Politics - Page 3

Chalk vs. Tablet: Can FATIH Project Revolutionize the Turkish Education System?

PM of Turkey presenting the FATIH project to children © Ekonomik Ayrinti
PM of Turkey presenting the FATIH project to children © Ekonomik Ayrinti

In many ways, and by any standard, Turkey is a vibrant country. Those who follow events in Turkey closely would definitely agree, as they must nowadays have difficulty with following the dizzying pace of events and making sense out of them. To be more concrete and specific, it would be appropriate to mention a few hot topics in the news in the past week.

To begin with, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially proclaimed his objective of “raising devout generations which embrace [their] historic principles” and equated being a non-devout with being a “drug addict.” In a different occasion, the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) physically occupied the Parliament’s rostrum to protest various amendments proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Kicks and punches followed. In the middle of the week, as a part of a probe into the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a prosecutor has summoned the head of National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, and four others, including the former head and deputy head of MIT, to answer questions about secret talks the agency held in Oslo with the PKK. Upon this, AKP blocked the investigation and prepared a new law to stop arbitrary arrest of top government officials. In addition, the prosecutor was removed from the case hastily. On the following day, Erdogan had his second surgery for noncancerous intestinal polyps. Even though the weekend was quiet, Turkish security forces raided the headquarters of several labor unions, as part of the ongoing operations against KCK and detained around 100 people countrywide on Monday. At the time of this writing, thousands of soccer fans were shouting slogans outside a Turkish courthouse in support of 93 suspects, including the jailed president of the last champion Fenerbahce, who went on trial in a massive match-fixing scandal1 which has plunged the country’s multi-billion-dollar league into chaos.2

Unfortunately due to this vibrant, complex, and unpredictable political atmosphere, media and political analysts can sometimes overlook or pay inadequate attention to noteworthy developments in Turkey. One such example is the under-coverage of the implementation of the Movement of Enhancing Opportunities and Improving Technology Project, abbreviated as FATIH, despite arguably being the most significant and ambitious educational investment of Turkey in recent years. This article can hopefully give a basic understanding and insight into the FATIH Project, the existing problems of the education system in Turkey, and the debate regarding the necessity of implementing the project in question.

The FATIH Project

As Altunbasak and Ayci argue, Turkey has grandiose targets for 2023, the centennial celebration of the Republic of Turkey. In parallel with these ambitious goals, such as national automobile and aircraft production, it has planned to make giant investments and to leap forward in various areas of strategic importance.3

Education is indeed one of these areas. Accordingly, under the FATIH Project, 40,000 schools and nearly 600,000 classes will be equipped with the latest information technologies and turned into computerized education classes (Smart Class) to have a well-educated generations to realize the above-mentioned goals.4 In addition, all students and teachers will be provided with tablet PCs, while the classrooms will be equipped with interactive smart boards that are compatible with tablet PCs between 2011-2014.5 It is planned that educational e-contents will be created by harmonizing curriculums with information technology supported education and new e-books and educational objects will be prepared for each course.6 With the project, textbooks will be thoroughly eliminated, as students will access course materials using their tablet PCs. The project, which is expected to cost about 3 billion Turkish Liras (around 1.7 billion US Dollars), represents the largest single allocation of resources to education in the history of modern Turkey.7

On February 6, 2012, the project has been implemented in 52 schools in 17 provinces across Turkey, with a total of 12,800 tablet PCs issued to ninth grade students as part of a pilot program aiming to integrate state-of-the-art computer technology into Turkey’s public education system.8 On the very same day, Prime Minister Erdogan stated that “Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul and put an end to a dark era, the Middle Ages, and went on to start off a new era. With the FATIH project, we are also closing an era to embark upon a new one.”9
Then came the controversy. Granted, the FATIH Project is a bold step, and has the potential to revolutionize the education system in Turkey. However, much debate revolved around the questions regarding the necessity of implementing such a billion-dollar project, at a time when there are still imbalanced conditions in every aspect of Turkish education system, including, but not limited to, the university exams, language of the education, as well training programs for teachers.10

Existing Problems of Education in Turkey

While it is beyond the scope of this article to pinpoint all the problems in the education system in Turkey, it is worthwhile to specify some in order to reflect how grim the situation actually is. To begin with the country’s international score card, in the education section of the Legatum Properity Index, which annually assesses the economic growth, personal well-being, and quality of life in 110 countries, Turkey ranks 76th out of these 110 countries.11 According to the index, even though Turkey places around the global average in terms of access to education, there is an under representation of girls in primary and secondary education in Turkey. Classes are above average in size, with a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 23 primary school pupils per teacher. Also, 35% of citizens express dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided in their local areas, and less than 50% of Turks think that children in their country have the opportunity to learn and grow every day.12

In addition, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 results released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in December 2010, Turkey stands as the 32nd among 34 OECD countries and 40 percent of Turkish 15-year-old students cannot reach basic competence level in mathematical literacy. Moreover, socioeconomic background plays a huge role in determining the success of Turkish students, and schools are more or less segregated in line with the socio-economic background characteristics of their students.13 Eurostat’s education statistics of 2011 further indicate that Turkey is one of the European countries with the lowest percentage of people with tertiary education and with the highest percentage of individuals aged 18 to 24 who have finished no more than a lower-secondary education, and who are not involved in further education and training.14

Unsurprisingly, low foreign language education in Turkey remains as a serious problem. In 2011, Turkey has ranked a dismal 43rd out of 44 countries in the English Proficiency Index (EPI) created as a standardized measurement of adult English proficiency.15 The report also points to educational spending as a key indicator of proficiency in English. Countries that rank in the top 25 of the EPI test spend an average of $32,000 on educational institutions per student, whereas Turkey only spends $12,708.16

To elaborate more on the problems, the reasons why students and teachers suffer the most in the Turkish education system are arguably the serious lack in equipment, insufficient number of qualified educators, crowded classrooms, high dropout rate due to low family incomes and pessimism about their higher-education prospects,17
and the private course-oriented system that allegedly prepares students for the higher education where there is excess demand and insufficient supply. To illustrate the last point, in 2005 the number of applicants to the nationwide competitive examination was 1,851,618 while only 20.5% of these were placed at a university program.18

Another core problem, according to Sambur, is that Turkish students are not given the chance to develop themselves freely. “In [Turkish] education system the concept of self-realization is lacking. The questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What I should become?’ are not asked.19 According to Ozturk, on the other hand, the general problem Turkish students face at school is a lack of nutrition, as poor diet influences both the mental and physical development of young students.20

Apart from these, Turkish education is almost completely teacher-centered and based on memorization. The teacher talks and the students listen quietly. Standard operating procedure is to memorize random information for exams and then forget everything. Students generally memorize rules and small pieces of information because on a Turkish exam, they do not ask for the most important or relevant information.  They test you on the most random information to check your memorization skills.21 Related to the problem of memorization is the lack of critical thinking or lateral thinking skills with many students. Because the education system focuses on the memorization of rules, students often fail to understand concepts and fail to apply skills or methods outside of issues taught.22 Briefly, given the picture above, one would legitimately ask why implementing the FATIH Project, or pouring billions of dollars into that project, was a necessity and priority for Turkey.

