< SWITCH ME >
We live in a society where our government's failure to provide framework and legislation for abortion has resulted in the tragic and unnecessary death of a 31 year old woman. Savita Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway, in the Republic of Ireland one week before she passed away on 29 October 2012. Savita had been admitted as a result of back pain, which turned out to be due to a miscarriage. Despite her continued request for a medical termination, doctors refused her on the grounds that the heartbeat of the foetus was still present and Ireland 'is a Catholic country'. The fact that Savita Halappanavar was neither Irish nor Catholic was immaterial to her pleas.
After she had endured more than two further days of agony from the foetus that was dying inside her, doctors finally removed it once the heartbeat had stopped. By this stage the damage had been done. Savita was transferred to the high dependency unit, before being moved to intensive care where she eventually died. The cause of her death was septicaemia, or in simple terms, blood poisoning. Although both the hospital itself and the Health Service Executive (HSE), a government body responsible for providing health and social services to people living in Ireland, are undertaking investigations into the case, it seems evident that had Savita's request to undergo a termination been respected, then the outcome might have been a whole lot different and she might have survived.
The case of Savita Halappanavar is greatly distressing, but perhaps even more so given the fact that the same thing could happen again tomorrow to another woman in any hospital in the Republic of Ireland. I find this thought extremely discomforting: should I find myself in similar circumstances one day, my survival could depend on which side of the Irish border I am living on.
It's the middle of the night and we're on our way to Warsaw. Traffic lights on the motorway slow us down every other mile. Low volume Metronomy beats won't wake up the others, but give the scene a scent of detached stillness. Warsaw will be the 16th capital on our journey, albeit distinct in one important aspect. Poland is a nation on the rise. An island of success in the blue sea with 12 yellow stars. The forecasted growth rate for 2012 is 2.5%, where Germany presents a meagre 0.6% and Greece a catastrophic -4.4%. We have seen how a stagnating or even shrinking economy can depress whole countries. Is the opposite true for a country with a constantly growing economy? Will Poland be full of happy faces beaming with pride? (This article was originally published on Euroskop, a travel blog about today's Europe.)
Polityka news magazine building, second floor. People rushing by, accelerating as they do so. "Surely, we are proud. The West looked down on us for years. We have worked hard, made drastic reforms to get where we are now." Wawrzyniec Smoczynski is Foreign Editor of Polityka (which can be compared to German Spiegel or the French Nouvel Observateur) and stands for the Poland he is unravelling in front of our eyes. Proficient in English and German, he left his country to broaden his horizons and came back to support his country with his skills. "Young Poles are trying to form a new middle class. There might be a materalistic, even hedonistic aspect to their attitude, yes. But if you ask me, it is due time that our young students can enjoy walking through Paris or London without being regarded as the poor Polish plumber." On the political level weights are already shifting. "Behind closed doors the Germans are constantly asking us to join the Euro." As Smoczynski says: "The EU is blue, boring, and unelected." Similarities between the Champions League and the Eurozone? Both lost some of their charm in recent times due to foul play, though they will remain attractive for those in the second league.
A small office in a Warsaw University building, which turns out to be a former SS-Headquarters. Far too many chairs for such a small room. Lost between them sits Michał Bilewicz, who has a PhD on prejudice and identity. "Polish people always felt a very strong connection with their country and their people, not only but also due to decades of oppression. However, they are also very critical of their own kind. They are not used to thinking highly of themeselves. We call that critical patriotism." Apparently, critical patriotism renders you more open-minded towards other groups. A model for a European patriotism? At least Europeans seem to have internalised being critical of themselves and their institutions. Yet the strong connection might be missing...
Already amazed by the hospitality of people all across Europe, Serbia yet exceeded the idea we had of hospitality and helpfulness. A few minutes after checking in at our hostel in Belgrade, a round of homemade Rakija stood in front of us. "It's on the house!", the hostel owner welcomed us. During the following night with some more Rakija and a glance at the Belgrade nightlife, we nearly forgot that we had stumbled into Serbia in the midst of an election campaign. We were reminded the next morning when some Danes, part of an NGO monitoring the upcoming elections, claimed their reservations and made us get out of bed earlier than intended. On the 6th of May, the elections affirmed the mandate of the present pro-EU government; in two weeks' time, there will be a run-off between two pro-European presidential candidates. Is Serbia inevitably heading towards the EU? (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)
Our perception of things gets somewhat clearer in the course of the day. Dušan, a student of law in Belgrade, takes us to the citadel atop of the city centre where we wander past stones dating back to Roman civilisation. While we enjoy the view onto the slow and mighty Danube river, Dušan gives us an insight into Serbian culture and history. It is a rich history, and Serbs are rightly proud of it: in its golden age in the 14th century, for example, Serbia established one of the first all-encompassing constitutions in the history of mankind. Many legends surround the arrival of the Ottomans, when Serbia long perceived itself as the defender of Christendom - and eventually lost. The collective memory is still marked by the 500-year Ottoman occupation thereafter. Another point of reference is the communist regime of Tito, when Yugoslavians lived relatively unbothered (when obedient) and were economically well-off - an idea of strength that today's Serbia struggles to live up to.
