Uphill struggles, of one form or another, appear to characterise many of the stories generating interest and comment in newspapers and on websites across Europe.
BELGIUM: The series of terror attacks across Europe in recent years has dealt blow after blow to community relations that have taken decades to construct, argued the writer Malika Madi in La Libre. ‘Sisyphus: it’s you, it’s me,’ she wrote, ‘Sisyphus is embodied by everyone working to build bridges and dialogue between the different communities that make up our societal landscape and who, with each step forward, with each effort to push the stone higher, must resign themselves to watching it tumble downhill again.’ The public response to terrorism, Madi continued, is putting Europe’s models of cultural exchange at risk, with ‘the multiculturalism of the western world badly wounded, even in danger of death. Maybe you have already heard people chuckling to themselves while saying, ‘we told you so. Offering a space for multiple cultures to live together, without labels or the right to interfere (in the image of Great Britain and its outrageous cultural relativism) is a poison that is slowly killing our millennia-old West… Terrorism reduces day after day the empathy one community has for another. Terrorism gives rise to racism among people who were not affected by it.’ What can be done to halt the damage? Madi was not optimistic about campaigners’ power to turn the tide, but said she would return to Belgian schools to raise awareness about cross-cultural understanding: ‘in front of today’s youth who will be the adults of tomorrow, I will once again try to explain the complexity of the identity we need to construct when we have one foot in the East and one in the West.’
Hope for Turkey?
TURKEY: Maverick nationalist politician Meral Aksener caused a stir earlier in the month after announcing she would found her own political party. Previously a member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Aksener has been an outspoken critic of President Erdogan and campaigned against giving him more powers in April’s referendum. Batuhan Çolak, a commentator from the opposition newspaper Yeniçag, noted that this is no ordinary political development, claiming Aksener’s new party deserves the title of ‘most talked-about political formation’ in the history of Turkey’s Republic. He wrote that ‘Meral Aksener’s name was used 116 times by the news channels on 25 August,’ while ’18 columnists from different newspapers wrote about Meral Aksener and her new party’ the next day. And it was the pro-Erdogan media that seemed most preoccupied by her, since ‘only four of the articles were objective or positive, the rest, meanwhile, was negative and tried to link the new party with terrorism and coup plots.’ Çolak argued such hostile attention is no coincidence: Aksener represents a real threat to Erdogan’s regime and threatens to split the nationalist vote. And the press is now more than ever under the regime’s control. Unlike its coverage of the foundation of Erdogan’s party, the AKP, in 2001, it is now ‘overwhelmingly partisan and writes according to instructions from the Presidential Palace.’
FRANCE:Barely a week goes by without new polls showing Emmanuel Macron’s popularity is in freefall, with voters turning against him even faster than against his immediate predecessor, the unloved François Hollande. And Guillaume Goubert, a columnist for the Catholic daily La Croix, observed most commentators believe Macron’s problems are only just beginning – his proposed labour law reforms will be ‘a decisive test’ of his ability to change France’s economic and social structures. Nevertheless, Coubert argued, Macron has one big advantage: ‘the extraordinary fragmentation of the opposition…On the left, there are several families – socialists, ecologists, Mélenchonists, communists – who are bickering among themselves. On the right, there is not only the divide between the Républicains and the Front National, but also deep hostilities within these two parties. In other words, a significant part of these political forces is occupied with internal quarrels and not with opposition.’
While the stars may have aligned for Macron, Coubert was anxious that this lack of effective opposition ultimately benefits no one: ‘the good functioning of democracy requires a credible and effective opposition to hold the executive to account. The government itself has an interest here in order to refine its projects in the light of the opposition’s counter-propositions. The absence or, at least, the weakness of reasoned contradiction within parliamentary life leaves dangerously open the prospect of passion-driven one-upmanship in the media or on the street.’
GERMANY: Conservatives reacted badly to a recent Europe-wide study from the Bertelsmann Stiftung that showed Muslim Germans are largely well integrated into the job market and feel a strong connection to the country. Among them was Ferdinand Knauß, a columnist for the business weekly Wirtschaftswoche. While complementing the report’s authors for what he saw as ‘top PR professionalism’, he attacked their interview methods as unscientific: ‘the questions regarding the notion of integration are put in such a way that hardly any other result could be expected. Who would respond to the question ‘how attached do you feel to Germany?’ by telling the interviewer ‘not at all, actually!’ It’s no wonder that only four percent of Muslims in Germany do so.’ Knauß criticised the report as symptomatic of a wider shift in attitudes, in which the successful ‘integration’ of new arrivals in Germany no longer requires cultural assimilation. ‘Contributions to the debate like this Bertelsmann study further the ever greater transformation of ‘integration’ into a slippery concept – one that has had all meaning sucked out of it. Even a few years ago, people understood integration to be a process of cultural adjustment for immigrants to their new communities. Today it is clearly enough to have a job and ‘leisure-time contact’ with people of other religions to count as integrated. Among immigrants themselves, ‘integrated’ has simply become a synonym for not being a loser or a failure.’
Bottom of the class
ROMANIA: Ten years of EU membership have been a mixed bag for Romania, with many people disappointed at the slow rate of progress in the country’s social development. Writing for the weekly magazine Observator Cultural, columnist Carmen Musat added her voice to the pessimists, targeting in particular the shoddy state of Romania’s education system. ‘In spite of all the ‘reforms’ that national education has endured over all these years,’ she argued, ‘the number of functionally illiterate school leavers (both before and, yes, even after university) is huge compared to other countries in the EU. Since the Romanian government has not yet found a way to stimulate professional achievement, seriousness, creativity, dynamism, the ability to innovate or, last but not least, critical thinking, the prospects of real change in Romanian society are minimal.’ This state of affairs, Musat continued, is a major obstacle to attracting academic talent back home – especially because so much of the educational system is tarnished with fraudulent practices and corruption, where ‘plagiarised or bought doctorates’ are common and academic posts are held by ‘professors whose careers have been built on nothing’. She concluded with a stark warning: ‘as long as the public sphere here is occupied by petty politicians who, regardless of their political stripes, neither want nor are able to take measures to unblock the current situation, the practices of power will remain the same.’
Compiled by Simon Pickstone, English editor, VoxEurop, a website covering European news and comment which publishes in 10 different languages. Find out more at www.voxeurop.eu/en