titled “Teaching in Times of Crisis” that included participants from all over the globe. We also held remote in-service teacher workshops for middle school social studies instructors in different regions of the state that focused on the internationalization of curriculum. 

Another grant priority is facilitating collaborations between IU faculty and the faculty of community colleges and minority-serving institutions to expand and improve European course offerings.  We were very busy in this area over the summer.  On June 30 we hosted a workshop on “How to Teach Europe Online” with over 20 faculty from IU and Florida International University.  Many thanks to Esther Ham from Germanic Studies and David Becker, the Quality Matters Lead Coordinator for the IU System, for presenting at this workshop.  We also sponsored two curriculum collaborations over the summer.  Jason McGraw of the History Department and Michael Sparks of Ivy Tech worked together to add European content to a new course on Latin American History that Michael is developing.  Likewise, Ke-Chin Hsia, also of the History Department, worked with Yan Xu of Spelman College on the European content of the World History courses that she teaches. 

We are also continuing to support the Bridges Program, which introduces elementary school students to foreign languages and cultures.  This year, we will be sponsoring Modern Greek.  Two of my students, George Stylianou and Maria Emmanouelides, will co-teach the classes.  Last, we are actively working with our librarian, Luis Gonzalez to build IU Libraries’ European Studies collection using Title VI funds.

Before concluding this statement, I’d like to briefly mention two on-going projects.  The first is including a culinary feature, “EURO Café,” in our biannual newsletter.  I served as the inaugural columnist for this feature, sharing a few reflections on Greek cuisine and three of my favorite recipes.  I will be recruiting others from the IU community to share insights and recipes from other European countries. 

Second, Jonathan Van Hecke, our LCTL Instructional Coordinator, and I have been working on a prototype for a podcast series/radio program, that we’re titling “Destination, Language.”  The series is designed to promote different language learning opportunities at HLS and IUB.  Broadcasts will feature an interview with a language expert that provides an overview of the language and its linguistic features, a brief mini-lesson, and an exploration of the culture.  The prototype, “Destination, Language: Modern Greek,” should be in place very soon.

Last, I would like to conclude by welcoming two new staff members: Colton Ames and Mirshad Ghalip.  Colton, who is serving as our Outreach Graduate Assistant, is a Ph.D. student in the School of Education.  Bringing a broad interdisciplinary background to his new position, Colton will be charged with maintaining our blog, Across the Pond, and working on various aspects of our Title VI grant, including the Digital Toolbox, for which he will be coordinating the development of lesson plans.  He has already produced several fascinating blog posts on the topics such as “The Future of European Foreign Policy,” “The Pursuit of Human Rights” in the EU, and  “Anti-Racism in the Netherlands and the Future of Zwarte Piet.”  Please check them out!  Mirshad, our Editorial GA, is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology who is an expert on the Uighur language and culture.  He will be working on our newsletter, our publicity materials, our Title VI reporting, and our News Summary, among other things.

Wishing you a productive and healthy remainder of the academic year,

Frank

Reexamining European Soccer’s BLM Support and Their Commitment to Human Rights

October 14, 2020
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Europe’s top five soccer leagues resumed in mid and late May 2020 after delays due to the COVID-19 crisis, except the French League 1. On the first weekend of June, as a response to the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, soccer leagues across Europe expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Every team in the top leagues of Europe knelt in silence before games. The Premier League replaced player names on jerseys with “Black Lives Matter.” While in Germany, the Bavarian giant Bayern München trained with shirts that had ‘#blacklivesmatter’ printed on them. Their rival club Dortmund’s English International Jadon Sancho displayed an undershirt that said “Justice for George Floyd” after he scored a hat trick against SC Paderborn. European soccer’s reaction to the US racial injustice actually can be traced back to October 2017, when Berlin Hertha knelt before their game against Schlake 04 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

European soccer’s position has long taken a strong position against racism due to the racial abuse that fans around Europe have showered on players during games. As recently as 2019, former Italian International Mario Balotelli almost walked off from a Seria A game in tears because of the racial abuses he was receiving from the crowd. The league had taken action to ban racially abusive fans from entering the stands in subsequent games.

European soccer’s stance against racial injustice stands in stark contrast with how the NFL was dancing around on the issue of kneeling before a game. When Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem at the beginning of an NFL game as a protest to police brutality and racial injustice in 2016, it was extremely controversial to say the least. The NFL did not support him during this controversy, and the San Francisco 49ers did not renew his contract after the season, leaving him as a free agent. To this day, Kaepernick has still not signed with a team. Although the NFL had an “awakening” after George Floyd’s death and is now allowing players to protest racial injustice, to Kaepernick it is just a “propaganda.”

The support from European soccer for the Black Lives Matter movement across the pond is worthy of praising. However, when Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil expressed his concerns on social media over the treatment of the Uyghurs in China, his effort to bring attention to racial injustice and inequality was significantly undercut.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has been committing crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; detaining up to three million Uyghurs in internment camps and criminalizing the Uyghur identity. However, following Özil’s December 19 show of support for the Uyghurs, both Arsenal and the Premier League have issued public statements to disassociate themselves from the German star’s comments. Due to Özil’s stance on the Uyghurs, one of Arsenal’s games was banned from being broadcasted in China, and his character in a popular video game was also removed from the Chinese version.

The backlash against Özil is not the first time that criticism against China has been met with concern from sporting leagues who rely on China’s enormous market for professional sports. When Houston Rocket’s General Manager Daryl Morey expressed his support for the Hong Kong democracy movement on Twitter, the NBA quickly distanced themselves from Morrey with the concerns over losing the Chinese market. Even LeBron James, who usually champions social justice issues, said that the situation is complicated in China, therefore, we shouldn’t rush to judgement even though the Chinese government is clearly pursing policies that will make Hong Kong less autonomous from the mainland. LeBron and the NBA were presumably censoring themselves due to the financial damage that a stance with Hong Kong could bring. This led many to criticize the NBA even though domestically, the NBA, unlike the NFL, has always been significantly progressive about racial injustice.

The support of the Black Lives Matter movement from Europe’s top soccer leagues can be characterized as inspiring. However, the lack of consistency when it comes to the Chinese government’s blatant abuse of human rights certainly shows a double standard that is motivated by financial incentives and concerns. There is no doubt European soccer should show their support for human and civil rights using their prominent platforms to reach a global audience. However, if the top leagues in Europe wants to be perceived as genuine and convincing in their stance for racial equality and social justice, they need to be consistent, even when it comes to a multibillion-dollar market like China.

Mirshad Ghalip is in the Department of Anthropology studying linguistic anthropology. His research is on the language maintenance efforts of the Uyghur diaspora community in the US.