If There is a “New” Turkey…

Without a doubt, the current picture of education in Turkey and mixed results of the studies to measure the effectiveness of smart classrooms on the academic achievement of students point to the high risks of this investment. Implementing the FATIH Project is extremely risky because, while there is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using [tablet PCs],23
some studies point to an increase in math and science scores, graduation rates, and attendance, as opposed to a decrease in dropout rates.24

In a similar vein, it is risky because, while some argue that chalkboard, marker board and now “smart” board may create increased costs for schools and profits for manufacturers,25 some studies find that the implementation of interactive whiteboards and laptops reduce the paper use and waste, thus, considering the increasing cost of paper and printing, constitutes a positive shift for the budget, productivity and environment.26

It is risky because, while the project’s opportunities include greater access to rich, multimedia content, the increasing use of online course-taking, and the widespread availability of mobile computing devices that can access the Internet, the vast majority of the studies looking at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology. These studies are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students.27 This, indeed, decreases the validity of the studies.

Briefly, there is no guarantee that the FATIH Project will equip Turkish pupils with the needed skills and qualifications to adapt to the challenges of the changing world. There is the grave risk that billions of dollars will be spent on zero return.

Despite the daunting picture of the education system in Turkey, mixed results of the studies, and risks of the project, I personally believe that changing the culture of instruction and preparing students for the realities of the digital and global world are positive and necessary moves. Without turning a blind eye to the existing problems and actual needs of students and teachers, the FATIH Project, and similar future projects, should be merged with the current education programs in order to raise a generation that can compete in the global marketplace and become engaged citizens. Giving young Turkish minds a quality education that will allow them to enter international markets is just as important as empowering teachers and providing them in-service training, decreasing the number of students in a class, helping students develop their personalities and encouraging them to socially and actively participate within the community. In other words, these are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive projects.

Without a doubt, the transition from the “chalkboard era” to the tablet era will be a painful process. I believe it is worth enduring the pain and taking the risk in investing in future generations by implementing the FATIH Project, as it is a revolutionary move for Turkey, even in the case of failure. After all, investing in human is required and critical to Turkey’s political stability, economic growth, scientific and technological progress, and socio-economic and humanitarian advancement, especially if there is a “new Turkey” on its way to joining the ranks of major global actors on the world scene.

Show 27 footnotes

  1. ‘Huge Soccer Match-Fixing Trial Begins in Turkey,’ CBS News, February 14, 2012. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501623_162-57377273/huge-soccer-match-fixing-trial-begins-in-turkey/
  2. Ece Toksabay, “Turkish Court Begins Match-Fixing Trial,” Reuters, February 14, 2012. Available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/02/14/uk-soccer-turkey-matchfixing-idUKTRE81D0IW20120214
  3. Yucel Altunbasak and Ilker Ayci, “FATIH Project Announcement Letter.” January 16, 2012. Available at: http://fatihprojesi.meb.gov.tr/tr/duyuruincele.php?id=11
  4. “FATIH Project Begins on Monday in Turkish Schools,” TurkishNY.com, February 6, 2012. Available at: http://www.turkishny.com/english-news/5-english-news/79719-fatih-project-begins-on-monday-in-turkish-schools
  5. Yucel Altunbasak and Ilker Ayci.
  6. “Education Projects in Turkey,” ICT News Eurasia, February 9, 2012. Available at: http://ictnewseurasia.com/180-education-projects-in-turkey.html
  7. Busra Kirkpinar, “Students Embrace Lesser Loads with FATIH Project,” Today’s Zaman, February 8, 2012. Available at: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-270859-students-embrace-lesser-loads-with-fatih-project.html
  8. Ibid.
  9. “PM Erdogan Realizes a World’s First in Education,” Sabah English, February 7, 2012. Available at: http://english.sabah.com.tr/National/2012/02/07/pm-erdogan-has-realized-a-worlds-first-in-education
  10. “Turkish Education System Lacks in many Aspects, Report Says,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 21, 2011. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkish-education-system-lacks-in-many-aspects-report-says-2011-06-21
  11. Legatum Institute, “Turkey – Legatum Prosperity Index 2011.” Available at: http://www.prosperity.com/country.aspx?id=TR
  12. Ibid.
  13. Nihan Koseleci Blanchy and Aytug Sasmaz, “PISA 2009: Where Does Turkey Stand?” Turkish Policy Quarterly, 10 (2), 2011. Available at: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/dosyalar/files/nihan_aytug.pdf
  14. “Education Statistics at Regional Level,” Eurostat, March 2011. Available at: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Education_statistics_at_regional_level
  15. “EF EPI English Proficiency Index,” Education First, 2011. Available at: www.ef.com/epi
  16. “Turkey Gets F Grade in English,” Hurriyet Daily News, December 22, 2011. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-gets-f-grade-in-english.aspx?pageID=238&nID=9744&NewsCatID=344
  17. Erisa Dautaj Senerdem, “Grim picture emerges of Turkish education system,” Hurriyet Daily News, June 17, 2010. Available: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=participation-to-highschool-education-alarming-2010-06-17
  18. Elif Kalayci, “A Look at the Turkish Higher Education System from the Institutional Economics Point of View,” International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3 (2), 2012. Available at: http://www.ijbssnet.com/update/archive/952.html
  19. Ipek Emeksiz, “Turkey’s education system fails students,” Hurriyet Daily News, September 19, 2010. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=the-spirits-of-children-are-damaged-with-the-present-education-system-say-experts-2010-09-17
  20. Ibid.
  21. Nick Jaworski, “Challenges Faced in the Turkish Classroom,” Turkish TEFL, September 29, 2009. Available at: http://turklishtefl.com/for-teachers/obstacles-faced-in-the-turkish-classroom/
  22. Ibid.
  23. Winnie Hu, “Math That Moves: Schools Embrace the iPad,” New York Times, January 4, 2011. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/05/education/05tablets.html?pagewanted=all
  24. Alan Schwarz, “Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s Not Just About the Laptops,” New York Times, February 12, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/13/education/mooresville-school-district-a-laptop-success-story.html?_r=2&ref=gradingthedigitalschool&pagewanted=all
  25. Paul Thomas, “A Misguided use of Money,” New York Times, January 3, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/01/03/the-frontier-of-classroom-technology/a-misguided-use-of-money
  26. “Smart Classrooms: Cutting Costs, not Trees,” Queensland Government Education Views, January 24, 2011. Available at: http://education.qld.gov.au/projects/educationviews/smartclassrooms/2011/jan/paper-reduction-110124.html
  27. “Research Center: Technology in Education,” Education Week, September 1, 2011. Available at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/technology-in-education/

A story of a renewal gone terribly wrong

NoteAron A. Nemeth wrote an interesting article on the developments in Hungary a month ago (Troubles with Viktor: Latest developments in Hungary). Writing from a different perspective (he is a native Hungarian), I do feel that there is a lot of reason to worry about the state of democracy in Hungary and after recent changes made to the electoral rules (electoral districts were changed to give Fidesz a bigger advantage) and the curbing of the freedom of speech (such as banning newsportal index.hu from reporting from inside the parliament), Hungary is heading down the path of authoritarian countries, leaving the circle of democracies in Europe.

