Hungary – domestic protests and external scrutiny
The Hungarian government’s higher education bill, seen by some as targeting the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU), has drawn protests. Despite the biggest anti-government protests in years – on Sunday (9 April) 60,000 – 80,000 people demonstrated in Budapest – the Hungarian President János Áder signed the controversial law that would effectively shut the CEU.
Together with this higher education bill was a draft legislation targeting foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The European Commission has responded to these developments in Hungary by giving the latter 15 more days to show that its recently passed law on higher education and the proposed legislation on NGOs are in line with the EU law.
The Hungarian education minister was in Brussels to defend the law. He stated that the Hungarian legislation was in “ line with that of other EU countries and doesn’t unfairly target the noted university.” Representatives of the European Commission and the US government were in Budapest to discuss the issue with the Hungarian authorities, but the Hungarian PM Orbán does not seem to be impressed and willing to change the new legislation.
Besides this issue, Hungary has also come under scrutiny for its restrictive refugee regime and allegations of police violence. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has spoken out and urged states “to suspend any Dublin transfers of asylum-seekers to this country until the Hungarian authorities bring their practices and policies in line with European and international law.” The so-called Dublin regulation requires asylum-seekers to be sent back to the first EU member state (plus Norway and Switzerland) they arrived in, in order to prevent people from applying for asylum in multiple countries. The situation for refugees and migrants in Hungary has been long considered grim, but with last month’s new legislation on the blanket detention of asylum-seekers, it has worsened and hit rock bottom. Germany has followed the UNHCR’s call and stopped sending asylum-seekers back to Hungary.
Tougher EU Border Checks cause chaos
As of last week Friday (7 April) national authorities are required to check everyone’s IDs leaving or entering the EU, using security databases such as the Schengen Information System (SIS) and Interpol’s database of lost travel documents (SLTD). The checks which were already imposed on non-EU nationals are now being extended to EU citizens. The move is part of the European Commission’s anti-terrorism policy on “Securing Europe’s External Borders”, since some returning foreign fighters – who were EU nationals – have been involved in recent terrorist attacks in Europe. “We still have a stock of 2,500 Europeans who are on the ground [Syria and Iraq] and we don’t know how many, at what rhythm, and on which routes they will return here,” Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter terror coordinator, told the press.
However, the implementation of the EU’s directive has caused traffic chaos, mainly at the Croatia-Slovenia border (with Slovenia a member of the EU and also in the Schengen area whereas Croatia, although an EU member but not in the Schengen). The Slovenian authorities then suspended the systematic checks of EU citizens on the first day itself. Thereafter, the European Commission announced to have a meeting on how to better implement the new rules. The task is indeed challenging with more than 200 million border crossings at the external borders of the Schengen area in 2015.
Palm Oil – a thorny issue for EU-Indonesia relations?
A Jakarta Post opinion piece by Vincent Lingga (12 April) commenting on the vote by the European Parliament to ban biofuels made from palm oil by 2020, expressed concern that palm oil would become a “perpetual thorn in the side of Indonesia-EU relations at a time when they are negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement”.
The commentator saw the move by the European Parliament as being prompted by the strong lobbying of the EU vegetable oil (soybean, rapeseed and sunflower) industry, unable to compete with the palm oil industry. Palm oil now accounts for almost 50% of global vegetable oil consumption, and the EU is the second largest consumer of palm oil.
With regards to the concern over deforestation and sustainability issue, the commentator believed that it would be more constructive for the EU to adopt the same model established for the forestry industry. Under the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) scheme, Indonesian forestry products that are sustainably sourced are certified and can be exported to the EU.
This op-ed came at the time when Indonesia organises an international conference on sustainable palm oil. Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer has been increasing its efforts to practice sustainable palm oil cultivation to reduce deforestation.
A separate report in Jakarta Globe highlighted that Indonesia and Malaysia will be sending a joint mission to meet EU officials next month to prevent the implementation of European Parliament’s call to curb the use of palm oil in the EU.
