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Hope. Dismay. Struggle.
Ireland. Turkey. Poland.
History of the Present (three weeks to 4 June 2023)
Apologies for the unusually long period covered by this one. I've been busy. So has Europe. TGA
Optimism in Ireland
Continuing my tour around the continent for the different editions of Homelands, I popped over to Dublin for a couple of days to talk about the book at the Dublin International Literary Festival (in Merrion Square, where Oscar Wilde lived) and at the excellent Institute of International and European Affairs. Doubtless the early summer sunshine helped, but I had an overwhelming impression of a country full of optimism about its historical trajectory – and feeling good about its place in Europe. Viewing the moving sculpture of the great famine on the banks of the River Liffey and – in the brilliant EPIC Irish Emigration Museum – the pain-etched faces of those compelled to emigrate in previous centuries, one senses just how far the country has travelled. Now downtown Dublin is strikingly multicultural, and that museum really needs a final room to document recent immigration to Ireland (Polish, Ukrainian, and from the rest of the world).
A few days later I had a chat at the Hay Festival with the wonderful Irish writer Fintan O'Toole, and he agreed: 'yes, it is an optimistic country isn't it'. What a contrast to poor old England.
Brexit initially hit Ireland very hard. Here, as in the Netherlands, there was a sense of being let down by your closest friend and ally in the EU. And obviously, Brexit has destabilised the politics of Northern Ireland, increasing the danger of a return of political violence. But many people told me that the extent of the solidarity from all other EU member states throughout the Brexit saga has strengthened pro-European sentiment in Ireland. It has also increased the probability of something close to Irish unification, although not in the short term and probably not in one fell swoop – even though Sinn Fein is calling for a so-called border poll (ie referendum) on the subject.
Northern Ireland's economic ties are being reoriented north-south, across the borderless border with the EU, at the expense of west-east, across the Irish Sea towards what is now often referred to just as 'GB'. As time goes by, the North will have stronger ties to the Republic and weaker ties to the rest of the disunited United Kingdom. Another brilliant success for the Conservatives and Unionists who gave us Brexit.
Dismay in Turkey
On the afternoon of Sunday, May 28, I had a brief moment of hope when the Turkish Twitter accounts being followed by Ece Temelkuran – the Turkish journalist and author with whom I was doing an event at Hay – suggested the opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was doing unexpectedly well. It didn't last. By the time of the late evening news bulletin, it was clear that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had done it again. And soon, Vladimir Putin was congratulating his 'dear friend' on a famous victory, and looking forward to closer Russian-Turkish cooperation.
My first thought was for the Turkish journalists, politicians and civil society activists such as Osman Kavala and Hakan Altinay whose unjust imprisonment will now continue. The list of political prisoners in Europe is getting longer by the day.
My second thought was that we who are lucky enough to live in what are still (with all faults) liberal democracies need to reflect on how we respond to the growing number of elections which are free but not fair. That was the case in Hungary last year. If we're not careful, it may happen again in Poland this October (see below). Currently, it seems that in international relations – and even inside the EU – leaders who have emerged from such elections are treated as if they are just as legitimate as those who have been chosen in that are both free and fair.
I felt what a British writer once described as 'an inflammation of the pen’. (No, it wasn’t the recently deceased, much missed, Martin Amis, although it sounds like one of his.) A column was forming in my mind. And then I discovered that Fareed Zakaria had already written that column, and done so excellently. One small detail to illustrate the point: Fareed cites this article which reports that in April Erdoğan received 32 hours of coverage on state television compared with just 32 minutes for Kılıçdaroğlu.
The challenge remains. How do we signal the difference between proper democracies and electoral authoritarian regimes? Governments have to deal with other governments, but they don't have to treat them all the same.
Struggle in Poland
4 June 1989 was one of the turning points in 20th-century history. On one and the same day you had the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing and the semi-free election in Poland that was the breakthrough moment for the country's liberation from communism. I experienced that day in Warsaw and will never forget coming back to the offices of the new-born newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and seeing, on a small black-and-white television screen, the first footage of the dead being carried along the streets near Tiananmen Square.
On 3 June 1989, it was still possible that China would take the path of reform and the Soviet Bloc the path of repression. By 5 June 1989, the two halves of the communist world had parted company forever, launched on different trajectories.
So it was symbolic that the largest demonstration for democracy in Poland in many years should take place precisely on 4 June this year, with portly old Lech Wałęsa standing shoulder to shoulder with Donald Tusk on a sunlit stage and perhaps as many as 500,000 people filling the streets of Warsaw. But I watched the footage of this great demo with one laughing and one weeping eye. Wonderful that my old friends are still fighting the good fight. Terrible that 34 years after the 1989 breakthrough to democracy, the very future of democracy itself is again at stake – and this in a full member state of the European Union. Brecht's 'unhappy the land that has no heroes, unhappy the land that has need of heroes'.
The country seems now almost as divided as it was back then, although with several significant differences. Then it was perhaps 80:20 in favour of the united opposition around Solidarity; now it's close to 50:50. And today each side has its own major television channel.
So if, as I did, you watch the evening news on both Polish state television, TVP, and the leading independent/opposition channel TVN, you are presented with two completely different realities – as in other hyperpolarised countries, such as Turkey and the United States.
On TVP, the demo was denounced as a 'march of hate', with all the most aggressive slogans and vulgar comments from the crowd being highlighted, Wałęsa poisonously identified as a former communist secret police informer and Tusk accused of sabotaging decommunisation in the early 1990s.
On TVN, the bulletin began with the announcer declaring that perhaps as many as a half million people had gathered in Warsaw 'under the red and white flag to show the powerholders the red card. A festival of freedom and civil rights...'. The next clip showed Tusk telling the rally 'tu jest Polska' - Poland is here. Here, not there, with Them. Just as in the good old, bad old days.
It is absolutely vital for the future of democracy - not only in Poland but in central Europe and the EU more broadly - that the opposition parties defeat the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in this October's parliamentary elections, despite all the Turkish- and Hungarian-style tricks that the PiS artists will play in order to hang on to power (and money). But after that, there will be a further long difficult road to get to a state in which there are genuinely impartial, independent institutions and strong, pluralist checks and balances. Let alone to a sense that we all belong to the same country after all, and it belongs to us.
What will Poland look like, I wonder, on 4 June 2029?
And another new edition of Homelands...
I shall be in Portugal at the end of this month, adding to my cumulative collage of views of Europe from different European countries.
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