The bailout deal: A true Greek tragedy

The eurozone crisis has revealed profoundly different national narratives and a striking European democratic deficit.

The legitimacy and accountability of EU institutions and procedures need to be improved urgently, writes Keulen [Getty]

The Spanish penal code defines terrorism as “undermining the constitutional order and provoking a state of terror in part of the population”.

According to Juan Carlos Monedero, this is exactly what the draconian package of austerity measures and the surrender of fiscal sovereignty imposed on Greece amounts to: an act of terrorism.

On Monday, Monedero, one of the founders of the Spanish political party Podemos, said that he felt ashamed to be a European. He is not the only one. #ThisIsACoup went viral on Twitter.

It is no coincidence that using this hashtag to express disbelief and outrage about what happened in Brussels, started in Barcelona. Podemos, a clone of the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza, has surged in the Spanish polls in the last twelve months.

Spaniards understand too well the Greek public opinion, as expressed by more than 60 percent of the electorate in a snap referendum on July 5, that austerity and difficult reform measures will not automatically lead to an improvement of their lives. 

In fact, unemployment remains high in spite of the fact that the centre-right Spanish government is applying the neoliberal recipes from Brussels. Many Spaniards feel the social and economic malaise continues unabated.

An unrelenting European charge 

But questions remain. What about the pace in which the reform package has to be approved by the Greek parliament, if it will be approved at all? And what about the recapitalisation of the Greek banks in the coming days? 

Even those who supported the Brussels deal as unavoidable spoke of an unrelenting Europe charging Greece with a very heavy task. Some of the agreed upon reforms, like streamlining value-added tax and modernising tax collection, were seen as appropriate and could, in time, improve Greece’s economic performance.

The Greek drama raises even more pressing long-term political interrogations.

A Grexit may have been avoided for now, but will it be possible in the long run to maintain the euro and the European monetary union without greater European political union and decisiveness? Especially in the field of financial and fiscal policies?

And how does this stronger European political union relate to the 28 member countries’ sovereignty? The eurozone crisis revealed – once more – profound political differences, radically different national narratives, and a lack of a common European public opinion.

There is no doubt that the Brussels agreement deprives Greece of a great deal of its sovereignty. Who is in charge now in Greece?

Greek humiliation Apparently not the Greek people who voted against the austerity package, nor the Greek government who was – in the eyes of many – humiliated and forced to accept most of the EU’s proposals. No wonder terms like “coup”, “terrorism”, and “modern slavery” were used to criticise the Brussels agreement.

Likewise, the question may be raised: who is in charge in the eurozone and the EU? Angela Merkel? The banks? The technocrats? The finance ministers?

Solving the riddle of maintaining the democratic process at the level of the 28 national parliaments, and simultaneously reducing the EU’s democratic deficit is one of the biggest challenges ahead. The legitimacy and accountability of EU institutions and procedures needs to be improved urgently.

July 13 will be remembered as a day the democratic foundations of the European project rocked and fundamental questions were raised about Europe’s future. One wonders: how many July 13’s can the EU put up with?

For decades the EU led the way as a model of sovereign states working together to ensure a common approach to tackle issues of economy, peace and war, migration, climate, etc. Other regions, like Latin America and the Arab world, were envious of the European integration project.

European leaders do use words like ‘trust’, ‘unanimity’, ‘solidarity’, and ‘shared responsibility’ all the time, but they seem to lack real substance.

Ironically, the EU’s image of a historical model that created peace and stability in the last 50 years in a continent that knew wars and divisions for centuries, seems to have faded away.

Overshadowing the European success story 

The emotions and disputes raised by Greek crisis seem to have overshadowed this traditional European success story completely.

European leaders do use words like “trust”, “unanimity”, “solidarity”, and “shared responsibility” all the time, but they seem to lack real substance.

The eurozone leadership, led by Germany, lost its trust in Tsipras and Syriza; hence the cast-iron guarantees they demanded Athens in order to sign a deal. The Greek and many other South Europeans lost their trust in Germany, seen as the new coloniser and killer of the European project.

Nobel Prize winning American economist Paul Krugman called the euro group’s list of demands “a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for”.  

In his blog, Krugman wrote: “This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief.” The European left does agree by and large with this analysis.

A Greek tragedy

But what good will it do just knowing that the euro is poorly designed and should probably not have introduced in Greece in the first place?

What good will it do to be convinced that austerity does not work, the Greek debt is unpayable and the EU destroys democracy and social rights, if there is no effective strategy to counter these policies?

This seems to me to be the tragedy of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who was accused by his European colleague ministers to give them economics lectures without suggesting workable political solutions.

It also has been the tragedy of Alexis Tsipras, who ended up having the impossible choice of leading Greece to the abyss of a Grexit or accepting the harsh European bailout conditions.

In the end, Syriza did not succeed to restore the dignity of the Greek people, counter effectively the German “sound money” philosophy and present a convincing project to modernise and democratise Greek economy.