Introduction

It is a twist of history, the most cruel one imaginable maybe, that a former Communist dissident would turn a democratically ruled country into an authoritarian regime. It is even more ironic if such a regime change should happen within the borders of the biggest democracy promoter in the world.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening right now in Hungary, one of the countries that joined the European Union in 2004. The person in question is the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, the man who let Hungary into NATO and promised fundamental changes and a clear break with the past in Hungary.

Since Orbán’s Fidesz party has won the majority of the votes in the 2010 election and ousted the disgraced Socialist government under Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who had replaced Ferenc Gyurcsany after the “lies-gate” in 2009, Hungary has undergone a radical change. The party that ran a virtually non-existent campaign by simply distancing itself from the Socialists, has since last April changed the Constitution of the country, declaring the country to be simply “Hungary “instead of the “Republic of Hungary”. It has curbed the authority of the Constitutional Court and removed its competence to rule in questions related to the state budget. It has also adjusted the constituency borders to give itself an electoral advantage over other parties in future elections. Fidesz has nationalised the pension fund and imposed a new media council, staffed with Fidesz cronies, to supervise media outlets. Currently, close to 80% of all media is considered to be Fidesz friendly. Critical outlets, however, such as the popular Hungarian newsportal index.hu have been banned from reporting from inside the parliament building after a satirical take on the government at the end of the year. Last but not least, the government recently decided to impose its authority over the National Bank, thus effectively removing the independent financial supervision in the country. Orbán plans to merge the National Bank with the Financial Regulatory Authority and would thus give the government direct control over the institution.

Hungary on Russia’s path

All this sounds strangely familiar, though recollections of such incidents happening in a democratic country are rare and do not come to mind. It is a very different case when one thinks about the beginning of various authoritarian regimes, and ironically the example of Russia easily comes to mind. Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin (2000-2008), Russia’s government centralised power over all major political bodies, such as the Duma (parliament) which nowadays can hardly be considered to control the government, or the Constitutional Court, which has repeatedly ruled in favour of the government and has been called corrupt and incapable by some of its own judges (see here in Spanish and here in English, and in a very disturbing book by the late Anna Politkovskaya).The media are controlled by the Kremlin and major companies have been brought back under control, often without the consent of their owners. Powerful oligarchs, such as Berezovsky or Chodorkowski ended up in exile or jail, their companies – oil companies Sibneft and Jukos and media outlet ORT, were either nationalised or dismantled and sold off.

The European Commission has repeatedly criticised Russia for its lack of democratic rule and the violation of human rights. When Dmitry Medvedev was elected third President of the Russian Federation, European leaders were hoping that reforms would turn the country into a more democratic country. However, Medvedev has failed to transform the Russian political system. A democratic Russia seems to remains a vision for the distant future.

Back in Hungary

Support for the government has been falling rapidly recently. Only 16 per cent of Hungarians still back the government. More than 80 per cent think the country is heading in the wrong direction. The national currency has been losing around 15 per cent of its value in the past few months. For the second time in a decade the country needs international help to solve its financial problems, provided by the IMF and the EU. However, the situation differs from 2008, insofar that the country’s financial institutions are considered to be no longer independent. The IMF and the EU have announced they would not continue negotiations about a new loan if the government does not loosen its power grab on the National Bank. Hungary might need around 20bn euros, which strengthens the position of the EU and the IMF to force the government to give up its authoritarian campaign.

Even though it seems unlikely that Orbán will admit that the EU still holds certain power over the country’s politics, the government does not find itself in a good position. It has been milking the population with new taxes, international companies are considering moving their assets abroad and the population lost its faith in Fidesz. The country’s credit rating was downgraded by all major rating agencies to “junk” status.

In this situation the country will eventually need help from its European partners. This position of weakness should be exploited by the EU to ensure Hungary returns to the path of democracy. A total overhaul of the changes is not possible but at least the government’s attempts to bring under control the National Bank could be reversed.

This would be a first corrective step. Hopefully it will be the first of many. It would be good for Hungary and the EU. Only a functional system of checks and balances (and this also includes non-classic actors such as the Hungarian National Bank) will ensure democratic rule, a prerequisite for membership in the EU. In the long run Hungary will need the support of its European partners even more to succeed in the international system. The EU, too, could benefit from Hungary, its skilled labour force, its inventors and entrepreneurs

Is European economic prosperity really dependent on mass immigration?

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Senegalese immigrants arrive on a boat to Los Cristianos in Spain
Senegalese immigrants arrive to Los Cristianos in Spain

The purpose of this article is to overview the issues and arguments surrounding the question of mass immigration to Europe. Its analysis is conceptually and in the use of available data focused on the last decade of immigration to what is now the European Union of 27 member states. In doing so, it takes a critical stand on those arguments suggesting that Europe, for various reasons related to the economic growth, needs large-scale immigration in order to preserve its wealth and way of life to the future. Our analysis shows that when taken in the overall perspective, that is, when the immigration of low- and high-skilled workers is calculated together with public expenses with which the issue of immigration is connected and with tax gains that immigrants bring, the net economic gain is very low or none. However, although not being the focus of our present text, the underlying theme of this work is also to suggest that immigration needs to be consider also from other then economic terms and the results of our analysis cannot be taken as sole factor for providing political decisions on immigration to European countries.

In approaching our topic, we first make an overview of immigration trends to Europe. This overview provides both empirical and theoretical background information required for our subsequent evaluation of the arguments of official EU bodies and commentators, who claim that mass immigration is economically beneficial, and indeed necessary, for Europe.

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Troubles with Viktor: Latest developments in Hungary

Viktor Orban with the Hungarian flag on the backgroundOnce a genuine liberal democrat, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban is slowly tightening his party’s grip on the Parliament and with it on his native country as a whole. However, Hungarians are a persistent bunch and they proved to the world many times that in the long run, it is them who hold the winning cards. This means that if Mr Orban and his Fidesz party will continue to neglect the rules of democracy they will loose badly, very badly.

One of my earliest pieces on this webzine was about the horrible state of social democracy. Back then I argued that without reinventing itself, this political family and related parties will sooner or later disappear as they do not have answers to present day problems. However, I noted as well that right-wing parties and their leaders are also ponderous when it comes to current affairs. So the only thing that they have at the moment is that they have not screwed up like their fellow left-wing contempories. From the UK Labour Party to Spain’s PSOE and Hungary’s MSZP most of Europes socialists had fallen from government benches into opposition, paving the way for the conservatives.

Exactly the same happened here in Hungary. The socialist government of Peter Medgyessy (2002-2004) and later that of Ferenc Gyurcsany (2004-2009) destroyed everything that the country had achieved after the peaceful regime change of 1989. Between 2002-2009 Hungary was one of the first EU member states that applied for EU / IMF emergency funding (to avoid a financial collapse), its public debt was sky high, public spending rocketed up and bigger and bigger corruption cases unfolded each month. Due to this, the country finally raced down to the bottom when compared to its regional neighbours. Of course, after this it was not a huge surpise that center-right Fidesz with its leader Viktor Orban was elected to form a new government with an exceptional two-thirds majority which allowed it to change everything it wanted from the constitution to street names.