The Pursuit for Human Rights

September 30, 2020
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With COVID-19 and the resulting economic fallout still dominating the news cycle, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the other struggles that society is facing. Human and civil rights are things that we must constantly fight for as social and political forces seek to push back against the rights of immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community, women, and more. It also seems that even when we do take notice of these issues—as has happened over the summer with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and its spread around the globe—compassion fatigue tends to set in and we forget about the issues as other headlines start to occupy a central place in our consciousness.  This week we want to highlight some of the efforts happening in Europe right now that address human and civil rights and see what might lay in store in the near future.

First, we turn to the September 16 State of the EU speech given by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In her first State of the Union address, von der Leyen issued a strong defense of LGBT rights in the European Union and offered a tacit criticism of Poland for legislation that has created local Anti-LGBT Zones. Poland, which has grown increasingly more conservative under the ruling Law and Justice Party, has applied this designation to areas in which approximately a third of its population lives.  The government is thus promoting active hostility towards the LGBT community.  They are further fanning the flames of hate by describing the LGBT movement as a “threat to the very foundations of our civilization” and as an ideology more dangerous than communism. This government’s stance can largely be attributed to resurgent nationalism that is seeking to protect a European and Christian identity—in part as a response to migration patterns that have brought refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to the EU. But the specific attacks against the LGBT community, allegedly in defense of Christian family values in Poland, were criticized by von der Leyen in her speech, and she advocated for a united EU stance against discrimination based on gender and sexual identity.  American awareness of the Polish legislation is minimal at present, but they did catch the eye of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden who recently condemned them

Hostility toward the LGBT community is not the only thing that von der Leyen is speaking out against. Following years of tensions over the closing of the EU’s borders to refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Northern Africa, von der Leyen has now started advocating for a more unified approach to migration that would bring all the EU member states together. She said in a statement, “It is now time to rise to the challenge to manage migration jointly, with the right balance between solidarity and responsibility.” This new proposal advocates for improving processing procedures at main points of entry to the EU, including increased security and health checks that will expedite the asylum process; a mechanism that would allow EU members to contribute to the process in different ways, rather than requiring the settlement of migrants in countries where they are not wanted; and a new return policy that would coordinate consistency in facilitating the return of migrants to their country of origin if their asylum application is denied. The refugee crisis that started back in 2015 has arguably marked one of the most dire situations for human rights in the region in recent memory, and any steps taken to streamline the process or create more opportunities for resettlement in friendly nations would surely be a success for the EU under von der Leyen. 

Two movements that have largely defined the fight for civil and human rights in recent years have been Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement. A previous blog post on this website has outlined some of the work that has been done in the Netherlands in light of the BLM movement this past summer, but the EU political structure writ-large has also seen some movement on the racism front as well. The EU’s equality commissioner, Helena Dalli, has revealed a plan that would push the bloc’s institutions to be more actively anti-racist and to push for greater diversity within the staff at key institutions. Changes proposed in the A Union of Equality Plan include mandatory unconscious bias training, the creation of an office of diversity and inclusion, and the compiling of data on the diversity of staff at the European Commission. In June, von der Leyen said, “The diversity of our society is not represented…This is why I say we need to talk about racism, and we need to act.” 

Finally, in Denmark, the Me Too movement is finally taking hold. The push for greater attention towards issues of gender equity and sexual violence had not been particularly potent in Denmark, with almost half of the population believing that the movement was exaggerated. Denmark also had a higher-than-average level of media that was critical of the Me Too moment when compared with other Nordic countries like Sweden. While Denmark is often considered a hallmark of social equality, the Nordic country still faces challenges as it tries to address gender inequities. A 2017 study shows that a majority of companies in Denmark are completely comprised of men and that women make up less than 20% of board members and executive board positions in all Danish companies. The country is making strides, however. One director of a gender equity organization in Denmark reported that the media is spending more time covering stories about sexual harassment and addressing systemic cases of inequity. The government has also announced plans to reform laws around sexual violence that would make consent the basis for determining rape, rather than violence against the victim. There are still larger steps that can be taken to reduce the inequities that Danish women face, particularly in the employment sphere, but it is positive that the Me Too movement’s effects are starting to be seen in a country that was once resistant to its presence.

It feels that there is some new crisis or scandal that hits the headlines each day that forces us to triage the things that matter most. Global pandemic first, attacks on global democracy second, all else is first come, first served. But some of these stories from the past two weeks deserve our attention not because of the imminent dread that we’ve come to expect from the news, but because they can act as a buffer that gives us a little bit of much needed hope. Certainly, these steps are only small parts of larger efforts to secure human and civil rights in the European bloc. But they offer a small ray of light in an otherwise darkening global landscape.

Colton Ames is a Graduate Assistant at the Institute for European Studies and a doctoral student studying International & Comparative Education at the IU School of Education.

Anti-Racism in the Netherlands and the Future of Zwarte Piet

September 23, 2020

As the summer whizzed by us and the fall marches on, we are getting closer and closer to the winter holiday season. In the Netherlands, this means the impending arrival of Sinterklaas (their version of Santa Claus) and his assistant, Zwarte Piet—or Black Peter. Zwarte Piet is a traditional holiday character in the Netherlands, and he stands out around holiday celebrations because of his rather distinctive features. Called “black” for the soot that stains his face from trips up and down the chimney, Zwarte Piet has been under fire for allowing and promoting blackface—a racist practice that caricatures and dehumanizes Black people. In light of a summer filled with global Black Lives Matter movements that swept the globe, people in the Netherlands have been taking renewed action to remove Black Peter from public spectacle. This past week, Prime Minister Mark Rutte met with activists to discuss the future of this controversial character. 

First, let’s look at Zwarte Piet himself. He is typically depicted with his face painted completely black, with big red lips, and a curly afro-like wig. It is quite obviously a far cry from someone who is simply soot-stained from chimney dust. In fact, he more closely resembles the blackface depictions of old-timey minstrel shows that lasted well into the mid-1900s. This depiction goes back to 1850 when the character was first introduced in a story written by a Dutch schoolteacher named Jan Schenkman. In the original story, Zwarte Piet was dark-skinned not because of chimney soot, but because he was a Moor from Spain—racially and ethnically distinct from the Dutch population. Calling him an “assistant” to Sinterklaas is also slightly misleading. In addition to simply going up and down the chimneys to help Sinterklaas, he also does the hard labor of making the presents and hauling them around, as well as punishing and kidnapping naughty children. Sinterklaas gets to be the benevolent giver of gifts, while Zwarte Piet is more nefarious and sometimes feared. This all shows that even though the character may have evolved into a jolly, Renaissance-era holiday figure, his racist roots still must be reckoned with.

Image Courtesy of medium.com

Zwarte Piet is just a symptom, however, of a larger history of racism and oppression that has existed at the hands of the Dutch. The Netherlands was very active in the slave trade, with some of their largest holdings in their former colony of Suriname. Now an independent nation, Suriname was a source of sugar and other agricultural products. But upon achieving its full independence from the Netherlands in 1975, many Surinamese migrated to Europe in order to maintain their Dutch citizenship. They now form a substantial portion of the Netherlands’ non-White community who are speaking out against Zwarte Piet, but also looking for larger systemic changes to address racism within the Netherlands. 

