Philip Cole provides his regular look at how Europe is reporting on itself…and on us…
This bulletin: the lurch to the right in eastern Europe…and Brexit’s threat to peace in Northern Ireland…
Le Monde reports (03.08.2020) that the Polish Supreme Court has validated Andrzej Duda’s re-election as President. Duda beat Rafal Trzaskowski, the Civic Platform’s candidate, by 51% to 49%. The Court found that there had been minor irregularities, but nothing sufficient to invalidate the poll. Le Monde goes on to say that this wafer-thin victory will encourage Jaroslaw Kaczynski (strongman of the unfortunately abbreviated governing party, PiS (full name: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – ‘Law and Justice’) to consolidate his ‘illiberal system’. On Saturday, 25 July Poland announced its withdrawal from the Council of Europe convention on prevention of violence against women (the Istanbul convention) – even the UK is a signatory.
Radio Prague International (14.07.2020) says that throughout the election campaign, Duda attacked the LGBT+ community, raising further concern among some Czech political observers of a turn towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in central Europe. His promise to protect ‘traditional families’ resonated especially with Polish voters over the age of 50, churchgoers and those in rural areas.
Meanwhile, in Slovakia, the new coalition government under former businessman Igor Matovič, head of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (OĽaNO), is considering legislation to limit abortion. Czech Radio asked political scientists and journalists covering the region to comment on the significance of the Polish result and spring elections in Slovakia.
Political scientist Zora Hesová, an expert on religious movements and integration in Europe, says the focus on social and cultural issues inevitably draws more people into heated debate. They often feel compelled to defend their values against a perceived common enemy: “Defending conservative values and cultural themes allows many people to feel more a part of the process. In Slovakia, the stress on such themes is a more modern phenomenon. Surprisingly, it happened while [ex-prime minister] Fico, nominally a social democrat, was still in power as he felt he could score some points with conservatives.”
It was Fico who enabled the Constitutional change to define ‘marriage’ as strictly between a man and a woman – a flashpoint in culture wars across the globe. What to make of a new drive to restrict access to abortion there? Not too much, cautions Czech Radio foreign correspondent Pavlína Nečásková. She says such issues are often pushed by individual politicians – whether Polish, Slovak, Hungarian or Czech – who are generally part of global Catholic networks, which have become more active in recent years and often employ similar strategies to attract voters.
These controversies don’t seem to have bothered Duda particularly. Instead, Polskie Radio reported (15.07.2020) that he and his Lithuanian counterpart had taken part in a ceremony at the site of the historic battle of Grunwald in northern Poland. Fought on 15 July 1410, it resulted in allied Polish and Lithuanian forces crushing the Knights of the Teutonic Order. It is rumoured that Mark François started his glorious military career at Grunwald…
The Tageblatt of Luxembourg commented on 14 July 2020 that the Polish election – a ‘mud bath’ – had left Poland completely polarised. The strong man, Kaczynski, is apparently planning to get rid of all judges and the recently re-elected local authorities, saying they are guilty of ‘disloyalty’.
The Volksblatt of Liechtenstein draws attention (03.08.2020) to ‘Press freedom dying in instalments’ in Hungary. Anyone consulting Hungary’s most popular, independent news portal index.hu will be aware of changes. Gone are the big campaigns uncovering political wrong-turnings and suspected corruption. Instead, in come stories from MTI, the state news agency.
On the positive side, Die Zeit reported on 29 July 2020 that six local authorities in Poland will not be able to take part in town twinning programmes because they have declared themselves ‘LGBTI-free zones’ – an ominous echo of the Nazis’ description of towns where they had carried out massacres or deportations as ‘Judenrein’ (‘free of Jews’). EU Member States have an obligation to uphold EU values and fundamental freedoms.
And in even more good news, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports (27.07.2020) that the European far right are squabbling amongst themselves. In the wake of the recent EU summit which agreed a Covid rescue plan, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV (Dutch Party for Freedom) and famous for his bouffant hairstyle, has insisted that ‘not a single cent’ should go to Italy. His Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini of the loony right Lega Nord, says that not enough money will be going to Italy and it’s all the fault of the Dutch.
On the other hand, Salvini’s compatriots must have some spare cash as, according to Romania Journal (30.07.2020), Italian wine makers need 100,000 Romanians and Bulgarians for the harvest and they are willing to pay for their Covid tests.
Brexit sharpens its sword on the island of Ireland…
As Brexit threaten to jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland, the foreign press have expressed their admiration for the achievements of the late John Hume, widely credited for crafting the peace process. Together with David Trimble of the UUP, Hume was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Die Zeit (03.08.2020) refers to him as a ‘political titan’ and quotes Ireland’s Prime Minister, Micheál Martin, as calling Hume one of the outstanding Irish personalities of the twentieth century, a judgement echoed by Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins. Belgium’s De Standaard (Flemish) and Le Soir (Francophone) publish similar tributes.
From titan to… well, someone else. Germany’s Die Zeit (31.07.2020) has a report on Boris Johnson’s recent bizarre visit to Scotland – describing him as ‘even more unpopular than Thatcher’. The article points out that there has been a shift in opinion in Scotland and that a majority now support independence. The future of the Union has never seemed so uncertain, says Professor John Curtice. We are witnessing a degree of contempt for Johnson which even Thatcher was spared, says historian Tom Devine. But Die Zeit maintains chat support for independence has less to do with Brexit and more to do with the response to Covid. Nicola Sturgeon comes across as significantly better than Johnson at crisis management..
The Dutch Volkskrant reports (02.08.2020) on Rishi Sunak’s attempt to highlight the importance of BAME people in British history by putting Gandhi’s portrait on coins. However, as the paper points out, Gandhi is perhaps not the obvious choice because while he was living in South Africa he was know for making negative remarks about the black population. There is a petition to remove his statue from Leicester.
French Morning London (an online newspaper for French expatriates) reports on 4 August 2020 that in an amazing act of solidarity a London bus driver – who wishes to remain anonymous – has organised a collection to pay the funeral expenses of a French bus driver from Bayonne (far south-west of France) who was beaten up by a passenger who refused his request to wear a face mask. The driver fell into a coma and subsequently died.
Finally, if you think – rightly – that Brexit is a nightmare, spare a thought for Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times who wrote on 28 July 2020 that Brexit is like having to listen to someone else’s dreams:
‘The epic story of liberation has become mesmerizingly tedious’. As O’Toole says, ‘We in Ireland have endured over four years now of having to listen to someone else’s dreams of liberation, without the shrink’s compensation of being paid for every session To the dreamers, Brexit is a magnificent epic in which, with the jumbled logic of the reverie, all the high points of English history are happening at the same time. But to most of us in Ireland – and I suspect to most of Europe – it is increasingly like being stuck in a lift with someone who is telling you “And then I was suddenly on this bus, but I couldn’t remember if I’d paid the fare, and the girl in the front seat had a pet wolf that turned into a . . .”
One of the attractions of Brexit is that it is supposedly less boring than the European Union. But the EU is boring precisely because it takes care of so much of the tedious stuff, the millions of micro-level anxieties attached to trade and customs and standards. The grand heroic gesture of cutting yourself free from all that “red tape” really just brings it all back home. The UK is repatriating ennui on an industrial scale.