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Saturday, 12 May 2012 18:30

Homemade Rakija, Homemade Problems

Already amazed by the hospitality of people all across Europe, Serbia yet exceeded the idea we had of hospitality and helpfulness. A few minutes after checking in at our hostel in Belgrade, a round of homemade Rakija stood in front of us. "It's on the house!", the hostel owner welcomed us. During the following night with some more Rakija and a glance at the Belgrade nightlife, we nearly forgot that we had stumbled into Serbia in the midst of an election campaign. We were reminded the next morning when some Danes, part of an NGO monitoring the upcoming elections, claimed their reservations and made us get out of bed earlier than intended. On the 6th of May, the elections affirmed the mandate of the present pro-EU government; in two weeks' time, there will be a run-off between two pro-European presidential candidates. Is Serbia inevitably heading towards the EU? (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Our perception of things gets somewhat clearer in the course of the day. Dušan, a student of law in Belgrade, takes us to the citadel atop of the city centre where we wander past stones dating back to Roman civilisation. While we enjoy the view onto the slow and mighty Danube river, Dušan gives us an insight into Serbian culture and history. It is a rich history, and Serbs are rightly proud of it: in its golden age in the 14th century, for example, Serbia established one of the first all-encompassing constitutions in the history of mankind. Many legends surround the arrival of the Ottomans, when Serbia long perceived itself as the defender of Christendom - and eventually lost. The collective memory is still marked by the 500-year Ottoman occupation thereafter. Another point of reference is the communist regime of Tito, when Yugoslavians lived relatively unbothered (when obedient) and were economically well-off - an idea of strength that today's Serbia struggles to live up to.

"Many people do not stop lamenting over those glorious pasts," Dušan complains, "I am certainly not one of them." Neither are mainstream politics of the last years when it comes to European affairs, it seems. Since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the country has continuously been turning westwards. Liberal Pro-European Boris Tadić was elected president in 2004. In 2009, Serbia applied for EU membership and since early 2012, it has been an official candidate. After the elections on Sunday, nearly all the parties now represented in parliament are in favour of membership. Even the nationalist party and their leader Tomislav Nikolić, competitor to Tadić in the upcoming presidential run-off, has become an ardent promoter of the EU. The great paradox: none of the leading parties recognise Kosovo's independence. By contrast, 22 out of 27 European countries have recognised it, and some even make it the conditio sine qua non for the EU membership of Serbia. The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast that they will make sure Serbia joins the EU as well as keeping Kosovo.

The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast with it.

After our visit to the citadel, we meet Andrej Ivanij, a Serbian journalist and correspondent for Austrian and German newspapers. What is the Euro-enthusiasm of Serbian politics all about? "Politicians present the EU as a promised land. It is a story that is easily told: accede to the EU – and get money." As for ideological differences, there is no longer a right-left distinction, Ivanij assures us. The only remaining dispute is the question whether to be in favour or against EU membership. Serbian politics has flattened out: crucial issues like the 27% unemployed are not addressed, but simply put aside by the prospect of EU membership. Quite an easy way out for politicians. Many Serbians buy the story: the prospect of European funds is just too alluring.

Published in Reader Submissions
Friday, 04 May 2012 06:02

Alla Franca, Alla Turca

For the first time we crossed an actual border: passports, customs, vehicle check. It was all very exciting and we felt somewhat more abroad once we were on Turkish ground. Our first impressions? For one, nationalism showed its face right away with enormous flags at the border post. Then, we were surprised by how little developed rural areas are (even on the European side). And when we hit Istanbul we were overwhelmed by the culture, the size, and the contradictions of this city that is literally at the edge of Europe. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Following our routine, we try to discover some fun facts about the upcoming country. Turkey's economy grew twice as fast as Greece's shrank in 2010, we read. Istanbul has doubled in population over the last 20 years; and the city was European Capital of Culture (sic!) in 2010. Since we are now leaving the EU, we also consider the German Federal Foreign Office's website. With regard to driving in Turkey it recommends: traffic rules are rarely respected. Behave defensively and don't get involved in fights as drivers might react agressively. We comply and drive carefully through the night, towards Asia. 

During our two-day visit to Istanbul we have the privilege to be invited by Okan University and the Turkish Policy Quarterly for a discussion with Turkish students and professors. We are also able to talk to Mustafa and Eda, two friends of our host Jasper, as well as to a few young Turkish people in the streets of Taksim. We have Kebaps, fresh fish sandwiches, smoke a water pipe, drink chai, and cross the Bosphorus by ferry. Turkey on a shoestring. But what about our findings? What do young Turkish people think about the EU and the accession process? In a nutshell, there are three stories to be told from Turkey. The first one is about why Europe is crucial to the Turkish population, the second one is about why it is not. And the third one explains why Turkish politics is more complex than most people think.