Protests against racism and the Netherlands’ colonial past have been fueled by young people taking advantage of social media with part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement. This coincides with pushes for the Dutch government to formally apologize for its role in the slave trade—though Prime Minister Rutte has said that no apology would be forthcoming. Still, Rutte’s recent meeting with activists was described as “very good”, with the PM saying that he would no longer defend the tradition of Zwarte Piet and that “Discrimination is the worst thing that can happen to you”. This echoes sentiments he made in June of this year after meeting with young people of color and hearing their stories of being discriminated against. A firmer stance against Zwarte Piet a marked change in tone for Rutte, who justified the blackface in 2014 because the character is named “Black” Peter.  

As of yet, the Netherlands as a whole has not taken any steps to address concerns over Zwarte Piet—about half of residents still support the tradition, though that number has substantially decreased in the past year alone (down from 59%). Some smaller polities, such as the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam—have taken steps to remove Zwarte Piet from public celebrations—including pushing for an alternative character named “Soot Pete” or “Chimney Pete”. This new character would more obviously depict a man who had been up and down a chimney, rather than one who was imitating a person of color. Some businesses have also been proactive in addressing the issue. Online retailers have said they would remove any items that included Zwarte Piet, and Facebook and Instagram have said that they would be removing photos that depicted blackface—including those of Zwarte Piet.

None of these changes would be made, however, if not for the public activism that has sprung up on the issue. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States inspired similar calls to action in the Netherlands, resulting in public demonstrations and organized protests. Jerry Afriyie, a Dutch poet and activist who is Black, leads an organization called Kick Out Zwarte Piet, and was arrested at protests in Gouda (2014) and Rotterdam (2016). He has said that Black children should not be raised in a climate where they feel discriminated against because of their skin color, where they believe that they are dirty or outright say that they don’t like being Black. Afriyie incorporated the removal of Zwarte Piet into the larger movement for racial justice in the Netherlands when he led Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

These demonstrations of anti-racism have brought the Netherlands into a larger movement of addressing racist iconography. The United States has been making movement on this issue as it has sought to remove the iconic Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben imagery from food packaging. The use of fictional characters is not the only thing facing criticism, however. Statues of historical figures who were influential in colonialist and imperialist enterprises—such as British slave trader Edward Colston, Christopher Columbus, and Belgium’s King Leopold II—were removed, vandalized, or toppled by protesters. And in the Dutch town of Horn, protesters have sought to remove the statue of a colonial-era Dutch East India trading company officer, even as the Prime Minister has urged restraint

As the holidays approach and Zwarte Piet once again falls under greater scrutiny, it is important to also think about how this Christmas character has become part of a larger discussion on racial justice in a country that still finds itself torn when confronting a racist past. Zwarte Piet has been a symbol of racism for years, and the attempts to preserve him as the remnant of tradition are tacitly allowing the perpetuation of that racism. Facing down the legacy of slavery and systemic inequities is no small feat—certainly one that cannot be resolved overnight. But the yearly reappearance of a blackface character who can easily be reconfigured to be less problematic is a small change that would put the Netherlands a step in the right direction. 

Colton Ames is a Graduate Assistant at the Institute for European Studies and a doctoral student studying International & Comparative Education at the IU School of Education.

Travel in the Age of COVID-19

September 8, 2020

In February of 2020, a time that feels like it was eons ago, I was returning to the United States after a trip to France and Italy. I had been gone for about two weeks and had visited a few friends and eaten my weight in the warm carbohydrates that only the patisseries of Paris and pizzerias of Florence can offer an American tourist. As I got my passport scanned in the Indianapolis airport, I was quickly taken to a back room where I was interviewed by a TSA agent about my recent travels. As it turns out, a long layover in Beijing on a trip to a conference in New Delhi the month prior had flagged me as a possible COVID-19 risk.

Back then, COVID-19 hadn’t hit the U.S. yet. We didn’t know what social distancing meant, and anything labeled as “N95” was more likely to be mistaken for a Star Wars character than a face mask. But that didn’t stop the barrage of questions thanks to the little red stamps in my passport. How long was I in China? Who did I meet with? Did I come across anyone who wasn’t feeling well? Was I showing any symptoms of illness? In hindsight, they should have been more worried about the time I had just spent in Venice and Florence, as Italy shut down due to the coronavirus just a few days after I left.

Looking back, my stop at the airport seems rather quaint. A thirty-minute Q&A session about my recent travels more closely resembles a casual interview with Travel Insider than it does the nebulous travel experiences that the world is now reckoning with as COVID-19 has continued to spread. The world seemed to put off dealing with the spread of the virus as long as it could, yet it was almost overnight that we recognized the challenge we were up against, and everything came to a stand-still. The repercussions were felt across many economic sectors—two of the most prominent being hospitality and travel. As more countries locked down on travel and instituted quarantine procedures to reduce the spread of the virus, it quickly became apparent that the changes were just beginning. 

Fast forward seven months to the end of August, and travel around the world continues to face an uncertain future. The summer saw large swathes of the globe maintain fairly low COVID numbers, or they had brought them back under control through mitigation efforts. The United States, however, has continued to struggle in containing the virus, and that has resulted in prolonged travel dilemmas throughout the height of summer tourism. 

These travel interruptions aren’t just interrupting leisure travel, though. They’ve also severely impacted the cultural exchange that comes from university study abroad programs. Indiana University Associate Vice President for Overseas Study Kathleen Sideli has said that there are still a lot of unknowns regarding the future of such programs. In an email exchange, she told me that “all IU study abroad programming has been suspended since March—first by having over 1,300 IU students leave the 37 countries where they were studying and then the cancellation of spring break, summer and fall programs in 2020 (which impacted about 3,000 students who had been accepted to study abroad for those three other time periods”. Sideli also reported that the university is unsure what the future will hold for study abroad programs as the U.S. continues to grapple with the virus. IU is collecting application materials for programs in 2021, but it is unknown if things will improve enough by then to allow them to go ahead. In the meantime, some institutions have tried to pivot towards incorporating more international content or have partnered with foreign universities for collaborative learning. These might be a sufficient stop-gap measure for now, but more and more students will continue to be impacted if the United States remains closed off from most other countries.

As of this writing, there are only a handful of countries that Americans can visit as a result of poor COVID-19 management in the United States. Eleven countries are completely open to the U.S. and an additional thirty have certain restrictions—including mandatory quarantining, a recent negative COVID test, or even a cash deposit for potential medical treatment. The rest of the world remains stubbornly closed. This includes most of America’s favorite holiday destinations in Europe. This relationship is fairly reciprocal, as travelers from many European nations are also barred from coming to the United States. 