Does Syriza’s failure have far reaching implications for the European left, including Podemos in Spain? What lessons will be drawn by French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other European social-democrats, who only succeeded in soften a bit the dominant German/Finnish/Slovakian/Dutch austerity policy, but did not really present a political alternative?

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA 15th of July 2015

Seventy years on: no common memories

The commemoration ceremonies have finished by now. Squares in Russia are swept clean and banners and flags folded up. But many in Europe are left with a bitter after taste. The 16.000 servicemen, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, anti-missile systems, brand new Armata T-14 tanks and other weaponry have left the Red Square in Moscow after staging the biggest military parade ever held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But what remains is a climate of resentment, fear and divisions.

epa04197717 Russian military servicemen march during a military parade marking the 69th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany in the WWII in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia 09 May 2014. EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

Every year since the dramatic events of 1945, during the first ten days of May the defeat of Nazi Germany is celebrated across Europe and the former Soviet Union But seventy years after the end of the war in Europe there is no common narrative among the former allies of the anti-Hitler coalition. In fact, leaders of Russia’s main allies during the war in Europe -the Americans, Brits, French and Canadians- were conspicuously absent at the Victory Day celebration in Moscow.

The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in the Second World War, far more than any other country. Millions of Red Army military sacrificed their lives in defeating fascism. It was interesting to see Dutch public TV’ s balancing act; on the one hand critically covering the Victory Day parade in Moscow, on the other hand sympathetically portraying a 90-year old Soviet veteran. Nobody may doubt Europe’s respect for the dead and its gratefulness for the Soviet soldiers’ sacrifices in liberating Europe.

But at the same time Russian president Putin is reviled in many parts of Europe –especially in former Soviet countries- for twisting history, mixing past and present and for equating the anti-fascist battle against the Nazi’s with the pro-Russian separatist fight against pro-European Ukrainians. “Nazism still lives in various forms” an Italian journalist is approvingly quoted by pro-Kremlin Sputnik International. The fact that many European leaders did not accept the invitation to attend the Victory Parade in Moscow comes as no surprise to the journalist. “It is evident that history goes in circles and Moscow is the unique force in the struggle against Western financial and military hegemony.”

Presenting the Great War against fascism as an anti-Western, anti-liberal endeavour with the glorious and victorious Russian armed forces in the front line, no doubt has to do with a Russian search of identity in the 21st century era. After a period of decline, humiliation and loss, Russia is reaffirming its greatness, rising from its knees, defending its language and uniting the Russian world. It is also true that not only in Russia but also elsewhere, peace and war commemorations are occasions par excellence to emphasize patriotism, the beautiful colours of the flag and the greatness of the nation.

It is scary however that Moscow’s message seems primarily to be one of hate. “Russia Armata T-14 tank sends shivers down Washington’s spine”, exclaims state sponsored Sputnik International. The pompous power display was meant exactly for that: to impress domestic and international audiences with Russia’s newfound military might and ability to produce sophisticated weapons.

Dissident Russian writer Michail Sjiskin, whose father served as a volunteer on a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea during World War Two, believes that “for the umpteenth time the dictator uses patriotism to retain power”. He thinks Putin shamelessly exploits the Russian victory in the Great Patriotic War. “My people have been deprived of their oil, their elections, their country. Now it is deprived of their victory.” Sjiskin blames Putin for a dirty trick to set Russians and Ukrainians against each other.

What bothers Sjiskin and other Russian intellectuals most is the ahistorical character of the Victory Day celebrations. The Russian people sacrificed everything for the victory but harvested only lack of freedom and poverty. For years after 1945 the Russian people were the victim of Stalin’s repression and terror, a historical fact forgotten for the sake of convenience by today’s Putin propagandists. In fact, paranoid Stalin did not allow Victory Day to be celebrated. People could be “infected” by ideas of freedom and liberation. Commanders who played a heroic role during the war might use the occasion to enhance their popularity and challenge Stalin’s position.

Only in 1965 Leonid Brezhnev organized a big military parade to commemorate the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Not unlike Putin now, Brezhnev wanted to mobilize the public and strengthen his own position. While during Soviet times the black and orange Saint George ribbons were not used, nowadays it is the symbol of Russian nationalism. The colours, on stickers and to be tied to car antennas and clothes, are for most Russians a sign of remembrance and respect. Simultaneously the Saint George ribbons are a hated symbol for Russian nationalism and separatism in Ukraine, the Baltic states and elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere.

The European war of symbols, different narratives and tension 70 years after the end of the second World War and more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, does not bode well for the future. A lethal mix of rewriting history, propaganda and lack of independent, free media, may result in a far lesser safe Europe. (10-5-2015)


Germany: Damned if it leads, damned if it doesn’t

Merkel’s role in the diplomatic frenzy over Ukraine creates a new political reality in Europe.

Merkel is a strong believer in diplomacy and international norms and rules, writes Keulen [Reuters]

She is the European Union’s longest serving head of government – since 2005 – and now she is emerging as the uncontested leader of the continent, defending her vision of a peaceful and stable Europe through a diplomatic solution.

Angela Merkel’s high profile and pivotal role in the diplomatic frenzy to prevent a total war in the Ukraine, creates a new political reality in Europe with a new, more prominent role for Germany.

