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. 
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.
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. 
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.
 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.
 Many more COVID-19 actions by Equality Bodies are collected in a comprehensive database on the EQUINET website.
Geopolitical considerations on the conflict in Ukraine and the faint-hearted European Union
The Ukrainian crisis has changed the post-Cold War status quo ante in Europe. Viewing the Western partners’ support for a regime change in Ukraine as a betrayal, Russia has defended its vital interests, while the West regards all this as pure aggression by a superpower.
The Ukrainian crisis has opened a period of Russian-US rivalry, even of confrontation, reminiscent of the Great Game of the 19th century: the struggle for supremacy between the Russian and British empires. This competition is asymmetrical and highly unequal. Since February the current conflict, extending into the political, economic and information spheres, has also included the war side. It differs from the Cold War insofar as people-to-people contacts, trade and information flows are not completely disrupted and cooperation between the parties is partially preserved.
Russia’s interests are focused on post-Soviet integration in Eurasia, while the United States starts to re-establish Truman-style policy of containment against Russia in Europe.
The US approach to Russia reflects traditional fears, even phobias, and is not based on an adequate understanding of the country, not least because Russia has ceased to be the focus of the US foreign policy, as it was in the 1945-1991 period – a “fear” currently replaced by the People’s Republic of China.
The international system is becoming more balanced and the United States must prepare for this by developing a policy line that takes into account the interests of the major players, including Russia. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are becoming the focus of a struggle for influence between the United States and Russia. This rivalry is also affecting a number of other countries and territories, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Russian North Caucasus, Crimea and the Baltic States, as we will see later. Meanwhile, in Central Europe, Poland – the most closely connected to the Ukrainian crisis – is hardening its stance against Russia.
With the development of the Ukrainian crisis, relations between Western Europe and Russia are changing significantly. The period of cooperation and mutual understanding that began with the reunification of Germany is over. This is also because Europe’s ruling classes – that have been living for 77 years in a pseudo-Kantian land of plenty – are largely devoted to issues that real Marxists once called “bourgeoisie itches”. Their greatest political effort is their attempt at imitating the US melting-pot, which is pursued by trying to remove the racist veneer that has characterised the Western world for the crimes of its imperialist-capitalist production system: the slave trade, ruthless colonialism, the massacres of World War I and II, the nuclear bombs on Japan, the Holocaust, the devastation of the Near and Middle East, the current geographically distant and invisible plunder of Africa.
The desire to appear good and sympathetic at all costs, under the US umbrella that – in the opinion of the aforementioned unprepared and incompetent ruling classes – should free us from all evils coming from the East. A new Athens of unconscious slaves, of metics, of women with few rights, and about whom there is much talk – just to beat around the bush by deceiving the eye. A political world halfway between a boarding school for scions of rich and noble families, and a middle school class of ignorant people.
Hence, faced with the growing hostility of the felix West of human rights and democracy-bringing bombings, Russia is turning more towards the East. The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are also getting closer through the signing of gas agreements. They are also holding joint naval manoeuvres and expanding trade ties.
At the same time, Russia’s tough policy in Ukraine and its willingness to defy the United States have strengthened its reputation in the Middle East and West Asia. Just recall what the liberal West did in those places close to the World Cup in Qatar: four Arab-Israeli wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973); three Gulf wars (1980-1988, 1990-1991, 2003); civil war in Iraq (2003-2011); war in Afghanistan (1979-2022); Syrian civil war (2011-2002); first civil war in Libya (2011) and second civil war in Libya (2014-2022), not to mention the colour “revolutions”, the so-called Afro-Mediterranean “springs”, the wars in Africa, always with the blessing of the Western war industry.
We reiterate that the political and military crisis that broke out in Ukraine in early 2014 marked the end of the constructive relationship between Russia and the West that had developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a result, we witness a new period of heightened rivalry with former Cold War adversaries, who were thought to be dead and buried, or at best drunk on Coke and Hollywood soft power.
This confrontation is reminiscent of the Cold War, but differs from it in many ways. In the current situation, the value component is represented to a lesser extent than the conflict between communism and liberal democracy, which had a permeating ideological and political depth – hence a moral justification.
It should be said that the traditional military dimension – which is always present – has not become predominant and exclusive, or at least not yet. The Ukrainian crisis is fraught with global consequences but, in itself, is not central to the international system and does not become an organising principle of world politics and the foreign policy of the main parties to the conflict, primarily the United States of America. If historical analogies are appropriate here, it is better to draw a comparison with the aforementioned 19th century Russian-British Great Game, with the exception that today the Russian-American rivalry is asymmetrical.