The United States is not the only country that EU member states—many of which are mutually open to each other as members of the Schengen Area—have closed themselves off to. Some non-Schengen members, such as Norway, are imposing restrictions on travelers from other EU countries, and some governments are actively discouraging their citizens from traveling. Only around a dozen countries at last count are welcome in the EU, and it is possible that number may continue to decrease as the virus flares up around the world. 

As of the end of August, international flights are down by 80% and there doesn’t appear to be any resurgence coming in the near future. It isn’t likely that consumers are going to gain confidence in the safety of airline travel in the coming future, no matter the safety measures that airlines are trying to impose. A recent MIT study showed that chances of catching COVID while on an airplane are about 1 in 4,300 —a number that almost halves when airlines leave middle seats open. While most epidemiologists are still discouraging air travel, some are saying that appropriate steps can be taken to maximize the safety onboard aircrafts. Since air gets so heavily circulated and refreshed in flight, there may not be any higher risk on an airplane than there is indoors on the ground. It’s hard to envision a return to normal travel, even with some of these reassurances.

Had I known that my flight back from Paris was going to be my last time on an airplane for the foreseeable future, I might have savored it more. It has been a while since I’ve had anyone make me an overpriced cocktail using a comically small bottle of gin, and I haven’t tried to fall asleep with a toddler kicking the back of my seat for eight straight hours in some herculean feat of endurance. This interruption in travel isn’t only an impediment on business or international education; it has impacted one of our most important avenues of sharing our experiences across national and cultural divides. Travel is something that nourishes the soul and enriches our lives through food, music, and shared stories. Until we are able to safely board a plane or a train and continue to expand our vision of humanity, we must endeavor to find other ways to continue our engagement with the rest of the world. 

Colton Ames is a Graduate Assistant at the Institute for European Studies and a doctoral student studying International & Comparative Education at the IU School of Education.

The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy

August 31, 2020
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Just as in 2016, the upcoming U.S. presidential election is being called the most important in a generation. And while many are concerned about the domestic implications of four more years of President Donald Trump, the global interactions are just as important for voters to reckon with. 

The Democratic Party spent last week making their case during their national convention, and they wasted no time by bringing out foreign affairs and national security officials who warned of the continued threats to global order that have been ushered in under the Trump administration. Foremost among them was former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who praised Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as someone who would listen to diplomats and respect the dignity of those in military service. This was compounded by over seventy foreign policy experts from GOP administrations who wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal encouraging people to vote Trump out of office, citing his threat to America’s national security and international standing. 

There are many issues on the ballot that Americans may feel more immediately than U.S. foreign policy—things like healthcare, jobs, race relations, and immigration. But Americans might start feeling the pressures of strained foreign policy in a more personal way as more and more countries close their borders to U.S. citizens over COVID-19 concerns. Farmers throughout the Midwest can also attest to the consequences of America’s foreign policy as they deal with the fallout of the trade war with China. As inflammatory and controversial as the domestic policies of a second Trump administration have been, we should also pay attention to the foreign policy implications that are on the ballot in November.

It’s no secret that Trump has had rather chilly relations with some of the United States’ key allies around the world. Whether after pained handshakes, a forced push out of the way, or insults and demands of other nations, the president tends to leave a poor taste in the mouths of our allies. The past four years have seen an American withdrawal from key global policy efforts, such as the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the World Health Organization during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the Trans-Atlantic Partnership has been called into question as not-so-subtle threats have been made against the continued U.S. participation in NATO

Perhaps no European ally has been the target of Trump’s ire more than Germany under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2018, Merkel said that Germany and the rest of Europe could no longer rely on American leadership—a chilling statement from one of America’s closest military and economic partners. This relationship was further soured last month when Trump unilaterally announced a plan to pull 12,000 troops out of Germany—a move that Trump himself says is due to Germany allegedly not paying enough for its own defense. This is a similar tactic that Trump has used on other allies, such as South Korea, and continues to be panned for flying in the face of the security interests of both the United States and our allies. A withdrawal of troops from Germany would likely be beneficial to Russia, which may use the new power vacuum to assert its own interests in the region.

This withdrawal from the world stage is something that politicians and pundits alike have warned about since 2016. Among them was Joe Biden, who raised concerns about the prospect of weakening alliances as he left office. In January 2017, in an address to the World Economic Forum, Biden asserted “For the past seven decades, the choices we have made—particularly the United States and our allies in Europe—have steered our world down a clear path…In recent years it has become evident that the consensus upholding this system is facing increasing pressures, from within and from without…It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order.” More recently, in a July 2019 campaign address, he said “America’s security, prosperity, and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us. The Biden foreign policy agenda will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners—to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.” Biden’s placement of International alliances at the heart of America’s foreign policy stands directly opposed to an “America First” approach that has characterized the Trump administration. 

Should Biden win the presidency in November, he will have a lot of ground to cover in any attempt to improve relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world. According to a Pew study published in January, Trump has a large unfavorable rating around the world (64%), particularly with allies in Europe. While the study showed that the U.S.’s favorability overall remained fairly positive, it is possible that the net favorable rating is only maintained by support among those with right-wing ideologies that are gaining ground across Europe. 

Not only would Biden have to repair relations with our allies, but he would also have to consider the potential for re-entry into many of the international alliances and agreements that the U.S. withdrew from under Trump. Biden has expressed interest in returning to the Iran Nuclear Deal if certain compliance points were met by Iran. On the Russian front, Biden has committed to extending the New START arms control treaty, preventing it from expiring like other arms control agreements did under the Trump administration. Biden has also said that he would recommit the United States to the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office—part of a larger concession towards progressive movements that tout the Green New Deal as one of the most pressing pieces of legislation to combat climate change. 

Most pressingly, a Biden administration would almost surely take aggressive multilateral steps with U.S. allies to work towards controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the economic disasters that came with it. Biden’s plans so far have largely focused on domestic efforts to increase testing and the availability of protective equipment, but he has committed to keeping the U.S. in the WHO and working cooperatively with other nations to find a vaccine for the virus. As experts have expressed concern over “vaccine nationalism”— or the competition between nations to control access to a cure—many are relieved that a multilateral approach could better combat the global effects of COVID-19.

As the election draws closer, there is no doubt that these issues will be drawn more prominently into public debate. As much as domestic issues have been brought to the forefront of this election cycle, the foreign policy differences between Biden and Trump are stark and deserve more attention as the two candidates prepare for upcoming debates. With Joe Biden standing for a more multilateral approach that is meant to bolster global democracy, Donald Trump will have to consider how effective his messaging will be as more people caution that his positions will threaten American security.

Colton Ames is a Graduate Assistant at the Institute for European Studies and a doctoral student studying International & Comparative Education at the IU School of Education.