A bus that was missed

Needless to say that the left-liberal intelligentsia (politicians included) was worried from day one that Fidesz will create a nationalistic, anti-EU, anti-western fortress on the debris they too were responsible for. Without going into too much detail, no one can argue that well known and respected Hungarians (sympathethic to the left) had ever written lengthy articles in local or foreign newspapers complaining about the state of Hungarian democracy under socialist rule. So it is a bit shameful, to say the least, that now most of them are urging their right-leaning counterparts to do so. Mind you, the problem is not that they are asking them to act, the problem is that in the light of the last ten years they have absolutely no moral ground to do so. If they had pointed out the problems of the previous government, that would have been a different story but they had not and with this, an important bus was missed in the life of Hungarian democracy. A case of a double standard, to put it simple.

Troubles with Viktor

I believe that the recent political developments in Hungary can be analysed from two, not so distinct viewpoints. The first and more simply view is that Mr Orban and his party is acting the way they are because of defiance and vigour. They think that with a 2/3 majority they can do whatever they like and they can punish their left-wing counterparts according to their own medicine of the past couple of years, sidelining arguments from the opposition, the EU, the IMF and European and American intellectuals. Orban & Co. already changed the constitution, created a new electoral law, curbed the latitude of the independent judiciary, set-up a new state agency which oversees the entire media, it approved the financial stability act (e.g. enshrining the flat tax into the constitution) and promoted many party apparatchiks into high offices in public companies and institutions, all in t he government’s favour. Can they really do this? Yes, they can. Today, Fidesz is the single most important party in the country with an outstanding electoral mandate that was won in a peaceful and legal election. Is this morally or democratically right? Not if you ask me as a new government should be respectful to its opposition, especially with a mandate like this, because luck will not always be on Fidesz’s side.

Apart from the sole use of political force, the other and more significant viewpoint that I find interesting in Hungary’s and Fidesz’s case is the personality and character change of Viktor Orban. Back in 1989, he was a young liberal democrat who wanted to change everything that was bad in the system. He was eager to support democracy, he was fond of western ideas (e.g. like free media) and political behaviour, and he despised corruption, nepotism and state controlled public institutions. However, 20 years after the fall of socialism the former hero of young Hungarians resembles more an ailing and tired socialist from the 1980s than a true democrat. So the biggest problem with Mr Orban in my eyes is not – according to the left-leaning journalists – that he is destroying the institutions and laws of ’89 but the fact that he once fought for the creation of all this.

Nomen est Omen

To sum up all that was said, it is reasonable to say that Hungarian democracy is not in its best shape; to tell you the truth, I personally think that it never has been, but none of the western democracies are perfect either. Nevertheless, those who argue or think that Hungary is heading towards some kind of a dictatorship are wrong. Firstly, because important democratic values still exist, like freedom of speech or the right to vote. Of course, in the long run Fidesz could abolish these as well, but at the moment everybody is able to vote for whoever he / she supports and everybody can write / say anything without a lengthy jail sentence or a brutal police raid. Secondly, Fidesz was elected in a clean election so it is also possible to unseat them democratically in the next elections. And thirdly, the West (e.g. EU, IMF, US) will always be able to lead Fidesz back on the right track because Hungary is in short supply of friends and even more so: of money.

The only concern that I have, as a young Hungarian, is that the time is fast approaching when both left- and right-wing parties will be unelectable from most of the Hungarian electorate’s perspective and that will be the real problem for this particular Central European country.

Last interview with Vaclav Havel: To bomb Belgrade was a tough decision

An image of late Czech President Vaclav Havel sitting in an arm chairWe publish the last interview given by the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, which was given to our contributor Jakub Janda in December 2011 on the issues of civic heroism, human indifference and what turned out to be one very frustrating translation. It is exclusively available in English only at our magazine.*

 

Jakub Janda (JJ): When you received Prize of Jaromir Savrda last year you mentioned that „something like a dissident resistance is needed even today with different appearance and in different form“. Could you please specify what kind of appearances and forms do you have in mind?

Vaclav  Havel (VH): If I spoke of a different kind of the dissident movement, it was not obviously related to the observance of civil rights and liberties ensured by constitution. In this sense the dissident movement is a thing of the past, or at least I hope so. I rather had on mind civic engagement as resistance against human indifference, civic apathy or bureaucratic bullying.

JJ: Do you think that engagement with civil society is a challenge for today’s youth? What is the source of the contempt of some Czech politicians for civil society and civic initiatives?

VH: Civic engagement comes naturally to young people. For the coming generation it is an inherent part of their social attitude, which sets them apart from the generation of their parents and grandparents, who were growing up under a totalitarian regime. Civil society is met with contempt especially at those politicians, who perhaps speak of freedom, but actually fear manifestations of citizens’ will and see them as a threat to their power and influence.

JJ: Where do you see a line beyond which it is necessary to face evil with force? Your reservations about some activities of the third resistance [the editor’s note: an overarching term used for the Czechoslovak anti-communist resistance movement between 1948 and 89] are well known, yet you also received criticism for your support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

VH: That needs to be considered from a case to case; there is no ready-made solution available and it is necessary to use all means to prevent such a strike from happening. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out in advance as we would thus show that we are not willing to fight off evil. The international community decided on the strike in former Yugoslavia only after ten years of intensive, but unsuccessful negotiations that especially the Milosevic’s regime had used in perpetrating new atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Notwithstanding the humanitarian catastrophe and war suffering it was a tough decision. I naturally have not ever pronounced that statement on humanitarian bombing which is attributed to me. That nonsense appeared in the follow-up of multiple translations. I said that the reasons for the strike had been humanitarian, because there had been on-going massacres and expulsions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and million refugees had been on move in Kosovo.

JJ: What means to you the cooperation of the Czech and Polish dissent?

VH: Czechoslovak-Polish solidarity, trans-border cooperation and meetings on the frontier had a crucial significance as an entirely new experience. And not just for our dissent, but also for communist rulers. Moscow counted that there will be revolts in satellite countries from time to time – as in Hungary of 1956, Czechoslovakia of 1968 or Poland of 1980. But for national opposition movements to cooperate that was a new element and a cause of great fears for the communist power.

Thank you for the interview,
Jakub Janda

 

* Translated from Czech by Stanislav Maselnik.

Women in Turkey: Are They Born to Suffer?

Turkey and women rights
Turkey and women rights © SETimes.com - SES Türkiye

I have never been exposed to domestic violence. Even though I still clearly remember how my dearest brother employed innovative and semi-sadistic tactics to provoke me for another round of a brotherly scuffle, or how my stubborn babysitter threatened me to make me finish a mountain of rice on my plate, I cannot identify my traumatic experiences as domestic violence, while women in Turkey experience the worst kinds of abuses almost every day.

That was exactly what I thought when I saw the front page of one of the most popular newspapers in Turkey, Haberturk on October 7 as I was sipping my morning coffee. I could hardly swallow my sip as I saw a topless, semi-conscious, severely beaten woman lying faced down on a hospital bed, covered in stained blood, and stabbed from her back with a large knife which was almost buried deep into her abdomen. Uncensored. Even though I was disgusted by the newspaper’s violation of ethical and privacy rules, that morning I hoped that carefully chosen photo was going to raise some awareness of domestic violence and gender inequality in Turkey.