Some observers were stunned by the self-confidence and determination of the 60-year-old German chancellor.

“She looks like a new Merkel,” one TV commentator said. “Speaking on behalf of a new, more assertive Germany.”

Taking French President Francois Hollande along with her in separate meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, starring at the Munich Security Conference, flying to Washington for urgent talks with US President Barack Obama and doing the ground work for the Minsk summit, Merkel clearly took the lead in an all-out effort to let negotiations prevail.

Real politiker

She is a strong believer in diplomacy and international norms and rules. Having grown up in the communist German Democratic Republic (DDR), she knows that the Berlin wall fell because of the will of the people and through diplomatic pressure, not through military might. She is also very much a “real politiker”if not -according to some critics – a “Machiavellist”. Merkel is aware that Germany and most of Europe is not ready -politically, militarily, or psychologically – to enter into a full-scale bloody war in Eastern Europe.

Merkel calls on Russia to help defuse Ukraine crisis

That is one of the reasons that sending more lethal weapons to Ukraine is not an option for her. Not because she is a pacifist. But Merkel is convinced that more weapons in the hands of the Kiev government  will not change Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine and will only fuel the spiral of violence and cause more death and suffering.

That is why she realised she had no other option than to take political responsibility and play all diplomatic cards which she earlier might have kept close to her chest.

Contrary to the Americans, who like to boast about their leadership role in the world, Germany is a reluctant leader. Though an economic super power in Europe, the driving force behind the euro and main power broker in the EU especially in the economic and monetary field, Germany has been reticent to play a strategic role on the world stage.

Contrary to France and the UK, who are frequently engaged in military operations overseas, the German army sticks to its defensive role in Europe within the NATO parameters. Contrary to France and the UK, Germany is not represented in the UN Security Council, though the country is geographically bigger and has the largest population in Europe.

Germany’s ‘unnatural’ modest role seems to have come to an end. Merkel is aware that the Germans cannot shy away any longer from the responsibilities of their power and its consequences, politically or financially.

But Germany’s “unnatural” modest role seems to have come to an end. Merkel is aware that the Germans cannot shy away any longer from the responsibilities of their power and its consequences, politically or financially. On the one hand, Germany’s leadership is one by default, as Brussels remains unable to formulate a strong, united foreign policy.

On the other hand, Putin turned his back on Europe. Russia seems to pursue a geo-strategic policy that has some frightening 19th century characteristics. It is in the German interest to find an adequate answer to Russia’s ambitions.

Stable peace

Gone are the days that Putin addressed the Bundestag, the German parliament, declaring: “Russia is a friendly-minded European country” whose “main goal is a stable peace on this continent”.

Gone are the days that he praised democracy and denounced totalitarianism, and received an ovation from an audience that included Merkel. That was 2001. In 2015, Russia defends its ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria and deepens its political and economic cooperation with China, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, rather than with Europe.

German-born former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called Germany too big for Europe, too small for the world. The shadow of the period 1914 to 1945 still clouds the perceptions many have of Germany.

Some American senators, including the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain, suggested that the Europeans under German leadership are letting Ukraine down and that the Germans’ actions recently have been reminiscent of the 1930s. But this cheap rhetoric, referring to the appeasement policies towards Nazi Germany before World War II, did not go down well in Brussels.

Still, a leading role for Germany remains problematic. Germany seems to be damned if it leads and damned if it does not. History is never far away. In the Baltics and Poland, many remember the harmful alliances between Russia and Germany in the past. In Greece, Italy, Spain, and France many loath the economic and monetary “German dictate”, seen as rigid and self-righteous. In the eyes of its critics Germany is perceived as too big and powerful.

Merkel knows all that, of course. But the dangers threatening Europe, including Germany, are too serious: full scale war in Ukraine, terrorism by ISIL, the Middle East in turmoil, and Greece.

For the moment at least, the European countries do not have an alternative; so they are sticking together and giving Merkel a chance.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA, 15 February 2015

The surge of the anti-Islamisation movement has led to polarisation of the public opinion, writes Keulen [Getty]

Who is a German?

A spectre is haunting Germany and Europe and the spectre is called PEGIDA. Until recently only a few people had heard of PEGIDA, acronym for “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident.” It started as a small protest movement in the eastern city of Dresden against the influx of immigrants, foreign workers and asylum seekers and, above all, against the “Islamisation” of Germany.

Adopting the slogan “We are the people” of the weekly anti-communist demonstrations in 1989 which ultimately led to the overthrow of the German Democratic Republic, PEGIDA’s appeal seems to have grown week after week. The hundreds of demonstrators of the first few Monday evening “walks” in Dresden have swollen to tens of thousands. Besides Dresden, there are now similar weekly rallies in other big German cities.

With its history of anti-Semitism and fascism many find it shocking that a considerable number of Germans, particularly in the east of the country, are flocking to a xenophobic, racist and Islamophobic movement. The surge of the anti-Islamisation movement has led to polarisation of the public opinion, many counter demonstrations and a fierce public debate, involving politicians, church leaders and academics. Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly criticised PEGIDA and called on Germans not to attend their rallies.