A most (in)convenient breakup: How tension has come to define Britain after Brexit

February 24, 2020
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Brexit has rightly been described as a defining moment in contemporary history, but like the process itself, its relationship to history is a complicated one. Scholars, historians in particular, are often times wary of drawing conclusions from current events. To some, recent history is worthy of note and commentary regardless of its proximity, while for others it is this very proximity that clearly demarcates a line between history and journalism. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that a complex and often contradictory event like Brexit would attract the gaze of numerous disciplines and fields of inquiry. Britain’s departure from the European Union following the extended deadline of January 31, 2020 seemed to have come and gone without much fanfare and mostly devoid of theatrics, save for the somewhat disappointing turnout of ‘Leave’ supporters. It looked like Britain had sleepwalked its way out of the EU.

Yet the tensions are all too apparent, and not only in terms of the UK’s new relationship to the rest of Europe but also in regards to Britain’s relationship with itself. The issues of class disparity, racial relations, xenophobia and religious discrimination immediately came to the fore in Britain, as reports of racial discrimination, racialized attacks and religious discrimination spiked immediately after the Brexit vote and once again increased after the separation came into effect.[1] The United Nations, after an eleven-day visit to the UK in 2018, issued a report warning that xenophobic views were becoming more mainstream in the country’s politics. This report highlighted a marked increase in hate crimes reported immediately after the June 2016 Brexit vote.  Hate crimes increased almost a third to around 80,000 cases in a year-on-year basis. The UN’s observer, E Tendayi Achiume, concluded that “(A) Brexit-related trend that threatens racial equality in the UK has been the growth in the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance,” and went on to single out austerity and counterterrorism policies, immigration laws and hostile environmental policies that targeted “illegal immigrants” as structural enablers of systemic discrimination and hostility.[2] Many minority members in Britain have expressed fear that they could become targets of increasing hate crimes.[3]

Such fears of persecution are not unwarranted. With a conservative government in power and far-right ethno-nationalism on the rise as a political force it is not inconceivable that Brexit could mean the passing of more restrictive and discriminatory legislation that openly contradicts legal standards held by the EU with regards to homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, including racial and religious discrimination.[4] In late 2019 a series of social media posts regarding racist notices by landlords to minority residents stating that with Brexit they would no longer be welcomed in a “white Britain’ quickly went viral, serving to underscore the growing racial vitriol in the country after Brexit.

No More Polish Vermin Post-Brexit UK- Daily Mail

Image by The Daily Mail

Racial tensions extend to every corner of British society, including the House of Lords. An article by The Guardian reported that minority staff at the House of Lords (known in the UK by the acronym BAME, or Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) are asked far more frequently for their security passes by security staffthan any other group. The mostly white chamber also continued to uphold archaic rules that resulted in de facto segregation because of differences in the salaries of BAME staffers and white staffers, like separate toilets and eating areas. According to The Guardian, “Commons authorities acknowledged that the higher representation of BAME staff in lower pay bands meant they were less likely than their white colleagues to have access to certain areas. They have since opened up access to some facilities.”[5]

Tensions are not only limited to the domestic politics of post-Brexit Britain, but have been a staple of the long and arduous negotiations that have come to define this separation. Britain’s journey away from Europe has been characterized by frequent clashes between heads of state in a seemingly interminable and often times belligerent process. Negotiations between London and Brussels oftentimes read more like drunken brawls than foreign policy.

No More Mosques Post-Brexit UK-Aljazeera

Image by Al Jazeera

Recently the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, denounced Britain’s continuing negotiation position. Verhofstadt stated that the UK’s approach is “as if the UK and Europe are living on two different planets.” This was in response to a statement by the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, that the UK would not “sign up to alignment with EU rule or any supervisory role for the European court of justice, adding that the two sides were ‘genuinely sovereign equals’.”[6]

Verhofstadt’s statement was issued during a joint press conference with London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, where Khan once again asked Brussels to consider Verhofstadt’s concept of an “associate citizenship” to allow British citizens free movement across the European Union.  According to The Guardian, associate citizenship would allow for “continued freedom of movement and residence around the bloc for those who wished to retain such rights. Such a status would also protect rights in healthcare, welfare and workplace conditions and likely the right to vote in European parliament elections.”[7]

The concept of “associate citizenship” is a controversial one in Brussels, especially with growing pressure from other European countries to counter Britain’s position with tougher negotiations. Such has been the position of embattled French President Emmanuel Macron, who has asked for a tougher EU negotiating posture regarding free trade, a posture that others fear could scuttle upcoming talks before they even begin in March. As reported in The Guardian:

France has, however, been an outspoken voice, albeit not entirely isolated among the 27 member states, in calling for more ‘ambitious’ commitments to be a condition for the UK government in any future treaty. There is a concern that EU attempt to increase its environmental standards, in particular, will be held back if there is a risk that British companies will be left able to undercut European firms in a decade or longer.[8]

The entire Brexit experience has been fraught by tensions inside and out since the beginning. It has exacerbated latent racial tensions in the UK, an almost inevitable occurrence with the rise of ethnic nationalist groups like UK Independence Party (and the toxic political rhetoric employed during the recent elections. As these tensions within and outside of the United Kingdom continue to shape policy it becomes ever more difficult and contentious to attempt to draw any conclusions or predictions on where Brexit is headed or what will become of the United Kingdom after all is said and done.

 

[1] May Bulman. “Brexit vote sees highest spike in religious and racial hate crimes ever recorded”, The Independent, 7 July 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/racist-hate-crimes-surge-to-record-high-after-brexit-vote-new-figures-reveal-a7829551.html.

[2] See Lizzie Dearden. “Racism has become more acceptable since Brexit vote, United Nations warns”, The Independent, 11 May 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-racism-religious-intolerance-united-nations-special-rapporteur-a8348021.html.

[3] See Rachael Bunyan, “Marginalized Communities Fear for Their Future in the U.K. in Wake of ‘Ugly’ Election Campaign“, Time, 13 December 2019. https://time.com/5749636/marginalized-communities-uk-election-results/

[4] See Ben Quinn. “Hate crimes double in five years in England and Wales”, The Guardian, 15 October 2019.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/15/hate-crimes-double-england-wales

[5] Martin Beckford. “Minority staff asked for security passes more in parliament, report finds”, 18 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/18/parliamentary-rules-lead-to-institutional-racism-lawyer-warns

[6] See Daniel Boffey, “UK Brexit negotiator accused of treating Britain and EU as ‘two different planets’”, 18 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/18/uk-brexit-negotiator-britain-eu-different-planets

[7] Daniel Boffey, “Sadiq Khan urges EU to offer Britons ‘associate citizenship’, 18 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/18/sadiq-khan-urges-eu-to-offer-britons-associate-citizenship

[8] Daniel Boffey, “Brexit: Macron pushes for tougher EU negotiation position”, 13 February 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/13/brexit-macron-tougher-eu-negotiating-position

 

 

Do the Winds of Change Portend a Moderating Political Climate in the European Union?