It really did. The photo whipped up public anger, created a lot of controversy, and drew attention to the growing and worrisome women’s right abuses and domestic violence in Turkey at a time when Turkey is deemed to be a rising star in international politics, a miraculous model in economics, and allegedly a model for many countries with its “advanced” democracy. The debate that followed revealed not only the dire situation women in Turkey have been facing, but also the deep discrepancy between Turkey’s international image and its harsh domestic realities that may eventually hinder its rise and European Union (EU) accession.

A Daunting Picture

The numbers plainly tell how alarming the situation of women in Turkey is. According to a 2009 survey conducted by Hacettepe University in Turkey, about 42% of women experience physical or sexual violence inflicted by a husband or relative at some point in their lives.1 In comparison, according to a United Nations (UN) report released in 2011, this figure is 22% in the United States (U.S.) and between 3-35% in Europe. The only countries exceeding Turkey in the report are Sub-Saharan African countries and the Pacific island nation of Kiribati.2 Honor killings are also a source of debate and shame for the country. According to a U.S. State Department report, 5375 women committed suicide and 1806 were killed by relatives accusing them of bringing dishonor on their families between 2001 and 2006 in Turkey.3

As if physical and emotional abuse is easy to overcome, Turkey is short of shelters for domestic violence survivors. Different studies point to different numbers, but as of today there are between 26 to 62 shelters in total in Turkey, while there are about 800 in Germany alone.4 In addition to the shortage of shelters and their inadequate services, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in 2011 and a different study conducted in 2009 show that only 3-8% of women who have experienced sexual or physical violence seek help from any institution.5

In addition to high rates of domestic violence and inadequate services, illiteracy and low participation to labor force are also bleeding wounds of Turkey. The same HRW report indicates that 3.8 million of the 4.7 million illiterate Turks are women.6 Rates of employment by women are no better; a World Bank report shows that only 23.5% of adult women were employed in 2009, while the figure was 64% in the EU in 2007.7 It is not that women do not enter the labor market, but is that they end up quitting due to several factors such as poor working conditions, family duties, and family and peer pressure.

Turkish parliament is not immune to low participation trend, either. The rate of female parliamentarians was 4.5% in 1935, 8.72% in 2007, and is 14.2% as of today.8 There is only one female minister in the cabinet. These rates imply a broad gender inequality and reinforce the secondary role deemed appropriate to women in decision and policy-making level.

Actually, the snapshot above is far from being surprising, given that Turkey ranked 83rd on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index in 2010 and 126th out of 131 on The World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report.9

Why should Turkey care?

The findings above point to the bitter truth that women in Turkey are marginalized, excluded, and divested of power in Turkish political, social, and economic life. There are legitimate reasons why the Turkish government should prioritize women’s rights in general and address their grave problems.

First and foremost, every political entity is responsible for the dignity and protection of its own citizens. Regardless of their gender, religion, or political leanings, persons have to be protected from physical violence emanating from individuals, non-state actors, and the state itself. Turkey’s bad human rights record is a clear indication that Turkey failed to take necessary steps to protect the dignity and certain freedoms of its own citizens in the past. Today, Turkey cannot afford to make the same mistakes and stay indifferent to current and future abuses, given its changing Weltanschauung and aimed transformation from a “security state.”

In addition to Turkey’s responsibilities and duties towards its citizens, the country has certain obligations in international law. The documented abuses not only violate Turkish laws, but also constitute a breach of all the international agreements and human rights treaties signed and ratified so far. Turkey should adhere to the rules of international law, especially due to the preeminence Turkish constitution gives to international agreements in the legal system, if the envisioned “advanced” democracy is based on the of rule of law and accepting the pacta sunt servanda principle in international interactions.

Another international dimension of the problem is directly related to Turkey’s EU bid. At a time when the accession process is moving toward a dead-end, implementing improved human rights policies and taking bold democratization steps to meet the EU’s high standards are of the highest importance for the continuation of membership negotiations. No matter how fast the Turkish economy is growing, how proactive Turkish foreign policy is, or how improved the civilian-military relations are; without addressing the human rights issues within the country, Turkey cannot even become a privileged partner, let alone full EU membership.

A Way Forward

Despite its imperfections, Turkey is not a hopeless case. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, had believed in the gender equality; therefore had granted the right to vote and be elected in the elections in 1930. In comparison, women obtained the right to vote in 1944 in France, in 1945 in Italy, and in 1948 in Belgium. If the government, local administrations, NGOs, and public in general show sincere willingness to address the issue, there is reason to believe that Turkey can once again catch up with its European counterparts.

To this end, one of the most crucial steps to be taken at the government level is to change the contradictory and patriarchal rhetoric regarding women in Turkey. This should start off with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as his statements at times contradict with his stated commitment to women’s rights. To illustrate, on different occasions he did not refrain from making it public that he did not believe in gender equality. Also, he frequently stresses that Turkish women should have at least three children. Combined with his latest decision to change the name of the Ministry for Women and Family into Ministry of Family and Social Policies, such kind of backward steps to combat gender inequality and violence against women are discouraging. He should be more aware of his charisma, influence on Turkish public, and role model responsibility. Therefore, it would be a major step in resolving the crisis “[if] we can have the prime minister, who uses such strong rhetoric, saying with full conviction that whoever slaps a woman, carries out violence against women, will face the state; the state is against [violence].”10

Another essential step would be to close the gap between legislation and practice. It is not the case that Turkey is leaving women to their own fate and reluctant to improve its laws. As reiterated elsewhere,11 the government has enacted laws, by-laws, strategy papers, national action plans and protocols on important issues such as the prevention of violence against women, on the schooling of girls, eradication of illiteracy among women, and increasing women’s participation in the labour market. To be more precise, Turkey became a party to The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and entered the vanguard of countries offering civil mechanisms to protect against domestic violence by adopting the Law 4320 on the Protection of the Family in 1998.12 The current government amended the law in 2007, passed a Labor Law in 2008, signed a new Council of Europe Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence in 2011, established a national mechanism, and is belatedly taking steps to amend and broaden the scope of Law 4320. However, the implementation remains problematic in every case, making the protection system unreliable and unpredictable. To avoid this, the government should work harder to transform the legislation into practice.

The efforts should not be limited to government activities alone. In this context, the increased involvement of women’s rights NGOs including but not limited to KA-DER, Mor Cati, KAMER, MAZLUMDER, Ucan Supurge in the process is promising. Despite their activism and contributions, however, the cooperation between the government and civil society is not yet at the desired level. Women’s rights NGOs and the Minister of Family and Social Policies herself should reverse this trend and encourage more cooperation and dialogue between parties for a healthier decision-making process and better policies based on a broad consensus.

In addition to the steps above, ridding the law enforcement and legal system of the rotten apples is sine qua non to be successful in endeavors to alleviate gender inequality and domestic violence. Unfortunately, abused women still risk being turned away by the police forces or prosecutors, fail to get the protection order from the officials handling their cases, and at times are being forced to reconcile with the abusers. A “zero tolerance” policy should be implemented and subjected to annual review to fight against women’s rights abusers and also civil servants in malfeasance. The goal should be more towards preventing the potential future harm rather than punishing the past behavior; therefore, measures such as electronic monitoring of the perpetrator, psychological support, and family counseling can be supportive and effective.