“Do not follow the people who organise these, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” Merkel said in her New Year’s Eve speech.


Not everybody agrees. Development Minister Gerd Muller of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), warned not to exclude PEGIDA sympathisers.

German anti-Islam rally hits record numbers

“The overwhelming majority of those demonstrators are not racists at all. Many of them are low income Germans and they feel they are being neglected, while refugees are offered help. The refugees, but also other migrants, are perceived by these people as competitors. In spite of our flourishing economy there are millions of poor families in Germany. The poor feel marginalised and not represented.”

The CSU, Merkel’s CDU’s sister party and longtime political ally, has been accused of showing a bit too much understanding for PEGIDA. In fact the CSU’s positions on immigration, integration and tougher rules for asylum seekers are quite similar to PEGIDA’s.

It may well be that the CSU is distancing itself from Merkel because it is worried about right-wing competitors like the anti-establishment and eurosceptic AfD, Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Alternative). The AfD may succeed in winning over many of the PEGIDA-sympathisers. AfD-chairman Bernd Lucke has gone out of his way to advocate a dialogue with this “new civil movement” and listen carefully to its arguments.

At the same time Lucke tried carefully not to alienate the more “respectable” right-wing voters and to distance himself from a too xenophobic discourse. Other AfD leaders are less ambiguous and clearly show support of PEGIDA by participating in their marches and inviting PEGIDA organisers to Saxony’s regional parliament.

Xenophobic discourse

Some German observers don’t doubt the existence of an alliance between AfD and PEGIDA. Analyst Volker Wagener sees the AfD as the “parliamentary voice of the street”. He notes that the AfD manages to score with a xenophobic discourse especially in the east of Germany.

If the AfD succeeds in translating PEGIDA’s objectives politically and electorally, it may take a role not unsimilar to Marine le Pen’s National Front in France and especially GeertWilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. In fact, there is a striking similarity between the anti-Islamisation positions of Geert Wilders and PEGIDA.

Some German experts say the debate shows the need for a redefinition of ‘who is a German’ and recognition of Germany as an immigration country.

Like Wilders’ Freedom Party, PEGIDA does not only condemn jihadists and Islamist terrorists but Islam itself. Refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and the islamic religion are all lumped together in a vague, scary, threatening mix. Both the Freedom Party and PEGIDA claim to defend the “conservation of the Judeo-Christian heritage”. Both claim not to be radical, but PEGIDA and Wilders’ party do in fact appeal to right wing radicals and extremists. Neo-Nazis and violent “hooligans against Salafists” openly support PEGIDA.

Both forces represent a significant portion of the population in Germany and the Netherlands. If there would be parliamentary elections in the Netherlands now, Wilders’Freedom Party would be the first or second political force in the country (depending on which poll to believe). In Germany, around 30 percent of the population thinks PEGIDA’s concerns are legitimate.

Some German experts say the debate shows the need for a redefinition of “who is a German” and recognition of Germany as an immigration country. According to a recent study, most Germans see somebody as “German” when he or she speaks German well and has a German passport. Some 38 percent of those polled said that women who wore headscarves could not be German.

To define a new concept of “German-ness” and promote a welcoming culture of tolerance and openness will not be an easy task, and should probably not be left to the politicians.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Putin, the Dutch are no longer smiling

The MH17 tragedy has outraged the Dutch, inevitably affecting relations with Russia.

The Dutch public has gone through a whirl of emotions following the MH17 tragedy, writes Keulen [Reuters]

It has been called an event that will drastically change the Netherlands and have an impact on Dutch society that will last for years, if not decades. The death toll of this man-made disaster was staggering: All 298 passengers and crew on board of flight MH17 died, of which 195 were Dutch.

Two weeks after the downing of Malaysia Airline’s plane, one feels the country has still not come to terms with this unexpected tragedy. All of a sudden, this peaceful, relatively small and rich country in Northwestern Europe becomes involved, in spite of itself, in the conflict in Ukraine and the geo-political ambitions of Russia at the other end of the continent.

All of a sudden the Netherlands had to decide how to handle feelings of immense public anger at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is generally seen as having provided the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine with the SA-11 missile launchers that downed the plane.

It has been an emotional roller coaster. Living in this country and following Dutch media, one could see the Netherlands going through a whirl of emotions in the weeks after the tragedy.

A nation overwhelmed

There was unbelief and shock at first when the news broke. The Netherlands is small and many people knew directly or indirectly some of the victims of the crash. And if there were no personal ties, there were certainly communal links that connected the living to the dead: they were students at the same school or university, residents in the same village or city, members of the same sport club or – last but not least – they were connected on social media.

After the shock came grief, outrage and anger. People were not only angry at the Russian rebels and Putin, but even more at the way the remains of the victims were handled and the way investigators were prevented from reaching the crash scene. The looting of the victims’ purses, mobile telephones and cameras outraged the Dutch public and even more so the fact that not all remains were collected from the site. A team of 70 Dutch and Australian experts was able to reach the crash site to conduct further search operationsonly on August 1.