December 10, 2019

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March 26, 2018: Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance minister, second right, announces his new left-wing party, MeRA25, in Athens. (AP Photo)

Over the 25 years that I have been studying Greece, the country has often served as a canary in the coalmine for the global economy and the global body politic.  In the 1990s, I was struck by the level of governmental corruption and the tight relationships between business interests and the political parties.  Then I watched as lobbyists expanded their tentacles into virtually every aspect of governance in the United States and as corporations and wealthy individuals, aided by the Supreme Court’s 2008 Citizens United v. the FEC decision, began to increasingly dominate electoral politics.  Similarly, I was struck by the politicized nature of news reporting in Greece, which was so different than the relatively balanced nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC with which I had grown up.  Then, I watched the increasing politicization of cable news, and the transformation of FOX News into American Pravda—a party organ masquerading as a national network.

These experiences have continued during the past decade.  As the financial chaos of the collapse of the housing bubble in the United States spread globally, Greece was an early bellwether for the Sovereign Debt Crisis, which spread to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Cyprus.  It also foretold the rise of extreme right-wing, anti-immigration politics in Europe and the US.  The transformation of Greece’s Golden Dawn from an irrelevant neo-Nazi political sect into a movement capable of attracting enough support—as much as 7% in national elections—to enter Parliament foreshadowed the subsequent electoral success of Alternative for Germany; the successful turn toward right-wing populism of the Austrian People’s Party, which has pursued an increasingly anti-immigrant line under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz; the reinvigoration of France’s National Front under the leadership of Marine Le Pen; and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

I used to attribute this canary-in-the-coalmine phenomenon to what anthropologists George Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer termed “anthropology as cultural critique”: The act of observing another culture destabilizes and defamiliarizes one’s gaze so that, returning to the home culture, one sees that culture in an entirely new light.  Today, I am more inclined to see the phenomenon in geopolitical terms.  Greece exists on the margins—or in Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, the semi-periphery—of the West, of Europe, and of the Eurozone.  A small nation, it is more structurally, politically, and institutionally vulnerable to the winds of geopolitical change than are larger, wealthier nations.  Phenomena that are fundamentally global in nature thus manifest themselves first in Greece and other similar countries and then later make their appearance elsewhere.

Today, I find myself hoping that the canary-in-the-coalmine effect has gone into reverse: that instead of being a bad omen, events in Greece are auguring positive change.  Greece’s July 7th parliamentary elections saw a decisive victory by the center-right party, New Democracy, which took nearly 40% of the votes and, with the electoral bonus, holds a majority in parliament (158 out of 300 seats).  Normally, this isn’t something that I would celebrate.  The way the victory was achieved, however, gives me some cause for hope.  Greece’s new prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won by running to the center, by promising to govern for all Greeks and by promising better, more efficient government that improves the quality of life for everyone.  His pre-election rhetoric was effective if I can judge from the multiple friends and acquaintances who confessed to me that they voted, for the first time ever, for New Democracy.  Mitsotakis also sounded the right notes after the election: he spoke in a unifying language about wanting to work cooperatively with other parties and find agreement on policies that can move the country forward.  His cabinet appointments represent a broad coalition of the center and the right, including three former members of PASOK as well as hardline conservatives like Makis Voridis and Adonis Georgiadis.

The election also had two other positive outcomes.  First, Golden Dawn failed to make the electoral threshold for entry into Parliament.  For the time being, their political voice is returning to the margins, and they will not be entitled to the constitutionally mandated access to the airwaves that comes with representation in Parliament.  Second, MeRA25 (Day25 or the European Realistic Disobedience Front), the Greek version of the German party DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe 2025) and part of the European Spring network of political parties, made the electoral threshold and is represented in Parliament.  MeRA25 and DiEM25 are  pan-European, left-wing, anti-austerity parties that are the brainchild of  Croatian philosopher and activist Srećko Horvat and economist and political scientist Yanis Varoufakis.  Varoufakis, whom I hosted at IU in 2013 in conjunction with the Modern Greek Studies Association Symposium and the Tocqueville Program, is a lightening rod.  He was Greece’s Finance Minister during the failed negotiations with the EU in 2015 that led to the imposition of capital controls on the Greek banking system and the  imposition of a third, extremely onerous memorandum of understanding between Greece and its Troika of Lenders (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF).  He is also a very innovative thinker with a strong pragmatic streak who has the potential to add a lot to the national and federal conversations.

Thus far, the results are decidedly mixed for New Democracy.  The Mitsotakis government has hit the ground running, showing a level of activity and efficiency that stands in stark contrast to the first 6 months of the previous coalition government, which was led by the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA).  New Democracy has devoted a lot of energy to law and justice issues: revoking the country’s university asylum laws; devoting increased energy to policing Exarcheia, a downtown bohemian neighborhood in which both anarchists and organized crime thrive; and enforcing anti-smoking laws.  These moves are politically popular with the broader populace but carry risks.  Greece’s university asylum laws, which were passed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) in the 1980s, are symbolically fraught.  Ensuring the free speech of students and their right to protest, they honor the memory of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising which helped lead to the eventual downfall of Greece’s Junta of the Colonels in 1974.  In recent years, they have been abused by common criminals, mostly drug dealers, to evade prosecution.  Anarchists also use universities as safe havens for preparing and launching protests, including the preparation of Molotov cocktails.  University asylum is still, however, lionized by significant segments of the population who will not surrender it easily.  Likewise, the confrontation with the anarchists of Exarcheia has the potential to degrade into a war of attrition that will gradually sap the government’s energy.  The anarchist movement in Greece is strong, determined, and complex.  They have created bonds of solidarity with recent immigrants to Europe—who have found themselves stranded in Greece and neglected by the Greek state—by taking over abandoned buildings and organizing squats that provide housing and a measure of integration into the local community.

On the economic front, New Democracy has been working—thus far unsuccessfully—to restart the stalled Hellenikon Project, a major development on the southern coast of Athens that will be built on a large plot of land that used to be the Athens Airport. The development promises new residential and office high rises, a hotel and an integrated resort, a major park, a marina, a public beach, a museum, research centers, an aquarium, and a casino.  Though critiqued by the left as a space that will benefit the global elite more than it will benefit Greece’s own citizens, the development will provide a substantial number of jobs, contribute significantly to economic growth, and provide Athens with much needed green spaces.  The government has also provided some much-needed tax relief to broad sectors of the population and has been pursuing foreign direct investment including, unfortunately, investments in extractive industries like gold mining and oil and natural gas drilling.  It is difficult to see how the environmental risks that these projects entail are worth the relatively small number of jobs and economic growth that they create.