With over 100 journalists and academics in jail, the human rights situation is anything but satisfactory. "There is no free speech, people are afraid," says Mustafa, a young law student. When he launched a political website a couple of months ago with a friend, the friend's phone began to be checked by the secret service. Mustafa is lucky to study at a private university where arguments can be expressed more openly. Similarly, the participants of our discussion at Okan University complain about imprisoned colleagues and the general lack of democratic standards. The Kurdish population continues to have a hard time, too, as the government refuses to accept them as a minority. Professor Ayakon describes the situation as a "deadlock". As a consequence of all the human rights assaults, Professor Alemdar argues that orientation towards Europe is definitely needed. "Europe can and should be a norm exporter," she says. There are numerous other examples of how the military, the judiciary, and the political elite abuse their powers in the supposedly secular, democratic state. As part of the accession process these questions must be addressed. So the first story is: the EU is important for Turkey because it has the capacity to push the country towards better human rights standards.

Turkey is trying to find its place in international relations and is carefully balancing its interests in its neighbouring countries. Europe is by no means the only candidate for strategic alliances.
Published in Reader Submissions
Tuesday, 24 April 2012 18:54

Hablais European?

Madrid welcomed us with a hideous hostel and overpriced tapas. Instead of enjoying a heavy Spanish red wine at a nice restaurant and uploading our latest pictures via free Wifi access, we were hunted down by ominous figures in the streets who offered us free drinks at even more ominous bars. We were surprised. Is it really profitable to pay someone to lure tourists into cheap bars on a Sunday night? Not to mention that this was Easter Sunday. But our first impression was quickly superseded when we glanced at the streets of Chueca the next morning and walked towards the Parque del Retiro to interview young Madrilenos about Europe, the crisis and German tourists in Spain. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

The park is crowded with people who don't want to miss the extraordinary weather on this bank holiday. Perfect conditions for us. We approach a group of young Spaniards in the shade. Before they can think of an excuse not to talk to us, we have set up the camera and mic and begin to ask them our questions. How has the crisis affected the young Spanish population? Are the Indignados angry at national or European politicians? What is the justification for European support to Spain? Paula and her friends react a little shyly, but then she says: "All of my friends are looking for work abroad, none of them counts on finding a job in Spain. Europe has to help us, unless you want to leave us behind." Paula is about to finish a postgrqaduate degree in tourism, one of Spain's traditionally strong economic sectors. But tourists don't seem to like groggy economies. The number of visitors has drastically declined, no longer ranking Spain among the top tourist countries.

National pride has certainly suffered, as has the social structure within Spain. 50% youth unemployment and mass emigration of well-educated people doesn't leave a country unaffected. "But it doesn't make any sense to cut Erasmus support, as the government now intends to do," says Diego, who is studying political science. Young people are frustrated by their politicians. Some prefer European politicians, but no one wants to be governed by an anonymous institution abroad. As Christian, a young entrepreneur, puts it: "About 60 percent of the Spanish population don't speak any English, they cannot grasp what is going on in Europe. And they aren't interested either. This was reflected in the national elections last November; no eurosceptic party evolved, the conservatives received an absolute majority. If at all, people are continuing to think in old political terms." His picture of Spain's future isn't exactly bright. If there's a way out, he says, it has to be more Europeanisation and globalisation. 

Published in Reader Submissions
Friday, 06 April 2012 08:41

Get to know your neighbours!

Ever heard of Council Regulation 36/2012? Wondering what 2011/782/CFSP refers to? Exactly. EU-Officials are struggling to foster people's interest in European affairs. Meanwhile, young people have become fully fledged Europeans on quite a different level. 

The founders of InterRail got it right when they initiated the Europe-wide train pass that allows young people to travel conveniently across our continent. In 2012 they celebrate InterRail's 40th anniversary and still carry some 250 000 travellers each year. The idea is simple: Get young Europeans to explore their neighbouring countries. This is not only an affordable way to spend enjoyable holidays abroad, but it furthers the travellers' awareness of what binds people together in Europe. A conversation with a random foreigner tells you much more about a country than any political communiqué or travel guide. Exploring the similarities and differences between European countries through travelling is the most obvious way to find out what Europe really is. At the end of the day, a European identity can only grow from within the population, not through regulations and policies. 

While governing politicians across Europe are pushing for further integration in order to overcome the debt crisis, the people are not necessarily so enthusiastic, as the success of Eurosceptic parties demonstrates (in the upcoming elections in France, Eurosceptic parties from the extreme right and the left are expected to gain about 30%). Worse, most European citizens know little or nothing about what is going on in Brussels. European representatives lead a shadowy existence, remote from the public. Apparently, the EU is an attempt at European governance without a people that is interested - without a "European people." This unbalanced situation does not exactly help to increase support for the European project.

Published in Reader Submissions
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