Last but not least, social and mass media tools play critical role in both encouraging violent behavior and taking preventive measures against abuses. In other words, it has a Janus face. Given that Turkey’s press freedom record is as bad as its human rights record, the government should ease its oversight over media operations and media organs themselves should establish auto-control mechanisms and broadcast selectively and responsibly. The best the government can do in this process is to enact deterrent laws to punish and prevent those who may violate the personal rights of a victim and/or relatives of the victim, or agitate for the sake of higher ratings. In other words, the fine line between the censorship and order should carefully be drawn in order to prevent both future press freedom and privacy violations.

Women in Turkey are not born to suffer and they deserve much more than they have now. Just because they were abused in the past and being abused now should not necessarily mean they will always be abused, beaten up, and marginalized. I am hopeful that there will not be any need to publish another sensational photo for Turkish public, government, and international community to remember and address the dire situation of women. Abusers in Turkey will eventually comprehend that women are as human as men. That will be the day I will be fully assured that our children will not go through the same nightmare their mothers and grandmothers did.

*The author thanks Melis Ulug for her help and suggestions.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. “Turkey: Backward Step for Women’s Rights,” Human Rights Watch, June 9, 2011. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/09/turkey-backward-step-women-s-rights
  2. Alyson Neel, “UN report: Turkey exceeds US, EU in violence against women,” Global Rights, July 17, 2011. Available at: http://www.globalrights.info/rights/women/1814-un-report-turkey-exceeds-us-eu-in-violence-against-women.html
  3. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – Turkey, March 11, 2008.
  4. Dorian Jones, “Turkey’s Murder Rate of Women Skyrockets,” VOA News, February 28, 2011. Available at: http://www.voanews.com/english/news/europe/Turkeys-Murder-Rate-of-Women-Skyrockets-117093538.html
  5. “He Loves You, He Beats You,” Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2011. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/05/04/he-loves-you-he-beats-you-0
  6. Ibid.
  7. Female Labor Force Participation in Turkey: Trends, Determinants and Policy Framework, The World Bank and Turkish State Planning Organization, report, November 23, 2009.
  8. “78 Kadin 472 Erkek Vekil Meclis’te,” (78 Women and 472 Men at the Parliament) Bianet.org, June 13, 2011. Available at: http://bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/130697-78-kadin-472-erkek-vekil-mecliste
  9. “Turkey: Backward Step for Women’s Rights.”
  10. Barcin Yinanc, “Turkish PM must stand against men killing women, says activist,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 26, 2011. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=turkish-pm-must-stand-against-men-killing-women-says-activist-2011-08-26
  11. “Draft Report – ‘2020 perspective for women in Turkey’:´Alliance of genders´ in achieving factual gender equality,” Yerelce, September 22, 2011. Available at: http://yerelce.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/draft-report-%E2%80%982020-perspective-for-women-in-turkey%E2%80%99-%C2%B4alliance-of-genders%C2%B4-in-achieving-factual-gender-equality/
  12. “He Loves You, He Beats You.”

EU referenda: The right answer to Europe’s ills

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Debating Europe: Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?
Debating Europe, discussion: Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?

The following is the answer I provided at Debating Europe’s latest discussion on the question of EU membership referenda. As a convinced supporter of direct/participative democracy, I couldn’t but approve of their need. But they are not only required at the national level, for countries such as Britain to decide on their membership, but also and as equally strongly on the level of the EU, where they can serve as the only means that can strengthen the people’s identification with the European project. Especially in the times when the eurone crisis puts the whole integration project under yet unprecedented stress.

For more, I invite you to read both the Debating Europe’s introductory post and my answer below, which is a response to this video, where British Conservative MP Bill Cash and former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) John Bruton debate out the same issue.

My answer (‘Do we need Referenda on EU Membership?’):

As a convinced supporter of federal Europe and an equally strong critic of the EU in its present form, I have no doubts that in the long term, the integration project can work only if it is built on popular, democratic grounds.

Unfortunately, the EU has been a technocratic project from the start. Based on the neo-functionalist spillover theory that a political integration will somehow naturally follow the economic one, European people and their wishes were put on a second line. Instead of serving as a cure to numerous political problems suffered by European nation-states, such as alienation of the political elite from citizens, artificial technocraticisation or ‘expertisation’ of decision-making, or sectoral interests of corporations and financiers having privileged access to parliamentary representatives, the EU seemingly only deepened these ills and put them into a far greater, transnational distance. Instead of tackling issues that receive added benefit on a continental scale, EU institutions produce endless minute regulations of internal market of the kind of quality standards for cucumbers (they are allowed a bend of 10mm for every 10cm of length!), or now legendary proper measurements of the European banana. This makes of the principle of subsidiarity, officially enshrined in the EU treaties since 1992, an empty shell that can be potentially used to justify any intervention under the argument that the Union is better placed to intervene in those affairs than a member state or local authority.

Lacking a clear reference to the European civilisational identity, which, notwithstanding eurosceptic critics, is more deeply rooted in the European continent than relatively new national identities, the long-term tenacity of people’s belief in European integration against these saddening facts of its actual realisation is rather a proof of the symbolic strength of our civilisation’s identity than a sign of its rejection. People of Ancient Athens, Aristotle, or modern civic republicans such as Hannah Arendt well knew that the best way to ensure citizens’ identification with their polity is allowing them to actively participate in its political affairs. Advocates of representative democracy are always very quick to come up with claims that people are not knowledgeable enough to rule for themselves and that they need experts who will ‘kindly’ take that burden off their shoulders. As if political rule was not as much or even primarily a question of telos (purpose or aim) as that of expertise! The very idea of life in a democratic polity is that political questions are not a matter of experts to decide (contrary to their implementation). No number of experts will be able to make a purely technical decision on issues such as, for instance, the creation of a common federal political entity (or exiting from it, for that matter), engagement in foreign military interventions, or deciding to bail-out the banking system by privatisations and slashing the public expenditures. It requires a stupendous amount of arrogance to claim that providing answers to these questions is a matter of following some correct, rational and technical procedure rather than and first of all a question of values.

Our values are common and accessible to the whole society as they come from the plentiful soil of literature, religion, myths, culture or tradition. It follows that if political decisions are always made through values, based on who we are, it is the society as a whole that is best placed to discern where these values politically lead it to. As any social entity, parliamentary assemblies are prone to think first of their own sectarian interests rather than those of society. If people give that power away to their representatives, instead of delegating it on the condition that these representatives will continue to respect their political will even after the election, there is no longer any democracy and instead a term-limited reign of government or parliament. In this way, referanda are a powerful instrument of participative democracy that are well placed to ensure that MPs and MEPs remain representative of citizens’ interests.

Yes then – referenda are not only the right answer for individual nations to decide on their EU membership, but also the only right and possible answer for making key political decisions in the EU as a whole.

Is there no space for the disabled?