Inside Story – Who shot down Flight MH17?

There was at first a great deal of confusion and a collective feeling of powerlessness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte adopted an extremely cautious approach in the first hours and days after the crash. While British Prime Minister David Cameron started to blame Putin only hours after the crash and speculated about sanctions against Russia, Rutte refused to point a finger at a definite culprit. At first the Dutch prime minister did not classify the tragedy as a criminal or “terrorist act”, as Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko did; instead he used the words a “great disaster”.

Rutte was criticised by some in the Netherlands and abroad for not being firm enough.New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tweeted “Downing flight 17 is an act of war. Dutch special forces, backed by NATO, should secure the site where their citizens are being defiled even in death.” Similar calls for military intervention were vented in Dutch social media and in the popular right-wing daily De Telegraaf.

Are the Dutch going to war in Ukraine to recover the remains of their beloved fellow citizens and to restore national dignity? Though Rutte later claimed that the military option had indeed been discussed in the Dutch cabinet, this “temptation” was easily resisted. The last thing the Netherlands needs and wants is to be involved in an foreign war far from home. In past decades, its soldiers had only been involved in UN peace keeping operations in countries like Lebanon, Bosnia and Mali.

Dignity was, however, partly restored by the impressive way the recovered human remains were received in the Netherlands, with a lot of military pomp and in the presence of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima. On July 23 the country came to a standstill during the first day of national mourning since; we had never seen anything like that since Queen Wilhelmina died in 1962.

Though many Dutch tend to think of themselves as cosmopolitan and regard nationalism and patriotism as “isms” of the past, in fact the MH17 crash brought people together in a unique way. The Dutch were very much together in grief, in mourning, in anger, in anti-Putin sentiment and surprisingly also in pride. The emotional speech of Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans in the UN Security Council added to the feelings of pride and togetherness. “Nobody can bring us to our knees”, Timmermans wrote on his Facebook page, “our country is capable of great compassion and unity.”

A dramatic wake-up call

The story of the MH17 tragedy did not come to an end when we buried our dead. The investigation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine has only just begun and the remaining body parts and personal belongings of the victims still have not been recovered. In the Netherlands, however, some taboos have already been broken.

Counting the Cost – Russia’s arms: Tracing the paper trail

The downing of the MH17 was a dramatic wake-up call regarding the lack of strength of the Dutch army. The Dutch only recently put their last military tanks for sale and the Netherlands spends less than 1.5 percent of its GNP on national defence (in contrast to US’ 3.7 percent of the GNP). The discussion about strengthening the armed forces, after the expiration of the post-Cold War peace dividend, is very much on.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the downing of MH17 is considered a real game changer in Europe. Most Dutch political forces now seem to agree to make more funding available for the military and for NATO to deal with a changing geo-political reality in Europe.

Another broken taboo is increased Dutch support for EU sanctions against Russia. The Netherlands is one of Russia’s major trade partners. The Netherlands (especially through the port of Rotterdam) imported $43bn in oil products from Russia in 2012. Some 4,000 Dutch companies do business in Russia and the Netherlands is a major investor in Russia.

The announced EU sanctions and their potential extension will have a negative effect on Dutch and EU economy. These sanctions limit access to capital markets by Russian state banks, impose an embargo on arms sales and restrict trade of high-tech energy products and “dual use” technology that has both civilian and defence applications.

“Putin will have no sleepless nights because of these sanctions,” muttered Herman de Boon, chair of the Dutch flower exporters (Holland’s flower trade with Russia amounts to $400m per year), but “if peace and security in Europe are at stake, this is the only right choice.”  Though it goes against Dutch intuition and tradition to put obstacles on trade, even Fenedex – the Association of Dutch Exporters – did not complain about the sanctions.

Dutch-Russian relations date back to the period of Tsar Peter the Great in the late 17th century. In 2013 Russia and the Netherlands celebrated 400 years of cultural, diplomatic and trade relations with high level visits and hundreds of cultural and social events. Despite all the efforts of the organisers, the friendship year proved to be a real disaster and was labelled by the Guardian “the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history”.

Tensions over Putin’s anti-homosexuality “propaganda” policy and lack of respect for human rights, the seizure of a Greenpeace ship, the arrest of the environmental activists and a number of other incidents marred the Netherlands-Russia friendship year. Yet the Dutch kept smiling because business is business and trade must go on.

As we mourn the death of our fellow citizens, this welcoming attitude towards Russia has disappeared.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Follow him on Twitter: @jan_keulen


The call for a third Spanish republic

What will become of Spain’s monarchy after the king’s abdication?

Jan Douwe Keulen

by Jan Douwe Keulen5 Jun 2014

Demonstrators call for a referendum on the Spanish Monarchy after the abdication of King Juan Carlos on June 2, 2014 in Seville, Spain. [Getty Image]

The announcement of the abdication of King Juan Carlos led immediately to a fierce debate in Spain about the benefits of the monarchy and the need to change the political system. Tens of thousands of mostly young people descended on the streets with the red, yellow and purple flags of “La Republica”, demanding a referendum on the state system: republic or monarchy.

