We are counting the days leading to the second decade of 2000’s. In a flash back, almost two decades ago these were times of high hopes for Central and Eastern Europe. Back then, “right-wing populism” was a fringe concept associated with “extremism”: only Austria’s Freedom Party’s Jörg Haider that popped into minds as a populist. Now, the question in the region and beyond is who isn’t under the influence of right-wing populism?
An innovative reply to the query came from the mayors of four central European capitals: Budapest, Brastislava, Prague and Warsaw. The mayors of the four biggest cities of Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia and Poland signed the “Pact of Free Cities” on December 16.
In its most basic form, the pact is a framework of cooperation and solidarity against the populist national governments; based on the “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity”. There is also call for collaboration to the European Union: Four mayors demand that the EU funds are allocated directly to their own municipal budgets.
In other words, they ask their national governments to be bypassed due politicized apportionment and corruption.
The place signing ceremony took place was symbolic indeed: Central European University’s (CEU) campus in Budapest. As a reminder, CEU was compelled to transfer most of its course work and staff out of Hungary after a protracted saga of dispute with Viktor Orbán. The conflict between Orbán and CEU came to light when ruling Fidesz party passed a legislation in 2017 banning “foreign-registered universities that do not also offer the courses in the home country”. Dubbed as the “CEU-law”, the legislation was initially disputed by the university, but eventually by November 2019, its Vienna based new campus had to be inaugurated. The quarrel between CEU and Fidesz is a crusade of Orbán against the university’s founder, billionaire financier George Soros-a useful target of populist rhetoric.
Hence the symbolism of the venue: ousted university’s campus was the very place that the four mayors convened to sign the “Free Cities Pact”. And it was Budapest’s new mayor Gergely Karácsony hosting the four mayors; Matúš Vallo of Brastislava, Zdeněk Hřib of Prague and Rafał Trzaskowski of Warsaw. As to be recalled, Karácsony is the politician scoring the biggest victory against Orbán this May by ending Fidesz rule in the Municipality of Budapest since 2010.
The Pact is no lip service: Four mayors are indeed striving to create a novel and innovative political understanding. They are pledging to committing to “coordinating efforts to advocate city-tailored solutions in the European policies, especially in the Cohesion Policy, European employment, environmental, climate, energy, transport and economic policies, as well as during the legislative construction of the European Pillar of Social Rights.”
They also vowed to “share best practices in smart, evidence-based and socially aware city management, especially in the field of sustainable city planning, climate protection, social inclusion, housing, transportation, the digital agenda or any other field of mutual interest.”
All four mayors are young, cosmopolitan, well-educated, tolerant, non-discriminating and receptive. In a way, opposite of the populist leaders they are contesting.
Their political backgrounds are diverse. Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib is a physician and activist from the anti-establishment Pirate Party. Matúš Vallo is an architect, urban activist, musician: he is the task master and team leader of a team of independent technocrats called “Team Vallo”-so actually, a squad of experts is now running Bratislava. Warsaw’s Rafał Trzaskowski is a former minister from the center-right Civic Platform, and political scientist specializing in European studies.
Prague’s Zdeněk Hřib says; “We do not want to be defined as a force against something, but rather as a pro-European, positive alliance, which is also open to other cities.”
While they may not define themselves as “against” something; somethings and “someone”s are clear against them. At least those representing “old politics” in their countries’ national politics.
As aforementioned there is also the financial aspect. “Pact of Free Cities” made a call to Brussels:
“We, the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw hereby commit to supporting and jointly advocating towards EU institutions, agencies and decision makers prospective EU urban programs that would provide more direct funding for European cities.”
Funding issue is crucial for the opposition municipalities cornered by the ruling populist leaders domineering both the national politics and the budgets.
Plight of the Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu toured European capitals like London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen for establishing friendly networks, and also wooing credit. İmamoğlu announced at the end of November that the city of Istanbul secured 110 million euros of financing from Deutsche Bank for finishing up the metro project of Çekmeköy-Sultanbeyli. Transport projects connecting diverse parts of gigantic city has been the pride of AK Parti and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since their almost two-decades of rule. But now, now that Istanbul changed leadership, in İmamoğlu’s words, “State banks are not even extending routine loans after the elections to Istanbul municipality. The doors of state banks are closed to [the Istanbul Municipality].”
İmamoğlu reportedly mentioned to international creditors that Istanbul needs at least 20 billion liras (around 3 billion euros) for funding new projects; and more than half of is required for continuing with development of the subway. As a cherry on the icing, Istanbul already has around 28 billion lira of debt (4,2 billion euros). According surveys, “traffic” is regarded as the “number one problem” by Istanbul’s population by a wide margin. İmamoğlu would establish a historic legacy if he is able to solve Istanbul’s traffic problem.
Previously I questioned in this column whether “the metropolis be the savior that rescues politics from populism?”:
“Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? And if, in other cases, if populist movements are not in power, can local governments create a viable alternative against the rise of populist movements?”
Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond. Here, there, elsewhere; and everywhere in the world as new politics struggle to set themselves from the chains and obstacles set by the aging and corroding “old guard” populists.
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.