"Many people do not stop lamenting over those glorious pasts," Dušan complains, "I am certainly not one of them." Neither are mainstream politics of the last years when it comes to European affairs, it seems. Since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the country has continuously been turning westwards. Liberal Pro-European Boris Tadić was elected president in 2004. In 2009, Serbia applied for EU membership and since early 2012, it has been an official candidate. After the elections on Sunday, nearly all the parties now represented in parliament are in favour of membership. Even the nationalist party and their leader Tomislav Nikolić, competitor to Tadić in the upcoming presidential run-off, has become an ardent promoter of the EU. The great paradox: none of the leading parties recognise Kosovo's independence. By contrast, 22 out of 27 European countries have recognised it, and some even make it the conditio sine qua non for the EU membership of Serbia. The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast that they will make sure Serbia joins the EU as well as keeping Kosovo.
After our visit to the citadel, we meet Andrej Ivanij, a Serbian journalist and correspondent for Austrian and German newspapers. What is the Euro-enthusiasm of Serbian politics all about? "Politicians present the EU as a promised land. It is a story that is easily told: accede to the EU – and get money." As for ideological differences, there is no longer a right-left distinction, Ivanij assures us. The only remaining dispute is the question whether to be in favour or against EU membership. Serbian politics has flattened out: crucial issues like the 27% unemployed are not addressed, but simply put aside by the prospect of EU membership. Quite an easy way out for politicians. Many Serbians buy the story: the prospect of European funds is just too alluring.
For the first time we crossed an actual border: passports, customs, vehicle check. It was all very exciting and we felt somewhat more abroad once we were on Turkish ground. Our first impressions? For one, nationalism showed its face right away with enormous flags at the border post. Then, we were surprised by how little developed rural areas are (even on the European side). And when we hit Istanbul we were overwhelmed by the culture, the size, and the contradictions of this city that is literally at the edge of Europe. (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)
Following our routine, we try to discover some fun facts about the upcoming country. Turkey's economy grew twice as fast as Greece's shrank in 2010, we read. Istanbul has doubled in population over the last 20 years; and the city was European Capital of Culture (sic!) in 2010. Since we are now leaving the EU, we also consider the German Federal Foreign Office's website. With regard to driving in Turkey it recommends: traffic rules are rarely respected. Behave defensively and don't get involved in fights as drivers might react agressively. We comply and drive carefully through the night, towards Asia.
During our two-day visit to Istanbul we have the privilege to be invited by Okan University and the Turkish Policy Quarterly for a discussion with Turkish students and professors. We are also able to talk to Mustafa and Eda, two friends of our host Jasper, as well as to a few young Turkish people in the streets of Taksim. We have Kebaps, fresh fish sandwiches, smoke a water pipe, drink chai, and cross the Bosphorus by ferry. Turkey on a shoestring. But what about our findings? What do young Turkish people think about the EU and the accession process? In a nutshell, there are three stories to be told from Turkey. The first one is about why Europe is crucial to the Turkish population, the second one is about why it is not. And the third one explains why Turkish politics is more complex than most people think.
With over 100 journalists and academics in jail, the human rights situation is anything but satisfactory. "There is no free speech, people are afraid," says Mustafa, a young law student. When he launched a political website a couple of months ago with a friend, the friend's phone began to be checked by the secret service. Mustafa is lucky to study at a private university where arguments can be expressed more openly. Similarly, the participants of our discussion at Okan University complain about imprisoned colleagues and the general lack of democratic standards. The Kurdish population continues to have a hard time, too, as the government refuses to accept them as a minority. Professor Ayakon describes the situation as a "deadlock". As a consequence of all the human rights assaults, Professor Alemdar argues that orientation towards Europe is definitely needed. "Europe can and should be a norm exporter," she says. There are numerous other examples of how the military, the judiciary, and the political elite abuse their powers in the supposedly secular, democratic state. As part of the accession process these questions must be addressed. So the first story is: the EU is important for Turkey because it has the capacity to push the country towards better human rights standards.