Image of disabled people playing on a beachLet me start by answering the question above. There is of course enough space for the disabled, for everyone actually. All that is needed looking around more carefully: the disabled are an ‘invisible’ sub-culture. They are ‘invisible’ because they are not wanted to be seen or remembered often. However, they do exist in every society and they are more than they are seen. The only thing that should be done is to release them from their ‘prisons’. The European Union deals with the issue in detail and encourages the candidate countries to comply with necessary laws and regulations. Nevertheless, all those rules do not seem to be enough. That is why, in Istanbul there are some projects running about the issue bases on volunteerism. In this paper, I will deal with the disabled in Istanbul. I do not want to write about the whole Turkey, because I wish to write using my own observations as I have lived in Istanbul for 5 years. Firstly, I will touch the problems that they have to face every day, then I will briefly mention how the European Union handles the issue, and I will conclude the article by examining the progress made on the issue.

‘I always think of how the life is hard for those people and the people around them. Being disabled makes you dependent on someone else to make your wishes. At that point you have to give up on something that you desire.’

I always feel upset when I see disabled people having trouble with the things that I am able to do. This makes me grateful that I am healthy. However, I am still very sensitive with disabled people because I am aware of the fact that I also can become one of them any time. I always think of how the life is hard for those people and the people around them. Being disabled makes you dependent on someone else to make your wishes. At that point you have to give up on something that you desire. I strongly believe that everyone in society must access their rights equally. Being disabled is not the result of a choice or fault. Disabled people are sometimes born in that way or sometimes their disability is caused by their working conditions or even ‘terrorist’ attacks.

I have always been interested in minorities & sub-cultures subject, but what made me write this article is the news that I had read. I read about a project (named Istanbul ‘a Çık) for disabled people in Istanbul two days ago in the Turkish newspaper named Radikal.[1] Istanbul’a Çık refers to two different meanings in Turkish. Firstly, this is a slogan inviting the disabled to go out and discover their environment and secondly, it refers to Istanbul Açık which means that Istanbul is open to the disabled. I felt very excited when I read it. Mainly, the project aims at making disabled people more visible in society. It is written that a group of people (both disabled and healthy) discover Istanbul together.[2] At first, healthy members of the group go to explore the region and then if it is fine for the disabled members, they all go there for a picnic or something. This activity has taken place since 2009. The most beneficial outcome of the project is that they report their observations and pass them on to Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. The members are happy that their comments and demands are taken into consideration by the authorities. For instance, the Department of National Palaces at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey put an elevator in Dolmabahçe Palace (Istanbul) and they will put one also in Beylerbeyi Palace (Istanbul) soon. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality seems to be interested in the issue, though I do not find it enough.

‘The disabled (at least 40% disabled who are registered in their ID) and the companion are free of charge for the public transportation in Istanbul. However, the problem is with the accessibility.’

In my opinion, there is no significant difference between deficiency and absence. Let me explain this with an example. The disabled (at least 40% disabled who are registered in their ID) and the companion are free of charge for the public transportation in Istanbul. However, the problem is with the accessibility.[3] Unfortunately, not all stations have an elevator, ramps, or sometimes the evelator button is put on a very high point for a person on a wheel chair. The municipality organizes meetings with disabled people once in three weeks. Through these meetings, the municipality plans to transform Istanbul into a city which is suitable also for the disabled. While being developed, Istanbul ‘closed’ itself to the disabled. This is why the city has potential problems for the disabled such as uncomfortable means of transport, traffic lights and roads…Well; actually not only for the disabled but also for cyclists and people with buggies Istanbul is not an ideal city. However, I am very optimistic with ongoing promising progress.

Now, let’s look on this issue in the context of the European Union. The EU aims at active inclusion and full participation of disabled people in society. The EU deals with the issue from the human rights perspective and supports full access to equal rights. To achieve its goals, the Commission adopted the European Disability Strategy 2010- 2020 based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and took into account the experience of the Disability Action Plan (2004- 2010). The European principle is: ‘Nothing about disabled people without disabled people’.[4] The Union pursues its objectives in eight priority areas: accessibility, participation, equality, employment, education and training, social protection, health and external action.[5] I am glad to say that the union has a strategy on the issue; however I hope all those policies make sense in practice as well.

The European Commission released Turkey 2011 Progress Report two days ago. The Commission deals with the issue of socially vulnerable persons and/or persons with disabilities paragraph in human rights and the protection of minorities section. The Commission assesses some progresses though it finds them insufficient. In the report, Turkey is praised because of the adoption of a strategy paper on accessibility and the related national action plan. On the other hand, the country is criticized for not turning constitutional changes into specific measures in favour of the disabled and still not having a national mechanism for monitoring implementation of the UN Convention on the rights of disabled persons. The Commission does not find the efforts sufficient to increase the employment of persons with disabilities. Besides, the Commission notes that physical barriers to access to public, social and health services still continue despite legislation in force. Overall, the EU encourages Turkey to work more on full participation and active inclusion of disabled people and notes that to achieve this further awareness- raising is needed.[6]

In conclusion, I would say that the main problem in Turkey is implementation of concerning laws and regulations. What Turkey should do is to build an effective executive and controlling body on the issue. Otherwise, all that legislation would not make sense. I hope awareness of the issue will rise soon. I assure you that the disabled are not far from us. They are with us and part of us. Keep in mind this is not just about them, but also about their families and the whole society. All members of society should embrace each other to reach peace in home and social cohesion. There is space for everyone…

Europe scores a victory: Polish elections and European integration

The official poll results speak clear: with 39.2 % of the votes and 207 seats in the 460 seat Sejm (lower house of the Polish Parliament), liberal conservative Civic Platform (PO) of incumbent PM Donald Tusk is a clear winner of last Sunday’s (9 October) general elections. Second with 29.9 % came the national conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) of former PM Jaroslav Kaczynski. Since pro-European credentials of Mr Tusk are well known, this is a timely moment to consider the significance of this result for Europe as a whole. Will the government’s re-election bring any changes to its positive policies to the Union and its integration? And why the euroscepticism of PiS and its European counterparts has to fail in the long duration?

Old-New Coalition and its pro-Europeanism

PM Donald TuskCivic Platform is likely to form a coalition government with its current partner, centrist Polish People’s Party (PSL), which came out fourth in the polls (8.9 %), placing itself behind Palikot’s Movement (10 %). This would give the coalition a slight majority of 235 votes in Sejm and allow smooth continuation of their present policies including those of the Polish Presidency of . Mr Tusk may face quite stringent coalition demands from PSL’s leader and Minister of the Economy Waldemar Pawlak, whose party represents agrarian interests of the country. Polish media suggest that there will be probably only minor disputes over domestic policy issues and coalition talks will mostly involve haggling about the division of ministerial positions. Europe will be off agenda as PM Tusk and Mr Pawlak share the same supportive attitude towards European integration and on several occasions stated that they stand for ‘a strong Europe [that is] economically and socially integrated’. In a speech to the European Economic and Social Committee’s plenary in July, Mr Pawlak thus argued that Europe can only profit from further integration and economy of scale and gave further backing to a tighter integration of industrial policy. This well complements Mr Tusk’s own reputation as an advocate of the community method in EU affairs, who does tend to miss an opportunity to denounce ‘a new wave of euroscepticism’ in the Union.