Thus far the signals from outside Greece seem mixed as to whether the winds of political moderation will be blowing in the rest of Europe.  In early October, Portugal weighed in on the side of moderation, reelecting Prime Minister António Costa, a Socialist who nonetheless pursued fiscal discipline and presided over economic growth that outpaced Europe as a whole.  Spain, however, is a different story.  Though Spanish elections in early November saw the Socialists come out on top again, the far-right nationalist party, Vox, emerged as a political force, more than doubling the number of seats it has in Parliament, going from 24 to 52 and putting to rest the notion of a Spanish exception to the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe.  Elections results in Poland and Hungary are somewhat ambiguous.  Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party lost seats in the Sejm, the powerful lower house of Parliament, but maintained a majority.  They lost control of the Senate, however, and failed to obtain a majority in the Sejm that will allow them to unilaterally pass constitutional changes.  In Hungary, opposition politicians made significant strides in city elections despite a playing field that was decidedly tilted against them.  In an interesting op-ed, Sławomir Sierakowski argues that there are hopeful signals in both Poland and Hungary.  In Poland, Sierakowski suggests, the Law and Justice Party seems to have hit its electoral limit, failing to expand its electoral majority even though the party passed generous social spending provisions that were designed to increase their vote count.  In Hungary, opposition politicians won despite Fidesz’s control of the mass media and the organs of the state.

Exhuming the Legacy of Francisco Franco

November 6, 2019
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The Valley of the Fallen 

On the 24th of October, 2019, the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco were exhumed from their resting place at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive monument inspired by fascist aesthetics and built by the National Catholic regime in the Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid. The monument took eighteen years to build, using the conscripted labor of political prisoners. Construction of the monument started in 1940, only a year after the end of the Spanish Civil War and the victory of Franco’s nationalists and fascist allies over the Spanish Republican government. The site also serves as the final resting place for approximately 40,000 combatants from the civil war, many of whom were simply dug up and interred without thorough verification of the faction for which they fought and died.  This has been a bone of contention for many of the families of the dead.

 

The exhumation of the former dictator’s body from its grave has been a contentious issue in Spain beginning with the country’s uneven transition to democracy, which took place from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Following the dictator’s death and the ebbing of political power away from the inheritors of Franquismo that followed the establishment of a constitutional representative democracy, the question of the regime’s legacy remained both urgently relevant and surprisingly static. The result was a “Pact of Forgetting” that was formally codified by the 1977 Amnesty Law, an agreement between conservative and leftist parties to avoid the prosecution of crimes committed by members of the regime in favor of a smooth transition to democracy. The Pact has increasingly come under fire, and not just from groups in Spain. The United Nations urged Spain to reconsider the law in 2013, and in recent years there have been other official steps taken to move away from its legacy. The most recent of these gestures is Franco’s exhumation and removal from the Valley of the Fallen.

 

While the Amnesty Law was seen as necessary step by the political elites of the time, as well as a precondition for securing the agreement of the far-right Franquistas to democratic reform, it also weakened the transition, robbing it of any chance of prosecuting the perpetrators of decades of violent repression, torture, and persecution. The law also failed to acknowledge the suffering of countless exiles who were forced to flee Spain following the Nationalist victory to places like France, Mexico, the Caribbean, North Africa, and Australia.

 

It is also noteworthy to mention that the law failed to secure a transition devoid of problems and complications, its supposed reason for being. For years the threat of another pronunciamiento—a declaration of a military coup by officers—was a very real one. This fear turned very real on the 23rd of February, 1981, with an attempted coup by reactionary members of the military and the Guardia Civil. Recent literary and academic publications, from Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and Anatomía de un Instante (Anatomy of a Moment) to Sophie Baby’s “Le mythe de la transition pacifique: Violence et politique en Espagne (1975-1982)” (“Myth of the Peaceful Transition: Violence and Politics in Spain (1975-1982)”), to name just a few examples, have taken the official narrative to task for insisting on a peaceful transition that did not take place and therefore failing to address tensions and unanswered questions that have only increased in relevance.

 

Rather than forgetting, the pact led to the festering of open wounds and the survival of far-right elements in Spanish society and politics which have only grown more toxic. Some traditions dating back to the dictatorship can still be seen in the military, and these phantoms of totalitarian traditions are seen by some as a dangerous sword of Damocles precariously aimed at the country’s democratic institutions.

 

To many in Spain, the legacy of Franquismo has not been forgetting, but has instead served to kindle a passion towards preserving memory and rescuing the past. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, founded in 2000, was at the forefront of this effort. The Historical Memory Law, ratified in 2007, was an attempt at bringing legal tools to find mass graves and identify the bodies of those buried there, but later conservative administrations of the right-wing Partido Popular have actively sought to hamper these efforts.

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Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde, caudillo of Spain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

The biggest point of contention regarding both forgetting and remembering in recent years became the resting place of the dictator himself. When Franco died he was given a full state funeral, an act that raised eyebrows even then. Franco was considered by many to be Europe’s last fascist dictator, and his dictatorship was certainly predicated on fascistic elements like extreme nationalism, conservatism, and militarism, as well as aspects of vertical syndicalism borrowed from Italian and French fascists. Franco combined these components with a reactionary form of Catholicism to fuse Church and State into a unified entity that served him and his rule as caudillo, or leader, of Spain. In this way his burial site, the Valley of the Fallen, became a physical embodiment of Francisco Franco’s regime in its scale, its symbolism, and its cruelty.

 

Like the giant cross that hauntingly stands on top of the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s legacy has cast a deep shadow over contemporary Spain. The legacy of Franquismo still find echoes in the far-right politics of Spanish parties like VOX that deploy the same xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric that has made inroads in other parts of Europe with the rise of radicalized far-right populism.  VOX mobilizes the far right with a ethno-nationalist rhetoric that is similar to Trumpism in the United States, railing against Catalonian independence movements while exalting the sanctity of Spanish nationalism. Its virtues are Franco’s virtues.  Additionally, some very real remnants of Franco’s legacy in the country still endure: many of Spain’s judges were trained in Francoist institutions, the conservative Partido Popular is populated by the sons and daughters of members of the Francoist regime, and its armed forces are still populated by officers trained in the Franco era.

 

Most of all, the dictator’s body was a very real, physical obstacle to addressing the wounds of the past in new ways. Franco’s tomb represented a tangible anchor to the past for a country that only now seems to be willing to openly confront its history and to entertain the notion of abandoning the self-imposed cage forged by the Pact of Forgetting. While the late dictator’s family insists that Franco did not wish to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen, his followers recognized that the monument was a lasting legacy of the principles of National Catholicism: By giving their caudillo a state funeral there, they would forever wed Spain to the dictator’s memory. Perhaps with the removal of the dictator’s bones from the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s shadow can truly begin to fade from Spain and a different kind of memory can begin to take hold. The path to a lasting resolution to the wounds of history cannot be travelled without stepping out from under the shadow of Europe’s last fascist dictator once and for all.

