Politics & The World

by Lucas Rasche

The continuous migratory movement towards Europe across the Mediterranean and the Balkan countries has become a dominant theme for Europe’s politicians and the media. It has dominated regional elections in Germany, it has become a key factor in Britain’s national referendum, and it determines the EU’s relationship with its neighbourhood. After all, Europe’s refugee problem has triggered a vivid debate around the question of how to best handle the current situation. Whereas opinions differ, it seems as though a particular language has established itself in the ways migration is illustrated and referred to. This language is characterised by a number of recurring terms, such as flood, wave, masses, and crisis, used as a means to describe the people seeking shelter within the EU. The way we talk about those fleeing war and destruction is thereby not only frightening, it also bears significant political implications.

Metaphors are strong figures of speech. They help us comprehend and identify a phenomenon by equating it to something already known, and thus help us to perceive and categorise reality. In his seminal work, Klaus Theweleit has shown how desire and fear subconsciously feed into the metaphors we employ. Often, metaphors therefore reveal more about those using them, than they do about what is depicted by them.

When looking at the metaphorical language used to describe the current migration towards the EU, the image of a wave, or mass of migrants flooding Europe connotes a desire or fear to protect and secure our continent. The words used to illustrate what is happening at Europe’s borders create the impression that our societies are under threat, in need of a wall or dam to control the tide. Not only is the choice of metaphors extremely cynical, seeing how most migrants lose their lives on open water, moreover is the question rarely asked, who it is we need to protect us from, or what exactly we need to guard. What our use of language does, is thus to simplify an essentially complex situation by contributing to an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. The power inherent in the words we choose to talk about a political phenomenon is best expressed in the way we use language to differentiate between people. ‘The migrants’ easily become a de-individualised and threatening mass. A mass, which is essentially objectified and lacks any agency of its own. Despite the rather abstract nature of these observations, one has to only consider the recent deal between the EU and Turkey, or the inner European migration quota to see their political impact.

The way we employ our language hence raises issues beyond merely rhetorical considerations. Just as it has become common sense to refer to the current situation as a migration crisis, people across the EU seem to be deluded by the idea that the near future offers some kind of ‘back to normal’ option, restoring Europe’s societal status quo. Such a choice of semantics places significant pressure on European governments, which have to respond to their people’s expectations and fears. Benefitting from this in return, is Europe’s new far right, which employs an even harsher rhetoric, preying on the population’s demand for fast and simple solutions. The building of fences along European borders in Hungary or Greece is a translation of such rhetoric into action. The success of the German right-wing party AfD in the country’s recent regional elections, despite its inhumane statements over the use of gun violence against refugees, or the way in which the Brexit campaign depicts Muslim migrants as a security threat are further examples in which a coarsening of our language correlates with a respective political trend.

It is therefore essential to rethink the way we talk about migration in Europe. The current development is likely to be a generational task and requires involvement, as it has the potential to alter the cultural, social, and ethnic constellation of our societies. To accept the longevity of this process is a first step. A second step is to allow for a more critical and tolerant discourse over the chances and challenges that each individual migrant brings with him, or her. Being aware about the words we use to refer to this phenomenon and the people affected by it is important, since our language shapes the way we perceive reality and thus inevitably affects the political consequences we draw from it. Overcoming the current limits of our rhetoric can hence help building an open and welcoming European society.


Image by CAFOD Photo Library, taken from flickr

Politics & The World

by Fabien Segnarbieux

Out of all the upheaval provoked by the influx of refugees and the destabilization of the Schengen area, one country has distinguished itself from others. Lesser known than Viktor Orban or the new Polish government of Beata Szydło, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has systematically refused the idea of a refugee quota and embodies the impossibility of the EU to strike a deal on the question.

A vicious circle is ongoing. If EU states cannot agree with each other, then it prolongs the absence of a political answer towards a system which is inefficient today. Schengen’s destabilization is therefore worsening which paves the way for individual national decisions and so on… until a compromise is reached – or the end of Schengen.

Thus, not only threatening the whole Schengen acquis, fierce Slovak opposition reveals political (cultural?) differences that question the European Union as a political identity. Is the Union facing the most important challenge of its history? The question needs to be asked.