The Kaczynski brothers and problems with euroscepticism

With some hindsight, the domination of the Polish political scene by pro-European Civic Platform  is a fascinating turn of events from the time when Poland was still led by the eurosceptic Kaczynski brothers. (The late Lech Kaczynski was the President of Poland from 2005 until his death in 2010, while his identical twin Jaroslaw Kaczynski served as PM from July 2006 to November 2007.) Many commentators, several of Polish origin, argued back then that the Kaczynskis only reflect the country’s ‘deep-seated nationalism’ and ‘suspicions of old enemies like Germany and Russia’. The Law and Justice party, which is still presided by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, perhaps supports Polish membership in the EU, but only on the grounds that it serves Poland’s national interests. It hardly needs to be repeated that if every country approached the Union expecting that it will fulfil its national demands, there would be little reason for trying to build a Union of common interests in the first place.

In this regard it is even less surprising that PiS has always been staunchly Atlanticist, sharing this stance with other European nationalist and republican parties (e.g. Front National, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom, Czech Civic Democrats, the British Conservatives). The United States and Transatlantic partnership are in these parties’ line of thought regarded as some sort of ‘saving grace’ that will assure European defence without having to resort to the ‘inconvenience’ of sharing sovereignty with Europe. Surely, even if the US were not troubled by the need to implement its own defence budget cuts, just like any other nation state they are primarily interested in their own defence and strategic interests, and the concern over their allies’ security including Poland’s is only of the second-order importance. Similarly, if the eurosceptic Atlanticists prefer to secure defence in a military alliance rather than under the auspices of a European federation, it is unclear why to prefer NATO to a defence pact with their culturally and geopolitically closer European neighbours. Be it under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, OSCE or by supporting some other kind of European defence cooperation. It becomes clear that nationalists like the Kaczynskis pursue only an idealised, national spectre of sovereignty, rather than its true content, which lies in the fact that a given polity possesses a tangible and not just legal control over the full range of its domestic affairs: in finance, culture just as in defence.

In a world where US military expenditure in 2010 was $698 billion and China’s $114 billion, even countries with a long warfare tradition such as Poland cannot gather enough of funding to counter the newest, high-tech security challenges. (For comparison, Poland’s military expenditure in 2010 were $10.8 billion, whereas collectively, the EU-27 spent $270.6 billion in 2009, which is only about 39 % of the US’s expenditure.) It is often striking that the same political parties who idolise national sovereignty favour increasingly greater liberalisation of transborder movements of commerce and finance – in other words, they stand for economic globalisation, which in turn functions as the principal bearer of global consumerist ‘culture’. Since financial markets with its rating agencies and speculators do not respect any legally defined national boundaries, the rhetoric of national sovereignty serves only to disguise the real division of powers, which has waned from the control of national politicians long time ago. If the restoration of impenetrable national borders remains an unfeasible dream of politicians like Mr Kaczynski, it is possible to imagine that globalisation might be made to take a different form that would be more favourable to the specificities of various national cultures and that would curb down the power of global capital so as to give back to the people political control over their economies and societies. The EU can be an agent of such reassertion of popular sovereignty, but arguably, so far it has been rather the foremost European  ambassador of neoliberalism and global financial interests.

Sparkling new debate in Central and Eastern Europe?

PM Tusk and his old-new government coalition perhaps do not offer such alternative to the EU’s current ‘globalist’ form. Yet, they rightly perceive that in the long term, European integration is the only possible remedy for social and economic problems that Europe currently undergoes. Civic Platform’s second success might well sparkle debates on the issues of integration and national sovereignty in other Central and Eastern European countries. It is to be hoped that these discussions will be lead in a creative form, giving space to different models the integrated Europe might take. Most importantly, they cannot forget to highlight that for those who oppose the destruction of national identities that proceeds under the steady march of globalisation, a European union is a part of the solution, and not necessarily a problem.

Populism vs. European Union

While the ongoing financial crisis slowly destroys the dream of Jean Monnet, the chief architect of the European Coal and Steal Community (i.e. the predecessor of the European Union), more and more European leaders and parties turn to populism rather than pragmatism when talking about the future of the Union. In this regard, clearly Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orban and the UK Conservatives are among the ones to watch.

The United Kingdom, to put it mildly, was never a keen proponent of the European Union. This is even more true when one talks about the UK Conservatives. (A funny fact though is that the country joined the European Community under a conservative PM, Edward Heath.) But since then the British right has been trying its upmost to force the UK’s departure from an Ever Closer Union. Of course, it is obvious that their efforts were not successful. However, it would be foolish to say that their ideas and beliefs did not resonate with the British public; because, quite frankly, they did very much! To take just one notable example, last week The Daily Telegraph published Mark Pritchard’s (conservative backbencher) intriguing article on the EU, showing euroscepticism at its best.

In it, Mr Pritchard derives two important conclusions: 1) the UK should leave the European Union because it effectively occupies Britain and thus destroys its national sovereignity; and 2) the EU forces British tax payers to finance debt-riden Greece and other Mediterranean member states. Mr Pritchard thinks that his explanation and conclusions are credible but in my view, they are not. I am not saying that he is wrong in everything what he says. For example, I can surely support the UK conservatives when they say that the EU is running a huge democratic deficit and because of this, clearly, it is sometimes out of touch with the problems of its citizens. But to say that the EU is occupying the UK and that British tax payers are handing out money to lazy Greeks is simply not true. First, the UK is not financing Greece because it is not included in the European Financial Stability Facility. Second, it is not loosing its sovereignty because of the EU, it only looses it because it voluntarily joined the Union back in the 1970s.

It is also worth noting that many well known anti-EU MPs (like Daniel Hannan) are saying that UK exports to EU member states can be replaced by exports to booming emerging markets. In fact, this particular explanation is false as well because EU exports cannot be substituted with emerging market exports: just consider that the UK’s trade volume with Ireland alone is bigger than with the BRIC countries combined. Notwithstanding that, it seems to me that British politicians will never be sympatethic to the EU, even if the facts (all of them) would lie on the EU’s side. Quite interestingly, however, a ComRes/BBC2 poll published in the latest issue of Total Politics, a British current affairs magazine, found that 55 per cent of the UK public supports the countries membership in the EU. Ooops.

Now let us turn our attention to Hungary and Viktor Orban. Formerly a liberal leaning politician, now turned conservative, Mr Orban is one of the key bashers of the EU on its Eastern borders. Hungary’s PM was not always like this as his anti-EU rethoric only emerged during his period in opposition (between 2002-2010); before that, he was a champion of EU / NATO membership. Of course, one can say that politics is not for the faint-hearted. But I believe, most of todays problems on the EU’s side is largely caused by a helpless European political class, painfully short of politicians who are willing to act, and willing to tell the truth to their citizens. In this regard, Mr Orban is no exception because he is trying, like many of his counterparts, to blame all the problems of his country on the EU and the previous (Socialist) government. In the latter case, he is quite right. But in the former, he is wrong. Firstly, because Hungary’s existing economic and political agony is also caused by the mismanagement of the current cabinet (i.e. they do not have a clue how to solve the previous government’s fault or if they do, they are hiding it from the public eye). And secondly, because putting the blame on the EU only makes Hungary look bad as everybody knows that we, not Brussels screwed it. So one can only ask EU leaders for less populism and more pragmatism, because without it, they may well destroy a peaceful future that Jean Monnet tried to build for us all.