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Tapping the full potential of Equality Bodies for a fairer Europe

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Equality Body covering England, Scotland and Wales, recently launched an inquiry into statistical evidence showing that COVID-19 had a disproportionate effect on people of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority background, and whether this could have been mitigated. To me, this initiative, which also responded to calls by political leaders and public figures for such an inquiry, is a good illustration of the situation we find ourselves in Europe. On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed mercilessly the inequalities that persist in our societies, amplifying the existing vulnerability of marginalised groups, including ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities, older people and LGBTI people. On the other hand, most Council of Europe member states have the tools, including equal treatment legislation and national Equality Bodies — such as the EHRC– that can help address these inequalities and combat discrimination.

As we negotiate our way out of the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial to strengthen the potential of these Equality Bodies, to harness their expertise and heed their recommendations in order to build equal and resilient societies.

Equality Bodies: defending equality at the national level

The principle of non-discrimination is enshrined in international law and in the national constitutions and legislation of Council of Europe member states. It is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its Protocol 12, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) and in the EU equal treatment law. Twenty years ago exactly this month, the EU took a decisive step to strengthen the enforcement of this principle. The Race Equality Directive (2000/43/EC), adopted on 29 June 2000, created for the first time an obligation for EU member states to establish a specialised institution at national level to help monitor and tackle discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin. [1]

Some such institutions had pre-existed in several countries, but the Race Equality Directive gave a strong impetus for the development and expansion of Equality Bodies across wider Europe. Nowadays, most of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe have one or several Equality Bodies, many of which are mandated to deal not only with racism and gender – as required by EU law — but also with other grounds of discrimination, including age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and belief, disability, and socio economic status. A Network of Equality Bodies, EQUINET, was created in 2007 to facilitate exchanges and peer learning between them; it gathers 49 members from 36 European countries and Kosovo.

There is great diversity among Equality Bodies as regards their mandate, functions, size and type of institution (stand alone, or part of a National Human Rights Institution or Ombudsman institution). Equality Bodies are low-threshold complaint mechanisms for victims of discrimination who cannot or do not want to turn to courts. They have the expertise to analyse discrimination and to provide solid advice on laws and policies. Many of them may be able to identify and address intersectional discrimination (whereby a combination of multiple identities results in specific disadvantages, for example for Black women). Several Equality Bodies have the power to issue decisions, in some cases legally binding, and fines, in specific discrimination cases. This diversity among Equality Bodies can be a strength as it brings a variety of approaches to tackling inequalities. What is at the heart of impactful Equality Bodies is strong independence and effective internal operations, including strategic planning, as underscored in an Opinion on National Structures for the Promotion of Equality published by my office in 2011.

As Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, I have the mandate to co-operate closely with national human rights structures, including Equality Bodies. Given their solid national expertise, I strive to keep a steady channel of communication open with them, including in many cases before and during my country visits. We reinforce each other in following-up on recommendations to national authorities. I am convinced that Equality Bodies, when they are effective and independent, hold a strong potential to make a difference. When dealing with individual situations, they can have a life-changing impact for victims of discrimination. They can help address discriminatory practices at a structural level in organisations in both the public and the private sector, including through advice and training. Crucially, Equality Bodies have demonstrated the ambition and potential to achieve societal change, by creating a culture where equality among societies’ diverse members is truly valued.

Tackling equality challenges in Europe, old and new

The adoption of anti-discrimination legislation and the establishment of Equality Bodies across Europe is a very significant achievement. It means that there is an infrastructure in place to recognise and propose solutions to inequalities and discrimination – which continue to affect our continent pervasively.

Intensifying intolerance and hate speech across Europe

There has been a worrying down-turn on human rights in recent years, marked by a rise of far-right populist politicians who manipulate hate to gain votes, increasingly polarised societies, attempts to undermine women’s rights, and a proliferation of hate speech, the most frequent targets of which continue to be minority groups that have long suffered from discrimination. Several Equality Bodies have taken courageous action to counter these negative developments. The National Council for Combating Discrimination in Romania, for example, has on several occasions fined high-level politicians for their stigmatising statements concerning ethnic minorities; the Equality Ombudsman in Sweden sued several private firms for discrimination against Muslim women and published a study on stereotypes and the representation of Muslims in the media. The Ombudsman in Poland challenged in court proceedings the legality of anti-LGBTI declarations adopted by several municipalities in the country.

Poverty and economic inequalities

Social and economic inequalities are deepening in Europe. Discrimination based on social status and origin plays an important role in perpetuating poverty, in an unending circle. In addition to anti-poverty policies, equal treatment legislation and Equality Bodies are thus important tools to address economic inequalities. The Ombudsman in Latvia, for example, has brought constitutional challenges regarding the levels of social security, minimum wage and disability pensions; UNIA in Belgium conducted research on access to employment, housing and education for various groups, including people from poor backgrounds. Unfortunately, still too few Equality Bodies in Europe have the mandate to deal with socio economic status as grounds of discrimination.