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References:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46048514

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50164806

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/franco-exhumation-spain-dictator-madrid

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-politics-franco/confronting-its-troubled-past-spain-exhumes-franco-idUSKBN1X22QW

 

 

 

Boris Johnson’s Brexit Woes Continue as Deadline Approaches

October 24, 2019
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It seems like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is caught in a struggle against time, politics, and himself. The ongoing political wrangling surrounding Brexit only continues to increase as the deadline for Great Britain’s departure from the European Union grows ever closer. For the past few days Britain’s embattled prime minister has become the focal point of the Brexit controversy as last-minute negotiations attempting to negotiate a “soft Brexit” deal continue feverishly. Johnson, the former mayor of London and a former Eurosceptic himself, inherited a growing backlash against the exit process as soon as he moved into No. 10 Downing Street, following Theresa May’s resignation in July of this year. His often tense exchanges in Parliament and his combative personality have often elicited frequent comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Johnson, however, seems to lack Trump’s apparently endless political survival skills, guile, and luck, and his PM-ship has been engulfed in controversy and political missteps. This has undermined an already complicated and controversial process following the June 2016 referendum.

 

Johnson’s position further deteriorated when, on 28 August, in an attempt to bypass continued discussion and deliberation regarding Brexit, he advised Queen Elizabeth II to call for an unusually long prorogation of Parliament which sought a suspension from early September until the Parliamentary session on 14 October. On his advisement the Queen granted the prorogation. This unusual move was met with open hostility by ministers on all sides and by the general populace. The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called the move a “constitutional outrage”, and it lead to dissent among moderate and “remain” Tories which culminated in desertion from the party and a loss of a working majority for the conservatives. Among these losses was the prime minister’s own brother, Jo Jonson, who resigned from government. The prorogation controversy came to an end when it was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom on 24 September, ending Johnson’s gambit.

 

Johnson’s loss of a working majority and his mishandling of the prorogation affair directly reflected on the ever-increasing urgency regarding the specter of a no-deal Brexit. The prime minister’s race against time is a very real one. The deadline for Brexit is on 31 October, and so far there has been very little in the way of progress towards securing any deal between London and Brussels. On the contrary, the tone between both parties has only grown more acrimonious as the deadline approaches, with EU officials placing the blame on Johnson for “playing a stupid blame game.”  On 8 October the prime minister held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which reportedly ended badly over the impossibility of finding common ground with regards to Norther Ireland’s position in a customs union. Other high-profile meetings on 9 October faired similarly.

 

The only sliver of good news for Johnson’s government as the deadline neared was a meeting held on 10 October with Ireland’s head of government, or taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in which the possibility of an accord towards further negotiations was agreed to. Varadkar issued a statement after this meeting where he expressed hope for continued cooperation and the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement, a statement which Downing Street quickly echoed. Furthermore, The Guardian’s continuous coverage announced on 10 October that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, were to meet on Friday the 11th in order to determine whether there was enough existing common ground to proceed with negotiations. The news of this possible breakthrough failed to assure already shaken business envoys that business would continue as usual after the 31st.

 

According to The Guardian, Johnson had to convince Brussels to get on board with any agreement that his administration would hammer out before the deadline in order to avoid a hard Brexit during the slim two-day window of 17-18th October. Reflecting Johnson’s last conversation with Merkel, no deal came to pass. There was an additional complication on the home front for the Johnson government, a complication that had already drawn the ire of the prime minister on previous occasions: the Benn Act.

 

The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, colloquially known as the Benn Act, was passed on 9 September 2019. It legally binds Parliament to a hard deadline in which it must negotiate a deal regarding Britain’s separation from the European Union. If a deal was not reached by that time then the act directs the prime minister to address the EU and ask for an extension on Article 50 for 31 January. The date when this act would be automatically triggered was the 19th of October. In response to this impending date, Parliament scheduled a session for 19 October, dubbed “Super Saturday”, which will be fully devoted to Brexit. This was the first time that Parliament met on a Saturday since the Falklands Crisis in April 1982.  Prior to this session Johnson had declared that blame would fall squarely on Parliament if the Benn Act came into effect; disregarding the fact that Johnson’s own behavior and political maneuvering has repeatedly undermined his government’s negotiation efforts.

 

The extraordinary Saturday session provided some forward momentum for Brexit legislation, but only up to a point. Sir Oliver Letwin, a former Conservative member of Parliament who was one of those removed from the party last September for insubordination and is now an independent, proposed an amendment that would delay the implementation of any agreement until legislation had been implemented. This amendment passed, and with this delay the Benn Act went into effect, much to Johnson’s dismay. Downing Street responded by sending two letters. The first was the required text addressed to the European Council requesting the extension. This was seen as being compliant with the Act. The second letter was from the prime minister, underscoring his belief that an extension would be a mistake.

 

Following the implementation of the Benn Act the legislation for the withdrawal agreement, the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act, was passed by Parliament was passed 329 votes to 299. This victory for Johnson, however, was fleeting. A programme motion to speed through the discussion of the bill was defeated by Parliament on 22 October. Time has not been kind to the Johnson government regarding Brexit, and the Benn Act constricted this time further. Even though the EU leadership has signaled its favoring of an extension, if Johnson’s presumptive preliminary deal with Varadkar falls through or fails to impress the EU, then the triggering of the Benn act would be assured. Inevitably, Johnson’s failure to secure a deal would be a considerable political blow, and perhaps a final one. An extension would possibly grant Johnson a reprieve. A more likely scenario is that, regardless of a last-minute deal being reached, Johnson will face a no-confidence vote from an already hostile Parliament. This might be a price—putting an end to Boris Johnson’s government—which many Tories in Parliament may be willing to pay in order to guarantee an extension of negotiations with Brussels. Whether this scenario will actually play out remains unclear, as do the results of the snap election that would be called after a successful no-confidence vote. Already talks of an election have become ever louder as Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to come to an agreement regarding the timetable, and Varadkar, Johnson’s apparent last-minute ally, seemed inclined to favor an extension. The longer the Brexit question remains unresolved, the more polarized British politics become.  The only certainty in this whole affair is that the repercussions of this increasingly acrimonious break-up threaten to be severe.

 

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/08/boris-johnson-ready-to-give-up-on-brexit-deal

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/oct/10/brexit-latest-news-boris-johnson-varadkar-corbyn-no-deal-would-put-lives-at-risk-says-former-chief-medical-officer-live-news

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2019/26

https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/brexit-benn-act-petition-dismissed-by-court-of-session-1-5019014

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-countdown/countdown-to-divorce-the-meetings-that-will-decide-brexit-idUKKBN1WO29J

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu/last-chance-brexit-saloon-british-and-irish-leaders-meet-idUKKBN1WP0OO

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/23/johnson-and-corbyn-fail-to-agree-timetable-for-paused-brexit-bill