One must know that even on his crusade against refugees, Robert Fico remains a politician running for a third mandate as Prime Minister. In campaigning for the legislative elections taking place today, Fico labelled himself “defender” of the country against refugees and the orders coming from the European Union. His campaign slogan was ”We protect Slovakia” (Chránime Slovensko) and he fuelled it with populist rhetoric.

The monitoring of “every single Muslim” would be ongoing while Slovak citizens would be enduring an “immensely high” security threat [1]. The Paris attacks and the events in Cologne were also used to keep the focus of the elections on the migrant crisis rather than on other domestic issues [2].

Already benefiting from the Slovak fractured opposition, Fico skilfully exploited the refugee question and is likely to secure a historical third term even though the formation of a coalition could be needed [3].

Nonetheless, “Super” Fico’s stance is only the tip of the iceberg as the refugee quota triggered a united refuse across all political lines. Only the Slovak President Andrej Kiska has called for “more understanding of EU solidarity” [4] and political divergences come up only in regards to the acuteness of filling a lawsuit against the EU quota system.

For the current Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak (former UN high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina), the proximity between politicians’ and citizens’ views is clear: “The political leaders in Slovakia respond to the feelings and expectations of the Slovak citizens,” (…) “I don’t remember any other issue where our national position — which is really built on the feelings of people — has been so much in contrast with what is expected of us from our partners”.

Likewise, according to a Eurbarometer survey from spring 2015, only 37 % of Slovaks are feeling positive about immigrants from other EU states and 17 % for immigrants from outside EU (the EU-28 average is 51 % and 34 % respectively) [5].

Trying to explain such a reaction, Western European media pointed to the lack of previous multicultural experiences linked with colonies or the physical separation from the rest of Europe by the Iron Curtain. However, historians such as Eloise Adde and Roman Krakovsky prefer to recall the “imperfect” process of nation-building of the Central European states [6].

The former Austro-Hungarian Empire was a land of multiculturalism where different communities coexisted. It is the implementation of nation states in the aftermath of WWI that altered the political mosaic of the region.

Indeed, in the case of former Czechoslovakia, minorities like Germans, Hungarians or Poles were significant enough to be seen as “possible challengers” to the Czechoslovak majority. The Sudeten crisis profoundly marked popular imagination as it somehow brought this fear to life. This crisis not only led to massive expulsion of “ethnic-Germans” but also provides a good example of how minorities and the nation state can be antagonistic towards each other.

In a similar theory, the French historian Catherine Horel developed the idea of a proper martyrology fuelling a “myth of weakness” in the Central European region. This martyrology would go hand in hand with a complex of inferiority and fierce nationalism to balance it.

What does that mean in other words? One must look back into history and look at how national communities were built rather than invoking a lack of multiculturalism to understand the rejection of refugees in the Central European states.

Thus, the dispute over a refugee quota badly hides what could be seen as cultural differences hardly reconcilable. It is also likely to have an adverse effect as Central European countries benefit from Schengen. A political backlash cannot be excluded as they could be accused of double standards by other states.

Slovakia whose border crossings between Bratislava and Vienna are higher than anywhere in the EU[7] will assume the presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2016. It will then be interesting to observe how Slovakia will handle it and what reactions arise.

If “political divergences” arise, it will definitely confirm that the refugee dispute has weakened the normal course of conducting politics between EU states. This is why the refugee question is of the utmost (political) importance, it questions the whole European Union as a political project.

Update (March 8, 2016):

“It will not be easy, I am saying that very clearly”, Fico stated after he won the elections with 28,3 % of the votes without winning the absolute majority. The formation of a new government remains uneasy given the amount of parties (8) that have reached the 5 % limit to enter parliament. It is also important to note that the far right radical party LS-Nase Slovensko entered parliament for the first time of its history with 8 % of the votes.



Image by European Council, taken from flickr


[1] http://www.politico.eu/article/slovakia-fico-migrants-refugees-asylum-crisis-smer-election/

[2] For another example of populist rhetoric from the same article.