COVID-19 pandemic

The outbreak of COVID-19 has amplified existing inequalities and revealed gaps in the enjoyment of human rights. Equality Bodies, as well as Ombudsman institutions and National Human Rights Institutions, have quickly adapted their work and taken an impressive number of initiatives related to the pandemic. The Public Defender in Georgia, for example, urged the authorities to make information about COVID-19 accessible for people with disabilities and in the languages of national minorities; the Ombudsman for Persons with Disabilities in Croatia issued recommendations about the situation in social care homes for children and persons with disabilities; the Equality Body in Finland examined reported refusals of intensive care for older persons and persons with disabilities; the Defender of Rights in France underscored the imperative need for access to internet and telecommunications during lockdown and made concrete suggestions to make this possible for people and families with limited financial means. Many Equality Bodies handled individual complaints of hate speech and discriminatory treatment targeting persons of specific nationalities or those infected with COVID-19. [2]

Algorithmic discrimination

The potential impact of Artificial Intelligence on human rights is one of my priorities. In September 2019, I organised a workshop with close to 35 European Equality Bodies to discuss algorithmic discrimination. Such discrimination already exists in fields as varied as recruitment, housing, public service delivery, and financial loans assessments, to name just a few. At the same time, Artificial Intelligence also has great potential to help fight discrimination. The Human Rights and Equality Commission in Ireland, for example, used an algorithm to track and analyse hate speech and racist discourse online in order to improve policy responses. In a Recommendation entitled “Unboxing Artificial Intelligence: 10 steps to protect human rights”, I highlighted several measures that can help mitigate the negative impact of artificial intelligence. National Human Rights structures, including Equality Bodies, have an important role to play in this field to help prevent violations, deal with complaints and strategic litigation, and ensure oversight of algorithms. I am pleased that work is already underway. In France, for example, the Defender of Rights handled several cases, including one concerning alleged discrimination by an algorithm allocating pupils to universities. In Finland, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman won a legal case in which a credit institution was found responsible for multiple discrimination after a fully automated system refused a loan to a client based on statistical data relating to grounds of discrimination such as gender, age, language, place of residence and their combined effect.

Promoting a culture of Equality

The battle for Equality will only be won if everyone in society understands what is at stake and values diversity and equal treatment for all. Outreach, awareness-raising campaigns, and human rights education in schools should therefore be an important aspect of the work of Equality Bodies. The Human Rights and Equality Commission in Ireland, for example, led a campaign “All human all Equal” featuring short video portraits of disabled Irish people from diverse backgrounds. The Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner in Estonia created a TV series tackling gender stereotypes.

Sharpening the tools

Regardless of the many invaluable contributions by Equality Bodies, there are challenges that continue to prevent them from achieving their full potential. Some have a weak legal basis, or incomplete mandates and functions. In this regard, the time has come for EU member states to show leadership again by adopting the languishing Horizontal Equal Treatment Directive to cover all grounds of discrimination in all areas of life, and give a corresponding mandate to Equality Bodies. One important function that Equality Bodies sometimes lack is the power to bring cases to courts, and therefore to carry out strategic litigation, even if they can provide legal advice to victims. Furthermore, a great number of Equality Bodies report insufficient resources. In some countries, Equality Bodies are confronted with political indifference, where the authorities fail to consult and listen to them in policy making and ignore and downplay their recommendations. Ensuring that Equality Bodies are known by and accessible to the concerned populations is a challenge of crucial importance. In its MIDIS II survey on discrimination in 2017, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency found that an average of 71% of respondents were not aware of any organisations that offered support or advice to discrimination victims in their country (with variations between groups and countries). This highlights the need for Equality Bodies to have an effective outreach strategy and the means to implement it.

In some instances, particularly when they work on sensitive issues, Equality Bodies have experienced attacks and threats by politicians and others, or other types of interference that threaten their independence. I will continue to work to ensure that independent and effective Equality Bodies are in place across Europe. This means continuing to speak up to defend Equality Bodies against attempts to undermine them, but also issuing recommendations to strengthen Equality Bodies in specific countries, as I have done for example in Estonia, Bulgaria and Moldova.

I welcome recent efforts to strengthen standards on the status and work of Equality Bodies, including the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) revised General Policy Recommendation nr 2 and the European Commission Recommendation on Equality Bodies, dating both from 2018, as well as EQUINET’s project to encourage the implementation of these standards. Member states bear the main responsibility for ensuring that Equality Bodies conform to these standards, as a way to respond to the challenges above and to secure a stronger impact for them.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent resonance in Europe of racial justice protests following the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in the United States are just the latest demonstrations that equality is not something we can dispense with. When some are excluded, it is society as a whole that is weakened. Equality is the cement that will help us be stronger together. Equality Bodies are tools at our disposal to create more equality. Let us make sure they are robust, independent and equipped so that we can tap their full potential.

Council of Europe

[1] The EU later adopted two further Directives that contain an obligation for EU member states to have an Equality Body, namely EU Directive 2004/113/EC implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the supply of goods and services and EU Directive 2006/54/EC on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities between men and women in matters of employment and occupation.

[2] Many more COVID-19 actions by Equality Bodies are collected in a comprehensive database on the EQUINET website.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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