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Parliamentarians and Commissioners Discuss Europe’s Changing Landscape and BREXIT
Monday, October 30, 2017

By Mischa Thompson,
Policy Advisor

As part of a week of activities, top European legislators participated in a Capitol Hill event hosted by Helsinki Commissioners Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-04), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) on the potentially far-reaching impact of BREXIT and several European elections for the 57 North American and European countries that make up the region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  

Member of the European Parliament and former Italian Integeration Minister Cecile Kyenge launched the event with the assertion that the United Kingdom’s June 23, 2016 decision to leave the European Union (EU)—often described as BREXIT—“shook the European Project to its core with the unprecedented case of [a] Member State parting from the EU.” 

Beyond BREXIT testing the EU, she also said it was a test for EU values.  Reminding the audience that “the motto of the EU is ‘United in Diversity’ [and] its significance in Europeans coming together for peace and prosperity [across cultures],” she also noted how BREXIT had divided communities throughout the EU.

Building on these remarks, Commissioner Representative Sheila Jackson Lee highlighted the global leadership role the UK has played in human rights and asked the European delegation how BREXIT might impact this role going forward.

UK Parliamentarian David Lammy noted that the BREXIT vote was an extraordinary break from the past.  “The British put politics before the economy [to] end the free movement of people across Europe,” he stated.  “BREXIT will lead to economic decline in the short to medium term [and] will not lead to an end to immigration […] because when Britain goes to negotiate free trade agreements with [for example]  India, the first thing they will say is they want visas for their people to come to the UK […]  We will be trading immigration from Eastern Europe from other parts of the […] Commonwealth.” 

He also acknowledged that while a “UK-US FTA (free trade agreement) is being discussed,” an agreement could have negative implications for the British on issues from the “National Health Service [to] genetically modified foods and crops.”

Observing that BREXIT was part of a long-standing conversation on immigration, refugees, and the economy of the European Union, Swedish Parliamentarian Momodou Jallow said, “Europe has an aging population and that means we need as many people as possible with the competencies we need to sustain the living conditions we created.” 

Critical to sustaining European economies and standards of living, he highlighted the importance of “creat[ing] conditions for people to come work [under] the same labor conditions as Swedes and the need for social investments so all can work, pay taxes, [and] for a better society.”  

“Policymakers have to do better to explain there is no conflict to have everyone work and maintain the living conditions we have created,” he stated.  He also raised the EU’s history of defending human rights and challenges to that image during the current refugee crisis.

Noting that Britain has a need for trained adult workers “to scale up its workforce” in addition to a huge regional problem with wealth and power being centralized in London and resources not being adequately distributed throughout the country, Lammy said, “We should blame successive domestic governments for this failure in those communities.  The EU was giving us little bits of substantive money to actually make things easier for people [in other regions].  Unfortunately, we could see the breakup of the UK,” he lamented.

Despite the uncertainty presented by BREXIT, Commissioners Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Gwen Moore vowed to continue transatlantic cooperation.  Closing remarks by Representative Moore reminded participants of the role in global security and leadership the UK has played including in human rights and the continuing importance of U.S. civil rights leaders working with civil society across the Atlantic. 

“We are concerned and wondering about the global implications BREXIT has for human rights,” she said.   In the spirit of accountability and transparency “It is important for us to remain citizens and partners,” she said.

In addition to meetings with representatives of the U.S. government, private sector, and civil society, the European delegation also spoke at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference.

For more information on the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, download the full report.