As a young Dutch journalist in Spain covering “La Transicion” – the transition from the fascist Franco dictatorship to an emerging European-style democracy – I remember similar discussions in the mid-1970s. Juan Carlos was proclaimed king on the November 22, 1975, two days after Franco died. He was supposed to guarantee the legacy of Franco and continue the dictatorship with a young, monarchical face. The democratic opposition at the time called for free elections. Opposition forces were at first not convinced a true democracy would be possible with Juan Carlos on the throne. Pro-democracy demonstrators in the 1970s often carried republican flags because a democratic, monarchist Spain was unimaginable for them. 

I remember writing a column about the futility of the monarchy-republic discussion in establishing a true democratic system. What does it matter if the colours of the flag are red-yellow-red or red-yellow-purple? Theoretically it may be more democratic to elect every five or six years your head of state and not to have a king or queen. But the crucial question about the political system is if it is truly democratic, if the voice of the people is heard and popular aspirations are fulfilled.

Strong emotions

I received some scathing reactions on my column on the Spainish flag and some readers doubted my democratic credentials. The issue of the Spanish state system always evokes strong emotions. Spain already twice had a republican system: in 1873-1874 and from 1931-1939. Actually Juan Carlos’ grandfather King Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931 when the Second Republic was established.

The Second Republic was a progressive if not revolutionary state. It did away with the privileges of the nobility and the powerful Catholic clergy and stood for freedom of expression and association, women’s rights and better conditions for workers and farmers. Generalissimo Francisco Franco defeated the Republic after a bloody civil war in 1936-1939, that claimed the lives of half a million people.

Franco’s designated heir Juan Carlos did not turn out exactly what friends and foes had expected. In fact he understood Spain’s need for change and modernisation and – once king – he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian, backward system, relic of the past, to a future and Europe-oriented, parliamentary democracy.

Franco’s designated heir Juan Carlos did not turn out exactly what friends and foes had expected. In fact he understood Spain’s need for change and modernisation and – once king – he played an extremely important role in the difficult transition from an authoritarian, backward system, relic of the past, to a future and Europe-oriented, parliamentary democracy. Spain was no longer different, as it had been under Franco, but it became a “normal” European democratic country.

During those transitional years it was not at all obvious that democracy would prevail. Part of the army, military intelligence and hardcore nostalgics from the Franco-era conspired to thwart the democracy project. After I published a detailed article about some operations of the military intelligence and extreme-right undermining the nascent democracy, I was expelled from Spain in May 1979. My crime: “Offense of the Spanish Armed Forces”. I had the doubtful honour of being the last foreign journalist to be expelled from Spain by the military, in one of the convulsions of the old regime.

In February 1981, one of the military men I mentioned in my article almost two years earlier, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, tried to take control of Spain by force and block the road to democracy. The image of the Guardia Civil or Civil Guard. brandishing a pistol in the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, became world famous. The coup d’etat failed, mainly because the king refused to cooperate with the putchists and stood firm in defence of democracy. This event became a watershed in Juan Carlos’ career. If anybody still doubted the significance of the king in establishing democracy, he would now be convinced. With very few exceptions the king won over for good the Transicion generation.

However, 33 years after the failed putsch it is another generation’s turn to take the lead. And there is a deep feeling of malaise, political mistrust and sincere desire to make a new beginning among the young. It is no coincidence that Spain’s newest political party, very successful in the European elections, is called “Podemos: We can!” Many of the activistsclaim that Spain needs a new political system after 40 years of Franco dictatorship and 39 years of King Juan Carlos. A king who lately has lost a lot of his former popularity and credibility due to several scandals within the royal family.

A third republic?

So, why not have a Third Republic as a new beginning?

Traditional politicians and political parties are discredited in the eyes of many Spaniards. In the recent European elections, Spain’s two main parties, the governing right-wing Partido Popular and the centre-left opposition party PSOE, failed to even attract half of the votes. This blow to the traditional two-party system, existing since the Transicion, is explained by allegations of corruption and incompetence of the traditional politicians. The social-democratic PSOE more or less imploded (it went back from 39 percent to 23 percent in five years) and PSOE leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba had to resign last week because of the poor results in the European elections.

Juan Carlos’ successor Felipe will not only have to deal with the generational change, the call by many Spaniards for political renewal and the old guard’s loss of political credibility, but also two other burning issues: the independence aspirations of the Basques and Catalans. November 9 is the proposed date for a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. The monarch as a symbol of Spain’s unity will have a crucial but difficult role to facilitate a reasonable compromise and ultimately to keep the country together.

The call for a referendum about the future of the monarchy cannot be easily dismissed, even if such a plebiscite is not allowed under the current Spanish constitution. One could argue that the question about the flag’s colours or the architecture of the state, monarchy or republic, is a dilemma about the form, not about democratic content. In the final analysis most democrats would prefer to live in monarchical Sweden rather than in republican Syria.