“The only way to eliminate risks like Paris and Germany is to prevent the creation of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia“

[3] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/01/21/slovakias-general-election-the-impact-of-the-refugee-crisis-is-likely-to-push-robert-fico-back-to-power/

[4] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/10/08/why-slovakia-has-become-the-focal-point-for-opposition-against-eu-refugee-quotas/

[5] From the article before

The table can be accessed here : https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CPhCVo1WoAAmpGo.png:large http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/01/21/slovakias-general-election-the-impact-of-the-refugee-crisis-is-likely-to-push-robert-fico-back-to-power/

[6] http://visegradinsight.eu/central-and-eastern-europe-and-the-refugee-crisis/

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/05/is-the-schengen-dream-of-europe-without-borders-becoming-a-thing-of-the-past


Politics & The World

There is not much that we can be certain about. One thing though seems pretty certain to me: that we live in troubled times. Not because us Westerners face any true hardships, but because it appears to me that these days many decisions need to be taken that will deeply affect generations to come. Proponents of historical path dependency will interject that this is always true. Maybe so.

Anyhow, we now face many great challenges: climate change, a situation in the Middle East and beyond where state failure is the norm, unprecedented migration, and terrorism – to name just a few. How we handle these challenges will be decisive for how we will live in the centuries to come. Liberal democracy claims to be the pinnacle of political systems, yet so far its response to the challenges mentioned above is anything but effective or even remotely close to well deliberated.

During the last weeks I made some experiences that have led to deep frustration with how our politicians behave.

A week ago Friday and Saturday some close friends and I walked the streets of Brussels in complete disbelief. Police and military personnel everywhere – everywhere! Armed to the teeth! In front of Brussels Centraal stood a military vehicle that looked like something from Jurassic Park. Sirens. Flashing blue lights. A drunk guy ran past us at some point screaming: “C’est la guerre! C’est la guerre!” (“This is war!”). While we were strolling through the comparatively empty streets of Brussels, we were making jokes about all of it. Maybe that was our way of handling it. But a day later, it really hit me. What is going on? State of emergency had always been an abstract concept to me.

Then, last Thursday, in Berlin, I was watching the news in which German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was being interviewed. She was asked whether Germany was now at war. The decision to deploy German troops to support the pseudo coalition fighting ISIS in Syria had just been made. Von der Leyen replied that this was not war since it is not two states that are fighting each other – let that sink in.

So here is the German Minister of Defence claiming that there is not a war going on against ISIS or at least that the German support does not constitute an act of war. Either she has never heard of Mary Kaldor’s concept of “new wars” or she is knowingly lying to the public, both of which would be equally scandalous.

Friday, as I was boarding my flight to Frankfurt my anger at the current situation turned into plain, numbing shock. My mom, standing beside me asked the man in front of us if they maybe knew each other since his face seemed familiar to her. He said that he was a member of the Bundestag, the German parliament, and that she might know him from TV. They exchanged a few words and then he turned to me. So, we started talking. I present to you the end of our conversation.

Yannic: “So what’s it like at the Bundestag at the moment? High alert?”
MP: “No, everything’s normal.”
Y.: “Oh ok. I was in Brussels last weekend.”
MP: “Shit was hitting the fan there.”
Y.: “Yeah, it was crazy. I have never seen anything like it. [I elaborated on my experience, see above]
MP: “It truly is crazy what is going on. [pause] And every day new ones are coming. We need to shut the border now!”
Y.: “And then what? The refugees will be stuck at the border.”
MP: “Good. That’s the pictures that should be going out to the world. The message must be: don’t come.”

No more words were spoken between us. My mom and I exchanged glances of disbelief. I will not name the MP, but I will say that he was a member of the CHRISTIAN Democrats.

So why am I telling you all of this? For me the following became clear:

  1. We are in a state of emergency – in many respects.
  2. There are leading politicians who are either uneducated in their main fields of activity, deliberately deceptive, or both.
  3. There are parliamentarians who seem to be ignorant of the fact that the Paris attacks were conducted by EU nationals, not refugees and that these refugees are fleeing the very same terror that has now reached EU soil. Or even worse, they are aware of this, but still choose to conflate the terrorism and migration discourses for reasons of political opportunism.
  4. My faith in democracy is deeply shaken by all of this. Who are we electing? Do we need a more elitist government? Isn’t it the time for experts, technocrats?

Troubled times indeed. And troubled times produce troubled minds. Let me know what you think about my observations. How are you experiencing our democratic systems these days? Isn’t it time for radical change?