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April 30, 2014 The Honorable John Kerry Secretary of State United States Department of State 2201 C Street Northwest Washington, D.C.  20520 Dear Secretary Kerry: We write to you to express our alarm at the detention of members of a military observer mission operating under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  They are being held hostage by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk. We urge you to do everything in your power to help secure their release. In addition to the OSCE observers, several dozen people — journalists, activists, police officers, politicians — are reportedly being held captive in makeshift jails in Slovyansk. Furthermore, we continue to be deeply dismayed at the other flagrant violations of human rights by pro-Russian militants in eastern and southern Ukraine.  These include attacks and threats against minority groups, particularly Jews and Roma as well as Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea.  Supporters of a united Ukraine have been targeted as well, including a local politician and a university student whose tortured bodies were found dumped in a river near Slovyansk. The Joint Statement on Ukraine signed on April 17 by the EU, the United States, Russia and Ukraine calls on all sides to refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions and condemns and rejects all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism. We fear both the spirit and the letter of this agreement have been breached. In recent days, we have seen troubling manifestations against ethnic and religious minority communities.  The distribution of flyers in Donetsk calling for Jews to register their religion and property is a chilling reminder of an especially dark period in European history and we welcome your unequivocal remarks of condemnation. While the perpetrators of this onerous action have not been determined, one thing is clear:  Moscow, which controls the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, is using anti-Semitism as an ingredient in its anti-Ukrainian campaign, utilizing its media as a vehicle.  Perhaps more insidiously, among the various Russian special forces, operatives and agitators in Ukraine are members of neo-Nazi groups and the Black Hundreds, a reincarnation of the notorious Russian anti-Semitic organization that existed more than a century ago. Jewish communities in parts of eastern Ukraine are not the only ones with reasons to be worried.  In Slovyansk, armed separatists have invaded Romani houses, beating and robbing men, women and children. Even Ukrainian-speakers, including Ukrainian-speaking journalists, have reportedly experienced intimidation in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk oblast. At the same time, in the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula, Crimean Tatars continue to be threatened with deportation and attacked for speaking their own language in their ancestral homeland. Moreover, the most visible long-time leader of the Crimean Tatar community and former Soviet political prisoner Mustafa Dzhemilev, has reportedly been banned from returning to Crimea.  Additionally, the separatist Crimean authorities announced that Ukrainian literature and history will no longer be offered in Crimean schools. We commend the Ukrainian government for its denunciation of attacks and threats against minorities and its pledge to find those responsible and bring them to justice. It is imperative that the Russian-controlled separatist groups cease their de-stabilizing, violent activity, which has left all minorities vulnerable. These attacks and threats underscore the importance of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission and other OSCE institutions in Ukraine in assessing the situation on the ground and helping to de-escalate tensions. They need to be permitted to operate unhindered in eastern Ukraine and to be allowed access into Crimea, which Russia has thus far blocked.  We urge you to continue to do everything possible to facilitate their unimpeded access to all parts of Ukraine, including the provision of adequate resources. To be sure, the actions against pro-Ukrainian activists and minorities are the direct result of Russia’s unfounded and illegal aggression towards Ukraine – first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin needs to keep the Geneva promises and immediately rein in the militants and get Russian soldiers and other assorted operatives out of Ukraine.  If not, we commit to working with you so that the United States and its international partners can significantly increase the diplomatic pressure on Russia, especially through economic sanctions. Violations of human rights, particularly the rights of minorities, as well as gross violations of another nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty must not be tolerated. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin, U.S.S. Roger F. Wicker, U.S.S. Jeanne Shaheen, U.S.S. Richard Blumenthal, U.S.S. Barbara A. Mikulski, U.S.S. Brian Schatz, U.S.S. Michael F. Bennet, U.S.S. Christopher Murphy, U.S.S.

  • Developments in the Western Balkans and Policy Responses

    This hearing on the Western Balkans examined the progress being made towards democratization. Commissioners Benjamin L. Cardin and Christopher H. Smith presided over the hearing, which included testimonies from: Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs for the U.S. Department of State;  Tanja Fajon, Member for the European Parliament from Slovenia; and Kurt Volker, Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. This hearing held great significance, not only for the members of the Commission, but the wider foreign policy community, as whilst the Western Balkans is no longer the setting for violent conflict that it was two decades ago, the United States has had to devote considerable resources—financial, diplomatic and military —to restore peace and to encourage the democratic and other reforms necessary to sustain it. However, that job is not yet done—the need to see the task of a stable, democratic and fully integrated Western Balkans is yet to be completed.   http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce030514

  • Kyiv Ministerial Held Amid Protests

    On December 5 and 6, 2013, Kyiv hosted the 20th meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe while hundreds of thousands of protestors occupied Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square. Although as 2013 OSCE Chair-in-Office, Ukraine had successfully shepherded a package of decisions to adoption in Kyiv, the meeting was dominated by demonstrations taking place throughout the country triggered on November 21 by the Ukrainian government’s suspension of preparations to sign integration agreements with the EU. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland represented the United States. She began the Ministerial by meeting with civil society activists, which she described as her “most important event” in Kyiv. In her opening statement at the Ministerial, she highlighted three “worrying trends” in OSCE participating States: the persecution of journalists, the rising intolerance of minorities, and “democratic backsliding” into restrictive laws and practices that violate civil liberties.

  • Europeans of African Descent ‘Black Europeans’: Race, Rights and Politics

    Racist acts targeting Black cabinet-level officials in Italy and France have put a spotlight on the experiences of the 7-10 million people of African Descent in Europe / Black Europeans. A visible minority in Europe often unacknowledged despite a centuries’ long presence in Europe, Black Europeans have increasingly become the targets of discrimination, pernicious racial profiling, and violent hate crimes impacting equal access to housing, employment, education, and justice. Europe today grapples with the complex intersection of national identity, decreasing birth rates, increasing immigration, security concerns, and a rise in extremist political parties and vigilantism. In this context, the experiences of Black Europeans increasingly serve as a measure of the strength of European democracies and commitments to human rights. The briefing discussed the work of Black European rights organizations and the efforts of the international community to address issues of inequality, discrimination, and inclusion for Black Europeans, in addition to discussing similarities and work with African-American civil rights organizations.

  • Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

    By Helsinki Commission Staff Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation. The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption. In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections. For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates. The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long. OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country. Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries. Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy. Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament. Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey. The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.) In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.) Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe. The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani. The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections. The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish. Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results. On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham. There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

  • THE OSCE OFFICE FOR DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS AND HUMAN RIGHTS: ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND CHALLENGES

    Ambassador Janez Lenarcic testified in in front of the Commission on the human rights dimension of OSCE member countries. The hearing focused on the member countries that have not met OSCE agreed standards on defense of human rights. The discussion focused on the OSCE’s plan to establish guidelines for member countries to uphold and defend human rights. The witness and commissioners highlighted recent situations in Russia in regards to respect of human rights amidst an election. In addition, the discussion focused on the role of the United States in providing leadership on the issue.

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