The severity of the crisis came as a surprise to many people in Ukraine itself, in Russia, and in the United States of America, not to mention in the faint-hearted European Union-Christmas land. This does not obviously mean that the ongoing crisis and the deteriorating atmosphere in Russia’s relations with the West have been ignored. Nevertheless, many Ukraine experts, who believed that – as in the book Il Gattopardo by Tomasi di Lampedusa, when referring to the political practice of making reforms that are only apparent and not substantial – “the more this country changes, the more it stays the same”, were taken aback by the dynamic development of events.
At the end of February 2014, Ukraine “swang” too strongly and abruptly to the West and lost its strategic equilibrium that had held it together for almost a quarter of a century. Shortly before, US support for “liberal” change in Ukraine – achieved by overthrowing a democratically elected President – had gone beyond its usual boundaries. The backlash from Russia, which felt cornered, surprised everyone.
A new phase in the struggle for influence is quite real and today we cannot clearly predict either its duration or outcome. One thing is clear: a new era has begun for the Euro-Atlantic region.
The Ukrainian crisis was preceded by a competition between the European Union and Russia over Ukraine’s geoeconomic orientation. The roots of the crisis are related to the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, which put an end to the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and to the turbulence in the global financial market, which increased the relevance of regional economic structures. The European Union and Russia assessed the outcome of the war and the relevance of the crisis differently. Having developed the Eastern Partnership programme in 2009, the Europeans moved towards the political and economic association of Ukraine and five other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova). That initiative was not so much a step towards EU expansion, but rather an attempt to create a comfort zone on its Eastern border and strengthen the pro-Western orientation of the participating countries.
The Russian Federation, in turn, sought to involve Ukraine and most other post-Soviet States in the implementation of its Customs Union project. The work for its establishment also intensified in 2009 and ended in May 2014 with the signing of an agreement on the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union and on the improvement of its position in the relations with its large continental neighbours: the EU in the West and the People’s Republic of China in the East.
Ukraine’s inclusion in that scheme, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to achieve since 2003-2004, as early as the time of the “single economic space” project, was supposed to provide the new association with a “critical mass” of 200 million consumers, of which the Ukrainians would be almost a quarter. At the same time, President Putin remained faithful to his De Gaulle’s vision of a Greater Europe from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, which he revived in 2010.
Therefore, both the EU and Russia considered Ukraine an important element of their geopolitical plans. The Russian side also tried to explore the possibility for Ukraine to be simultaneously integrated with the EU and the Customs Union, which would enable it to maintain a balance within the country and in international relations. Nevertheless, Westerners – on behalf of third parties – categorically rejected negotiations with “another” party on Ukraine’s association. Both Russia and the EU eventually began to see Ukraine’s choice as a zero-sum game and spared no effort to influence its outcome. We are witnessing the results day by day on TV, and reading about it in the newspapers.
Fifth report on the EU visa-free regime with Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries
What is the Commission presenting today?
Today, the Commission reports on results of its monitoring of the EU visa-free regime with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. For the countries that obtained visa exemptions less than 7 years ago (Georgia and Ukraine), the report also provides a more detailed assessment of other actions taken to ensure the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks.
What is the general assessment?
The Commission considers that all countries concerned have taken action to address the recommendations made in the previous report and continue to fulfil the visa liberalisation requirements. However, all 8 countries need to continue to take further measures to address different concerns related to the fight against organised crime, financial fraud and money laundering, as well as addressing high-level corruption and irregular migration. To ensure a well-managed migration and security environment, and to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU, the assessed countries must ensure further alignment with the EU’s visa policy. Countries concerned should also take action to effectively phase out investor citizenship schemes or refrain from systematically granting citizenship by investment.
It is imperative that the reform process undertaken during the visa liberalisation negotiations is sustained and that the countries do not backtrack on their achievements.
What is a visa liberalisation requirement (benchmark)?
While 61 countries around the world benefit from visa-free travel to the EU, in some cases, visa free access can be decided following bilateral negotiations, called ‘visa liberalisation dialogues’. They are based on the progress made by the countries concerned in implementing major reforms in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, combatting organised crime, corruption and migration management and improving administrative capacity in border control and security of documents.
Visa liberalisation dialogues were successfully conducted between the EU and the 8 countries covered by today’s report. On this basis, the EU granted visa-free travel to nationals of these countries; for Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia in December 2009, for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the end 2010, for Moldova in April 2014, for Georgia in March 2017 and for Ukraine in June 2017.
These dialogues were built upon ‘Visa Liberalisation Roadmaps’ for the Western Balkan countries and ‘Visa Liberalisation Action Plans’ for the Eastern Partnership countries.