But with Juan Carlos’ abdication, some fundamental questions are on the table: how to improve the democratic practice and restore confidence, how to respond to the aspirations of the Catalans, Basques and other groups, how to create a common discourse about the future of Spain and create a political system the majority of the people can believe in.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.



Less Europe, less immigration?

EU politicians are using the issue of immigration for political gains at the upcoming EU elections.

Jan Douwe Keulen

by Jan Douwe Keulen21 May 2014

Ahead of EU elections, Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders stirred controversy calling for ‘fewer Moroccans’ in the Netherlands [AP]

“Are we going back to our nation states or are we going forward to a more integrated Europe?” For the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, now a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, this is just a rhetorical question. In atelevised debate between him and the other presidential hopefuls the question about “more or less Europe” was almost unanimously answered: Europe needs more integration, solidarity and unity. For the politicians of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the European Green Party, the answer is, unequivocally: more power to the European Union (EU).

Many of the potential voters in the 28 EU countries, representing a population of over 500 million, do not agree. After years of economic hardship, 27 million European citizens unemployed (among them six million young people) and neo-liberal politics that resulted in the dismantling of social programmes in most European countries, Euroscepticism is rampant. A little less than 60 percent of the European electorate is expected to refrain from voting at all. And of those who intend to go to the polls between May 22 and 25, many will vote for Europe’s Eurosceptic far-left or far-right.

The Greek politician Alexis Tsipras, leader of the European Left, pointed to one of the EU’s main weaknesses during the presidential debate: its democratic deficit. Citizens do not really understand how Brussels works, how main decisions are made and how they can have their voices heard.

The TV debate itself, between the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, was actually an example of this democratic deficit. Contrary to what one might expect, the European public cannot directly elect one of the five presidential candidates, who will be the EU’s face in the next five years. However, the result of the parliamentary election must be taken into account by the 28 member states when appointing the new Commission president next June.

Open to capital, closed to people

In spite of the EU’s growing pains, lack of transparency and unpopularity among many ordinary European citizens, the need for a more integrated approach of the most pressing problems was clearly demonstrated during the presidential debate when the question of immigration came up. All agreed that the EU needs a common immigration policy.

Surprising Europe – Culture Shock

With the images of boat refugees in the Mediterranean and body bags with drowned Syrians on Lampedusa beach in mind, the presidential candidates called the lack of European regulation and lack of protection of refugees “shameful” and “not acceptable”.

Leader of the European Greens, Ska Keller, reminded the audience that the EU was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Price 2012 for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights. That this Nobel Price laureate let this tragedy happen is really a shame, according to Keller.

While more than two million Syrian refugees have entered neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, only 60,000 found official refuge in the EU, mainly in Sweden and Germany, since the start of the civil war three years ago. 

But many Syrians try their luck through unofficial and dangerous ways to get into Europe.Greek left-wing politician Alexis Tsipras said earlier that the Mediterranean Sea has become the cemetery of desperate people who cannot live in their own lands: “Europe is open to capital and markets but closed to people who need to immigrate. It’s a shame we’re losing our humanism.”

The Migrant Files, an investigative journalism project, found that since 2000 around 23,000 immigrants died attempting to reach Fortress Europe. The findings of the journalists imply that on an average, four to five persons die daily while escaping war, lack of security and poverty.

A common immigration policy

A genuine common European policy on immigration and external borders is, however, difficult to achieve because of the Union’s member states’ jealous defence of their sovereignty. A common immigration policy presupposes deeper European integration, including mutual foreign, social and labour policies.

It is ironic that the politicians of the extreme right who are calling for “less Europe” and for Brussels to have less interference in national affairs, are, at the same time scaremongering on immigration and calling on the EU to stop the frightening immigration stream.

Italian MEP candidate Iva Zanicchi of the rightist Forza Italia stoked fears when referring to an influx of immigrants: “Remember this word: ebola. It’s coming. Yes folks, there is cholera.” In the Italian media, officials were quoted as saying that hundreds of thousands migrants stood ready to leave from the Libyan coasts to come to Europe.

The idea of an alien invasion even led some politicians to call for Italy’s programme to rescue refugees from the Mediterranean to be scrapped.

After two shipwrecks off the island of Lampedusa which killed more than 600 people, operation Mare Nostrum has rescued, according to Italian media, more than 20,000 people from the Mediterranean at an estimated cost of $1,2m a month.

South European states like Italy, Spain, France, Cyprus, Greece and Malta have all called for more EU help in patrolling the Mediterranean, together with greater burden-sharing of refugees and financial support from the EU.

It’s not only in the south of the Union that the immigration file is one of the important topics in the electoral battle. The Dutch extreme right wing Partij van de Vrijheid (PVV, Freedom Party) of Geert Wilders called for “less Europe” and “fewer Moroccans”. The PVV wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union, to abolish the euro and “to take control again of our own borders”.

The PVV, expected to do extremely well in the European elections, wants “the Dutch to stay who they are”. That is why the party is strongly opposed to mass immigration and to the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands. All immigration from Muslim countries should be stopped immediately. The PVV works closely with the similar right-wing Belgian Vlaams Belang, the French Front National and Austrian Freedom Party, and is expected to form a vociferous joint faction in the new European parliament.