Earlier on, Antara news agency also carried a report highlighting the Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister’s rejection of the European Parliament’s allegation that the Indonesian palm oil industry was not sustainably produced and reek of corruption and exploitation. This report led to the Parliament’s resolution to curb the use of palm oil.
Europe looks to Indonesia for model of peaceful Islam
Jakarta Globe carried an article highlighting the participation of the Indonesian delegation at an inter-religious dialogue in Denmark. The delegation comprised prominent religious representatives and leaders of Muslim groups and think tanks.
Yenny Wahid, chairwoman of the Wahid Institute and daughter of former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid was quoted extensively in the article. She was reported saying that in her participation in the Danish event, as well as through other visits to France and Germany, she noted that “there definitely is Islamophobia” and also “evident radicalism among some Muslim communities throughout Europe”. These two forces feed into each other, and the “vicious cycle of distrust and animosity has created challenges for Muslims in Europe to freely express their identities without the fear of reprisal”.
Titled “Europe looks to Indonesia as Model of Peaceful Islam”, the report also noted the challenges in Indonesian society, and the work that still needs to be done “to guarantee minority groups full protection under the law”. The Danish ambassador was quoted saying that although “Indonesian society is not completely tolerant, the country has an impressive track record of sustaining peaceful co-existence between members of various ethnicities and religions”.
Brexit Woes and Opportunities
The Statesman of India carried an editorial and op-ed on Brexit highlighting the thorny issues that Britain faced in the upcoming negotiations. The Editorial on 10 April picked on the tensions over Gibraltar. One of the clauses in the draft Brexit negotiation guidelines drawn up by the European Council stated that “no agreement between the EU and the UK may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between Spain and the UK” effectively handing Spain a veto over Gibraltar. The editorial further noted that this would not be the only thorny issue. Ireland poses another kind of problem. The 1998 Good Friday Peace agreement removed the check points and guaranteed the easy movement of goods, services and people Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland along their 500-kilometre border. With hard Brexit, such free movement between the two Irelands would cease. The Editorial ended with a wry note that “Brexit, with all the problems confronting Britain, may well not be worth the effort”.
The op-ed by Arunabha Bagci remarked that Brexit negotiations will only start in earnest after the German elections in September. It highlighted the various contentious issues from the Brexit “divorce bill” to demands from Scotland for another independence referendum vote and the “hardline” positions taken by the EU on the principle of freedom of movement of EU nationals, and warned of an “ominous start” to the negotiations.
The Japan Times carried a commentary on Brexit that was a little more optimistic. While acknowledging all the sensitive border issues – Gibraltar, Ireland – and Scotland’s wish for independence – may be seen as messy by many media commentators, the author, David Howell believed that the Europeans have learned from their history. These issues would not escalate and turned violent. The problems faced can be solved, in Winston Churchill’s phraseology “jaw-jaw rather than war-war”. The author remarked that though “Europe may no longer be the powerhouse of the global economy … it may still have some useful lessons to offer the wider world about how to handle disputes and defuse quarrels”. He was also hopeful that Brexit negotiations if handled with goodwill and common sense, and with focus on the gains rather than losses, both UK and Europe can be transformed for the better.
A commentary in the Japan Times (8 April) highlighted the opportunities which Brexit brings for Japan – which is redefining its regional and global profile. The author, a Romanian national sees it as a chance for Japan to move strategically towards Eastern Europe, in particular to Romania. The Japanese government has voiced its concern over Brexit and urged British politicians to be pragmatic during the negotiations. The author pointed out that the major key for Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, is the access to the EU market, since the fact that “the U.K. cannot be anymore a single major gateway to Europe has to be acknowledged by Japanese officials and business leaders”. He further argued that the planned EU-Japan Free Trade Agreement might not be enough, therefore the author suggested to engage with Central and Eastern Europe which is also necessary in order match China’s offensive in Eastern Europe. “A new European gateway” would be the perfect answer to the “new silk road”. He also remarked that the advantage of a cooperation with Romania would be its strong economic growth, stability and predictability with the next elections due in 2019.
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