During the visa liberalisation dialogues, the Commission closely monitored the implementation of the Roadmaps and Action Plans through regular progress reports. These progress reports were then transmitted to the European Parliament and the Council and are publicly accessible (see here for the Western Balkan countries and here for Eastern Partnership countries).
Why does the report only assess 8 countries out of all those which have visa-free regimes with the EU?
The report only focuses on countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Montenegro; North Macedonia; Serbia; Georgia; Moldova and Ukraine.
Under the EU rules, the Commission is responsible for reporting to the European Parliament and the Council on the continuous fulfilment of visa liberalisation requirements by non-EU countries which have successfully concluded a visa liberalisation dialogue less than seven years ago.
Georgia and Ukraine have been visa-exempt for less than seven years, therefore the Commission is required to report on the continuous fulfilment of the benchmarks. As regards Moldova and the visa-free countries in the Western Balkans, which are visa exempt since more than 7 years, the report focuses on the follow-up to the specific recommendations the Commission made in the fourth report adopted in August 2021, and assesses the actions taken to address them. An assessment of aspects related to the visa liberalisation benchmarks for the Western Balkans is included in the European Commission’s annual Enlargement Package.
What is the Commission doing to help partner countries to address organised crime and irregular migration?
The Commission together with EU agencies and Member States are stepping up operational cooperation to address both organised crime and irregular migration with the countries assessed in the report.
On 5 December the Commission presented an EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans. It aims to strengthen the cooperation on migration and border management with partners in Western Balkans in light of their unique status with EU accession perspective and their continued efforts to align with EU rules.
Partner countries are encouraged to actively participate in all relevant EU Policy Cycle/EMPACT operational action plans, undertaken to fight serious and organised crime. The EU-Western Balkans Joint Action Plan on Counter-Terrorism is an important roadmap and evidence of our strengthened cooperation to address key priority actions in the area of security, including the prevention of all forms of radicalisation and violent extremism, and challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families.
The EU has signed a number of Status Agreements with Western Balkan countries on border management cooperation. The agreements allow the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to carry out deployments and joint operations on the territory of neighbouring non-EU countries. A number of agreements have been successfully implemented and the remaining agreements should be swiftly finalised.
Cooperation between Frontex and partner countries takes place though different level working arrangements, and includes cooperation on return operations as well as information exchange, sharing best practices and conducting joint risk analyses.
The Commission is also providing significant financial support to partner countries to support capacity building and the law enforcement reforms.
What is the Commission doing to ensure the partner countries’ alignment with the EU’s visa policy?
Visa policy alignment is a pre-condition to ensure a continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks as well as to ensure a well-managed migration and security environment.
All countries covered in the report are required to take further actions to align their visa policies with the EU’s. The Commission has consistently recommended, both in the visa suspension mechanism reports and in the annual enlargement packages, that the countries should ensure further alignment of their respective visa policies with the EU lists of visa-required third countries, in particular as regards those third countries which present irregular migration or security risks for the EU.
What are the next steps?
The report sets out actions to be taken by the partner countries to ensure the sustainability of reforms. Close monitoring is an ongoing process, including through senior officials meetings as well as the regular Justice, Freedom and Security subcommittee meetings and dialogues between the EU and visa-free countries, the regular enlargement reports, including, where relevant, EU accession negotiations.
What is the revised visa suspension mechanism?
The visa suspension mechanism was first introduced as part of the EU’s visa policy in 2013. The mechanism gives a possibility to temporarily suspend the visa exemption for a non-EU country, for a short period of time, in case of a substantial increase in irregular migration from the partner countries.
The European Parliament and the Council adopted a revised mechanism which entered into force in 2017. Under the revised mechanism, the Commission can trigger the suspension mechanism, whereas previously only Member States could do so. In addition, the revised mechanism introduced an obligation for the Commission to:
- monitor the continuous fulfilment of the visa liberalisation requirements which were used to assess to grant visa free travel to a non-EU country as a result of a successful conclusion of a visa liberalisation dialogue;
- report regularly to the European Parliament and to the Council, at least once a year, for a period of seven years after the date of entry into force of visa liberalisation for that non-EU country.
The new measures allow the European Union to react quicker and in a more flexible manner when faced with a sudden increase in irregular migration or in internal security risks relating to the nationals of a particular non-EU country.
When can the suspension mechanism be triggered?
The suspension mechanism can be triggered in the following circumstances:
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number people arriving irregularly from visa-free countries, including people found to be staying irregularly, and persons refused entry at the border;
- a substantial increase (more than 50%) in the number of asylum applications with from countries low recognition rate (around 3-4%);
- a decline in cooperation on readmission;
- an increased risk to the security of Member States.
The Commission can also trigger the mechanism in case certain requirements are no longer met as regards the fulfilment of the visa liberalisation benchmarks by non-EU countries that have gone through a visa liberalisation dialogue.
