Weekly hindsight
6-10 Nov 2017

Longing for a ‘normal’ country

Hailing from the Old Continent, I feel uneasy as I look around. What is ‘normal’ in Europe today?

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Longing for a ‘normal’ country - NewsMavens
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-- by Daiva Repečkaitė, November 2017

After the brutal murder of a Maltese journalist, some people in my circle, as well as leading experts, are calling for an EU inquiry into rule of law in Malta. They call for a ‘normal EU member state’, which they say they want their homeland to become.The EU procedure some are referring to was developed for Austria, which is currently swinging to the right again. Hailing from the Old Continent, I feel uneasy as I look around. What is ‘normal’ in Europe today?

Despite prevailing pessimism, change is happening. My home country Lithuania has retrieved a quarter of a million euros in tax revenues after the Panama Papers -- a distant dream in Malta, still waiting for a police investigation over the revelations. Next door, popular protests in Poland have halted reforms against separation of powers and women’s reproductive autonomy. Recently, far-right candidates, some of them implicated in corruption scandals, have been nearly ousted in regional elections in Slovakia.

Yet this week’s news coverage shows how continuing efforts to exclude, forget and divide are alive and well at alarming levels.

And isn’t the idea of normality likely to lead us to repeat old mistakes? Zuzanna Ziomecka introduces us to an opinion piece by Anne Applebaum, who points out renewed efforts to heroicize murderous regimes in the USSR and China. Admitting that European societies have seen nationalism lead to war, the article suggests that we focus on how to prepare for the consequences rather than wallow in shock over their emergence.

Central European politics seem to be stepping away from what is considered the EU norm, and yet these slip-ups are reminiscent of not so distant years. After elections in Austria, its National Council moved further to the right, with a potential minor coalition partner allowing itself regular anti-Semitic slip-ups and defining patriotism as exclusion of foreigners. In neighbouring Hungary, a small town slid into an anti-migrant frenzy with locals reporting random foreign-looking strangers to the police. Furhter, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a local community attempted to rehabilitate a convicted Nazi collaborator in the name of anti-Communism.

This week also saw more of Europe’s stumbling attempts at normalizing women’s rights.

An interview with the feminist visionary Gloria Steinem reminds us that, from catcalling to female infanticide, the feminist struggle is as pertinent as ever. The “ability to be alive and be safe in one’s body” is a key principle proposed by the legendary author for the fragmented movement. 

As she speaks, women continue sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the hands of male career gatekeepers. Yet despite removing an influential politician in Austria, the popular #MeToo hashtag and its derivatives has not picked up in neighbouring Slovakia, Ria Gehrerová explains. The fear of backlash is far greater than the benefit of naming and shaming.

An analysis of rape convictions in Ireland shows that only three in five convicts are publicly named. This has to do with the fact that a third of sexual abuse happens in the family, and naming perpetrators may compromise the privacy of their victims. With salient problems hidden from the spotlight, is there a lesson our societies can offer to countries like India, where enforcement gaps not only prevent perpetrators from seeing justice for sexual assault?

From bodily autonomy to corporate transparency, leaders can always find another European country that is doing something similar. This diversity in political landscapes is both Europe’s greatest strength and toughest challenge. Indeed, one can hardly tell what a ‘normal member state’ is like. Let us stop hiding behind the word ‘normal’ and instead be specific about the type of country we long for – this is what a truly transparent and open-minded society would do.

**This article was written as part of a NewsMavens collaboration with exceptional freelance women journalists in Europe. Daiva Repečkaitė is a writer, researcher and reporter focusing on social, political and cultural issues. Her work was published in Financial Times, Politico, the Guardian, and Spiegel Online. She is based in Malta since January 2017. Read more about her here.**


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