Image by Patrick Willemark, taken from flickr


Politics & The World

by Arne Langlet

As it becomes ever more apparent that the current handlings of the crisis is unsustainable, policy makers are by now finally agreeing that is it the so called “root-causes” of the crisis that be tackled to in order to control and stop the flow. If the EU wants to succeed in fighting the current crisis, it has to implement changes now. Both, the creation of better legal entrance possibilities for refugees, as well as a the introduction of “European value codex” would be crucial steps on this way.

Violent incidents in refugee camps have started to occur more regularly, with reports of refugees discriminating, threatening and fighting other ethnic or religious groups increasing. How is it surprising that a bunch of men in their twenties, crowded together without chance to work, without clear legal status bored to death after a journey where they had to bite their way through, become violent?

In these situations, religion is a strong tool to regain dignity, and thus it is no wonder that it plays an important role in many of the incidents. Yet, Europe must make clear that no kinds of violence – especially along ethnic, sexual or religious lines – can be accepted.

Although the ratio of violent incidents may be very small, it managed to create a real feeling of fear among many European communities – and this fear, even if mostly unfounded, must be taken seriously. Not least because these emotions have increasingly bigger political effects.

If one wants to ease the public tensions with regards to refugees, declaring such fears as “ridiculous” does not help, but merely pushes those people into the arms of populists to claim to care. Instead, those fears have to be met in a constructive and comprehensible way.

The Syrian war has been going on since 2011. For four years relatively few refugees arrived, while most stayed in refugee camps around Syria, where each year the food was becoming scarce while the hygiene worsened. This shows that the act of traveling clandestinely from camps in Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey to central Europe is certainly not a comfortable and easy decision for most, but rather a last resort. It is taken only once the hope of a return to their homelands is destroyed.

As the journey is expensive and dangerous (also due to corrupt politicians on the Balkan), it also applies a clear Darwinian selection. Syrians without financial resources are almost sure not to get anywhere. Furthermore, 69 per cent of all arriving refugees are young men.The trip requires physical and emotional strength, it might include running for hours and resisting physically against police or other refugees. And here lies the big problem.

These men in their twenties learnt that you can only reach the destination illegally and if you have the money, the physical strength and possibly the ruthlessness to make the dangerous trip.

Hence, one of the first necessary changes would be to cut the element of the illegal journey, and to allow refugees to apply for asylum directly in their home country or in the refugee camps in the surrounding countries. With this measure, the EU could gain control again, and implement proper registration (ideally determining destination countries beforehand, according to a fair allocation key – but that’s a different discussion).

The EU is aiming at a similar direction by installing so called Hot-Spots, however only inside or directly at the EU’s borders. Yet, these spots would have to be as close as possible to Syria, to have the best effect.

Also the business of human-smugglers could be destroyed with this. Even though the proposed system would not give all applicants the immediate chance to enter the EU, it would foster the hope that doing so will be possible not only legally and cheaper, but also together with the whole family. This would ease the pressure of the flow and avoid new mass departures. Would you rather risk everyone’s live and all your savings now, or wait another few months or even a year to get to Europe legally? In the end, this would also buy Europe time to solve the real root causes!

Secondly, refugees could be obliged to sign a “codex” upon entering the EU, binding them to European basic values. It might be naive to assume that everybody would strictly adhere to the principles, but still a moral burden to adhere to them would be created, serving as a constant reminder. Furthermore, the alleged problem of refugees not knowing the local rules beforehand would be solved.

While the current system shows them that only illegal actions are rewarded, this could teach them that acting according to the legal system is rewarded instead. While some might argue that this would mean forcing “our” norms on them, it should be clear that respecting the very basic values of European society can be expected of all those who arrive. Everyone who enters this society is aware of this, and there is also no alternative.

The content of this codex would represent the basic European values of diversity, tolerance,  and equality of all ethnicities and religions – thus also creating an interesting public debate to truly determine and codify what we perceive as common European values. This would increase awareness and foster European identity.

The proposed measures will not automatically solve the situation but could buy us time to solve the real root causes, while facilitating the job of social workers on the municipal levels.


Image by Josh Zakary, taken from flickr