Hungary’s Victor Orban uses soccer to project Greater Hungary and racial exclusivism
Hungary didn’t qualify for the Qatar World Cup, but that hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Victor Orban from exploiting the world’s current focus on soccer to signal his Putinesque definition of central European borders as defined by civilization and ethnicity rather than internationally recognized frontiers.
Mr. Orban drew the ire of Ukraine and Romania for wearing to a local Hungarian soccer match a scarf depicting historical Hungary, which also includes chunks of Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.
It was the second time in a matter of months that Mr. Orban spelt out his irredentist concept of geography that makes him a member of a club of expansionist leaders that includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu, and members of the Indian power elite, who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.
Speaking in July to university summer camp students in Romania, which is home to 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians, Mr. Orban insisted that “Hungary has…national…and even European ambitions. This is why…the motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together.”
Responding to Ukrainian and Romanian objections to his scarf, Mr. Orban insisted that “soccer is not politics. Do not read things into it that are not there. The Hungarian national team belongs to all Hungarians, wherever they live!”
Hungary has accused Ukraine of restricting the right of an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use Hungarian in education because of a 2017 law that curbs the usage of minority languages in schools.
Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger presented Mr. Orban with a new scarf at a recent summit of Central European leaders in a twist of satire. “I noticed that Viktor Orban has an old scarf, so I gave him a new one today,” Mr. Heger said on Facebook.
Mr. Orban’s territorial ambitions may pose a lesser threat than his supremacist and racist attitudes.
Those attitudes constitute building blocks of a cvilisationalist world that he shares with Christian nationalists and Republicans in the United States, as well as a new Israeli coalition government that Mr. Netanyahu is forming. Mr. Putin has used similar arguments to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
In contrast to Mr. Putin and potentially Mr. Netanyahu, depending on how the Biden administration responds to his likely coalition, Mr. Orban is on a far tighter leash regarding territorial ambition as a member of NATO and the European Union.
As a result, far more insidious is what amounts to a mainstreaming of racism and supremacism by men like Mr. Orban, Mr. Netanyahu, and former US President Donald Trump, who consistently mainstream norms of decency and propriety by violating them with impunity.
Speaking a language shared by American Christian nationalists and Mr. Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, Mr. Orban rejected in his July speech a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”
The prime minister asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what Mr. Orban sees as “the Western world.” The prime minister stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Western European nations would fit the bill.
In a similar vein, Mr. Trump recently refused to apologise for having dinner with Ye, a rapper previously known as Kanye West, who threatened he would go “death on con 3 on Jewish people,” and Nick Fuentes, a 24-year old pro-Russian trafficker in Holocaust denial and white supremacism.
Mr. Trump hosted the two men at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, just after launching his 2024 presidential election campaign. Mr. Ye “was really nice to me,” Mr. Trump said.
Candidates backed by Mr. Trump in last month’s US midterm elections, including Hershel Walker, who is competing in next week’s runoff in Georgia, have similarly felt comfortable associating themselves with Messrs. Ye and Fuentes.
Mr. Fuentes asserted days before the dinner that “Jews have too much power in our society. Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little,” while Mr. Ye’s manager, Milo Yannopoulos, announced that “we’re done putting Jewish interests first.”
Mr. Yonnopoulos added that “it’s time we put Jesus Christ first again in this country. Nothing and no one is going to get in our way to make that happen.”
Featured on notorious far-right radio talk show host Alex Jones’ Infowars, Mr. Ye professed his admiration of Adolf Hitler. “I like Hitler,” Mr. Ye said, listing the various reasons he admired the notorious Nazi leader.
Mr. Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners seek to legislate discriminatory distinctions between adherents of different Jewish religious trends, hollow out Israeli democracy, introduce an apartheid-like system, disband the Palestinian Authority, expel Palestinians “disloyal to Israel” in what would amount to ethnic cleansing, deprive women of their rights, and re-introduce homophobia.
Avraham Burg, an Israeli author, politician, businessman, and scion of a powerful leader of a defunct once mainstream religious political party, warned in 2018 that Messrs. Orban, Trump, and Netanyahu “are the leaders of paranoia and phobia.”
Mr. Burg cautioned that they represent “a global phenomenon that crosses all boundaries, ethnic, racial, or religious, gathering into a tribal ghetto that is smaller than the modern state, which is diverse and inclusive of all its citizens. Their fierce antagonism to the foundations of democracy and the attempt to do detriment to as many accomplishments and benefits of the open society as possible are evidence of inherent weaknesses and real existential fears.”
Mr. Burg’s dire vision is even more a reality today than when he spoke out four years ago.
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