In this election campaign, the European public opinion seems, above all, to be concerned about “more or less Europe”, economic recovery and social issues like unemployment and poverty. The influx of huge numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants certainly calls for a common European strategy and policy, but right now the problem is first of all a political crowbar eagerly used by the extreme right for its own electoral purposes.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.


Russia: hate speech, propaganda and lack of media freedom

Where is the line between hate speech and propaganda ? And how do both forms of media discourse relate to freedom of expression, a human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Those are interesting questions now that the conflict in the Ukraine is accompanied with shameless propaganda campaigns, especially on the Russian side.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ( OSCE ) noted in a statement this week ( that the crisis in Ukraine shows that propaganda and decline of press freedom often go hand in hand to fuel a conflict, and once it starts they contribute to its escalation.

The OSCE called to stop manipulating media and psychological and information warfare . At the same time the OSCE was reluctant to condemn propaganda as a violation of international law. The term “propaganda ” is indeed broad and vague. Propaganda is often linked to a particular political discourse, and “its blank prohibition would violate international standards for the protection of free expression and free media”.

A picture taken on October 10, 2011, shows Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov posing for a photo after receiving a medal of Friendship during an awarding ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed today a decree dissolving Russia's biggest news agency, RIA Novosti , ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Putin named today Dmitry Kiselyov as the head of Russia Today. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on October 10, 2011, shows Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov posing for a photo after receiving a medal of Friendship during an awarding ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed today a decree dissolving Russia’s biggest news agency, RIA Novosti , ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Putin named today Dmitry Kiselyov as the head of Russia Today. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Dmitry Kiselyov agrees. The Russian TV presenter, known for his statements about gay people whose “hearts are to be incinerated” and playing up how Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash”, wonders what is wrong with propaganda. Kiselyov, considered Putins’ chief propagandist, was blacklisted by the European Union. “It is telling that Europe has initiated such sanctions, which reflect a blatant disregard for the freedom of speech said to be so dear to EU officials, and which create a dangerous and disturbing precedent. In fact, this is a betrayal of European values”, he was quoted a reacting.( ).

Some Russian journalists and the OSCE representative for media freedom Dunja Mijatovic may partly agree with this: strictly speaking propaganda is permitted because it falls under freedom of speech. Which is not to say that propaganda is not extremely dangerous, especially in a context where less and less alternative versions of the story are heard besides the “official” one. Independent media are increasingly having a hard time in Russia.

Propaganda is inherently one-sided, it is based on generalizations and half-truths and rewrites history while (or before even) it occurs. According to the Russian propaganda the Ukrainian revolution is led by fascists, obviously an extremely negative term meaning terrorists, insurgents, anarchists, thugs etcetera.

Whenever propaganda becomes incitement to hatred and violence, the OSCE statement said, “proper and proportionate measures may be applied using existing international and national human rights instruments”. Although not mentioned, one of those tools may be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR ), also signed by Russia. The ICCPR requires participating states to prohibit hate speech by law.

A specific form of hate speech that is considered a crime under international law is incitement to genocide. Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic German newspaper Der Stuermer, was convicted by the Nuremberg Tribunal of crimes against humanity in connection with his incitement to the mass murder of European Jewsh. Streicher was executed. By holding one of Nazi Germany’s chief propagandists responsible as an accomplice for the destruction of the Jews, Streicher’s conviction established a precedent-setting link between inflammatory speech and criminal action in international law.

Rwandan journalists of the magazine Kangura ( Wake up! ) and Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, which directly and indirectly had called for mass murder, were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It is exactly twenty years since the genocide took place in Rwanda. Between 7 April and mid- July 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were massacred and some of the media played a sad key role.

This week in Kigali the campaign “Turning the Page of Hate” kicked off by a number of African and international journalistic organizations Not only in Rwanda did hate speech leave a devastating trail, but also in Kenya, Nigeria, DR Congo, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere in Africa . What is the answer to hate speech? Turning the Page of Hate proposes to promote in Africa a professional journalistic culture. Journalism conceived as a profession with an eminently ethical dimension: to report truthfully , accurately and balanced; being impartial; demonstrate independence, responsibility and humanity, no stereotyping. By acting professionally journalists will no longer be the footmen of corrupt or fanatical political, tribal or religious leaders .

Perhaps Europe needs its own campaign against propaganda , discrimination and stereotyping. In addition, governments must take their own responsibility to facilitate a free and plural media. The OSCE called this week on its member states to ensure media freedom. “Rather than engaging in censorship, states should protect and promote free and equal access to the marketplace of ideas.” The best and most effective mechanism to neutralize the impact of propaganda is the existence of an open, diverse and dynamic media environment, according to the OSCE.

In Moscow there seems nowadays little enthusiasm to follow up on these recommendations. The Russian media paint a reality in the Ukraine which almost imperceptibly becomes a guideline for a narrowly nationalistic thinking and acting.


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